Noe Valley Voice December-January 1997-98

Demolish the Library? Not If Local Patrons Have a Say

By Pat Rose

Should the Noe Valley ­ Sally Brunn Library be preserved and renovated? Or should it be torn down and replaced?

When given the choice at a recent public hearing, Noe Valley residents said yes to the first question and no to the second. In fact, they voiced unanimous support for preserving the 81-year-old building at 451 Jersey St.

The Oct. 16 meeting was organized by the San Francisco Library Commission and the Department of Public Works, which is proposing a $198 million bond issue to go before the voters sometime next year. The measure would fund earthquake retrofitting for a number of "high-risk" city buildings. In the case of the Noe Valley Library, the city is now assessing two options: seismic renovation of the present structure, or -- if the price tag for renovation is too high -- demolition and construction of a new building.

But "demolition" and "new building" are fighting words to most Noe Valley residents. The late Sally Brunn, for whom the library was renamed in 1992, was among many Noe Valley patrons who battled to keep the branch from closing during library cutbacks in the 1980s.

"I don't know why they're even considering a retrofit now," said Miriam Blaustein, a longtime champion of the library. "The building has withstood numerous earthquakes [and threats from City Hall] over the years. I think it would take an atom bomb to bring it down."

Added Harry Stern of Friends of Noe Valley, "This library is of great architectural significance. Preservation should be a given, not an option."

Built in 1916, the Noe Valley Library is a classic Carnegie library registered with the city landmarks board as an architecturally significant building.

According to Marcia Schneider, chief of branches for the San Francisco Library, the library received a hazard rating of 4 (on a scale of 1 to 4) in a 1992 seismic evaluation of unreinforced masonry buildings owned by the city. This means that the building has a high potential for collapse during an earthquake measuring 7.5 or higher on the Richter scale. City code requires that all public facilities in this category be seismically upgraded by the year 2004.

Schneider noted that the proposed bond measure would include three other historic library buildings -- Richmond, Golden Gate Valley, and the Marina Branch -- as well as several other city-owned facilities with a hazard rating of 3 or higher. A 1988 Library Improvement Bond has already been used to retrofit the Park, Presidio, Sunset, and Chinatown branches, with the Mission Branch currently under construction.

Jorge Alfaro, assistant to the director for special projects at DPW, said that although most of the Noe Library's interior would have to be gutted in a renovation, the terra-cotta facade and ceilings could be preserved, and a strict historical review process would be used to try to preserve the historical character of the building. The project would also require adding new bathrooms, installing an inside elevator and outside ramps for disabled access, and removing any hazardous materials such as asbestos from the building. The library would be closed during the renovation, which could last up to 14 months. The collection would be temporarily moved to another location.

At the meeting, Alfaro asked participants if they had any more suggestions for improvements to the branch. Residents pointed out the importance of keeping the back deck and garden, and suggested expanding the downstairs meeting room and perhaps creating a balcony or veranda in the main room to accommodate more books and computers.

At the same time, Alfaro warned that when the cost of repairs exceeds 75 percent of the replacement cost of a building, replacement is often the rule of thumb for the city. He promised that his report, which will compare the two options but stop short of making a specific recommendation, will include the community's strong desire to save the building.

Said Stern of Friends of Noe Valley, "The fear is that this 75 percent criteria will enable the city to tear the library down. We feel strongly that the historical significance of the building warrants finding a way to get the additional money to preserve the library no matter how extensive the renovation is. The decision to keep it or tear it down should not be based on some arbitrary formula."

Stern said he planned to look into getting official landmark status for the Jersey Street library to help ensure preservation. The November Friends of Noe Valley newsletter also exhorted the membership to call Marcia Schneider (557-4355), and "tell her that demolition is not an acceptable alternative!"

The newsletter for the East & West of Castro Street Club echoed the same sentiment. Members of the community are very invested in the library, explains club president Paul Kantus, who has used the Jersey Street branch for over 60 years. In fact, the residents groups have been responsible for virtually all of the improve-ments made to the library in recent years.

"Originally, the meeting room was a dingy storage space, with leaking steam pipes and broken-down chairs," said Kantus. So Friends of Noe Valley, East & West, and other library advocates raised the money and elbow grease to clean, paint, and carpet the meeting room, and donate new chairs.

The community groups also built the back deck and garden. "This library is our neighborhood landmark along with the Noe Valley Ministry," said Blaustein. "For many of us, it's been a labor of love."

Jorge Alfaro of the Department of Public Works will submit his report on the library to the city's Capital Improvement Advisory Committee in March.