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September 8, 2008


North Beach Library: Politics trumps reason

The City’s attempts to modernize a branch library are shaking up North Beach. The seemingly innocent endeavor has all the earmarks of back-room dealing: secret meetings at the highest level, coercion of the uninitiated, naïve blundering. Its ripple effect touches every one of the 28 libraries in San Francisco. What started as an effort to deliver a cutting-edge library to the neighborhood has devolved into a boondoggle that could tie up library funding for years to come. The ultimate fall guys: library patrons and the taxpayers.

When it comes to North Beach, the press is full of the pious pronouncements of people who are more interested in advancing their personal agendas than providing the spacious 21st-century library that is the hallmark of SFPL’s ongoing branch renovation project. The goal of the project is an oasis of rational thought that, in this case, offers books and computers and a warm and welcoming place to enjoy them. But like many goals, this one was co-opted by political expediency.

North Beach library was due for a makeover under a $106 million general obligation (GO) bond issue back in 2003. But delays, indecision and bickering over a small three-sided parking lot across the street pushed North Beach to the end of the line and, whoops! the money ran out. However, thanks to San Franciscans’ love for their libraries, 74% of the electorate voted for revenue bonds last year to bail the library out. San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) got unlimited authority to sell bonds to finance new libraries and pay off the debt with money set-aside for library operations from the city’s general fund.

Master Planning for Dummies

Armed with more than $8 million for the job, the library began planning. At the same time, however, a lot of other groups got into the act. The park folks wanted to kick the library out of Joe Dimaggio and North Beach Playground, its home for half a century, and demolish the library, a prime example of 1950s architecture. The politicians wanted to find a use for the tiny (4,100 sq. ft) triangular parking lot taken (for $2.8 million) by eminent domain to become a mini-park. Nearby residents deplored a plan to close the heavily traveled stretch of Mason Street in front of the library, fearing 24/7 traffic jams and impaired access for security vehicles. Meanwhile, the park honchos had already spent more than $10 million to build a new clubhouse, pool and bocce ball court. There wasn’t much space left for a meaningful Master Plan when SFPL entered the picture. Small wonder that the library ended up the sacrifice pawn in an endgame that booted the library onto the tiny sliver of land across the street.

The Incredible Shrinking Library

The library had its own ideas: either expand the existing 5,500 sq. ft. building or move next door to a kiddie playground (the “tot lot”) due to be relocated anyway. At first it seemed that the Recreation and Park people went along with this plan. But suddenly the community meeting to discuss it was canceled. The knives were out for the library.

And, voila, a couple of months later, SFPL agreed to squeeze the new library onto the Triangle in what it called a “win-win” conclusion.


Instead, SFPL intends to cram services for adults, children and teens onto one floor, where it will also squeeze in the check-out desk, bathrooms and all the books. Did we mention that this plan means less space for bookshelves and fewer books? SFPL is planning a small, recessed second story but refuses to assign a librarian to the floor so it could be used to create more space for library services. It will be off limits most of the time.

Privately the city librarian agonized and consoled himself with the fact that there will be good libraries in other neighborhoods. Publicly he drank the Kool-Aid and moved swiftly to engineer assent from the Library Commission. That happened September 4. Rec Park’s commissioners are expected to follow suit September 18. And don’t forget that Rec Park paid $2.8 million to buy the tiny Triangle (that’s nearly $700 a square foot). It wants some return on its investment, hopefully from the library, which it also wants to pay for the demolition, cleanup and leveling the ground.

Check-Out or Checkmate?

But a long delay is expected. First there is an EIR for the library’s demolition, then another for the street closure and, finally, a shadow study. Meanwhile, says the library, costs are escalating at 8% a year. When it comes money management at SFPL, it’s déjà vu all over again. Expect the revenue bond money to shrink like the GO money did.

But SFPL’s revenue bonding authority gives the library the right to continue leaning on its set-aside money indefinitely. This means less money for books and open hours, clearly a lose-lose scenario for library patrons.

Economists were skeptical of the revenue bond “solution” from the git-go. Here’s their take: The library gets 2.5% of every $100 of property tax. This set-aside is intended to fund library operations: more books, more hours and the like. It has made SFPL one of the wealthiest departments in the city.

But the library ran short of money to rebuild its branches. So it decided to float revenue bonds and call the set-aside “revenue.” Incidentally, this gave SFPL a better chance on election day: revenue bonds need a simple majority to pass. General obligation bonds require two-thirds of the vote.

What it is essential to realize, say the money mavens, is that using the set-aside to pay off the revenue bonds actually taps into money from the general fund. If the library can use the set-aside to pay for bond issues, they argue, the set-aside is too high. They think SFPL used voodoo economics to woo the voters.

Bad Public Policy

Book lovers revel in the fact that SFPL has bounteous bucks and hope to see the results in better library service. But the plan to plunk the North Beach branch into a space that is the wrong shape and size for an efficient library means there likely will not be one in the home of the Beat Generation and City Lights Bookstore. And the neighborhood will be the poorer for it. The folks who put the current plan together should be ashamed of themselves!

The intrigue, wrong-headedness and just plain cynicism that characterizes the debate over the site for the North Beach library is a textbook example of the need for strong citywide groups that can stand up to City Hall. They come in various shapes and sizes, but groups as diverse as San Francisco Tomorrow, SPUR, the Sierra Club and the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods have the smarts, the clout and the perseverance to make things happen. They offer a haven for the politically inclined, eager to see good government triumph over bad. For it is only through an active and unified force that the politicians and their sycophants are forced into the spotlight and held accountable for their behind-the-scenes skullduggery.

When bad public policy emerges, the strengths of good-government groups surface. And they trump the cynical and desperate politicians. They trump the idea that ordinary people have no role to play in the political process. Despite what the politicians and the bureaucrats say, everyday people have the power to build something extraordinary when they come together. In union, they can change the course of history.

Sue Cauthen is chair of the Board of Supervisors Library Citizens Advisory Committee.

       — Copyright Sue Cauthen 2008