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Pasadena’s Central Library Faces Ultimate Test of Resilience

City Council votes 6-2 to prepare documents for placing a $195 million bond on the ballot, moving the Central Library restoration closer to an election showdown

Published on Thursday, June 13, 2024 | 5:38 pm

Nearly a century after its grand opening, Pasadena’s historic Central Library is facing the ultimate test of resilience as city leaders weigh a $195 million bond measure to shore up the aging landmark against the ever-present threat of a major earthquake.

The 97-year-old library, the first completed building in Pasadena’s iconic Civic Center complex, has stood as a cherished architectural gem and community hub since 1927. But after almost a century, the venerable structure was “red-tagged” by City officials in May 2021 due to seismic safety concerns.

“People always seem to think that just because it stood up for a hundred years that it’s going to stand up for the rest of eternity, but that’s not the case,” warned Debra Gerod, a partner at Gruen Associates, the architecture firm leading the library’s retrofit design. “It really depends on the size and nature and magnitude of the next earthquake that we can’t predict.”

Although there are nine branch libraries open for in-person access with the Pasadena Central Library closed, the access to books and periodicals, collections, language arts, career and personal development programs, computers, and the Internet is limited without access to the collections and resources of Central. In addition, the services, events, public gatherings, special events and safe spaces for gathering at Central are gone.

On Monday, the Pasadena City Council voted 6-2 to place a $195 million general obligation bond measure on the November ballot, betting that voters will see the value in preserving and strengthening the historic library as both a civic icon and a vital public resource.

“Central Library is not just a building; it is the hub and core of service delivery for Pasadena’s venerated library system,” said City spokesperson Lisa Derderian.

The bond would fund a comprehensive “Recommended Scope” retrofit, which would include not only the essential seismic and fire safety upgrades needed to reopen but also the replacement of the building’s aging mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and technology systems and the renovation of its interior to meet modern library needs.

Mayor Victor Gordo framed the investment as a matter of upholding Pasadena’s identity and values in the face of adversity.

“To not invest in the library would actually be a step backwards,” he argued. “Many communities would say, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to invest in our historic structures… And then they lose a part of their identity, they lose a part of their values, and pretty soon they lose themselves.”

However, the bond’s $195 million price tag, which would be repaid through a 30-year property tax increase averaging $30 per $100,000 of assessed value, has raised concerns for some city leaders.

Councilmembers Jess Rivas and Jason Lyon, who cast the lone dissenting votes against placing the measure on the ballot, questioned whether the costly library retrofit should take precedence over other pressing priorities like housing and poverty reduction.

“We have $200 million in capital projects we have identified,” Lyon noted. “We have another hundred or more that needs to go into the Rose Bowl. And even though it’s a slightly different thing, we would never, ever, I don’t think we would ever seriously entertain taking on debt in this city to make sure that people are not living in poverty are not housed.”

Nonetheless, recent polling suggests that Pasadena voters may be willing to shoulder the extra tax burden to save the Central Library.

In an April survey of likely voters, 69% said they would definitely or probably vote yes on a $195 million library bond.

The survey also underscored the library’s enduring importance to the community, with nine in ten respondents agreeing that it is a vital architectural, historical, and cultural asset that needs repair.

Councilmember Felicia Williams agreed and reminded everyone what the library offers to residents and not be shortsighted.

“A child has an opportunity to learn and to read, and to grow, and it changes their job opportunities. It changes the way one can support their families.” She followed up with, “This is a long-term investment in our youth and our future. We are changing the future.”

If the City of Pasadena issues a general obligation (GO) bond of $195 million, the annual debt service would be approximately $12 million, with an average levy of $30 per $100,000 of assessed valuation for 30 years.

GO bonds have historically provided cities and local agencies with the lowest borrowing costs among the types of long-term bonds.

GO bonds are voter-approved and backed by a promise to levy ad valorem property taxes in an amount necessary to pay debt service.

GO bonds require two-thirds voter approval. The City of Pasadena last utilized a GO bond in 1986 to fund the construction of the police department building.

The City Council will revisit the project in July 2024 to finalize the decision on placing the GO bond measure on the ballot.

If the bond passes, Pasadena aims to complete detailed construction plans by spring 2025, break ground that summer, and unveil a seismically sound and thoroughly modern Central Library by fall 2028.

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