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Another Obstacle Slows Library Branch Renovation
By Laura McHale Holland
The news is bad: The renovation of Noe Valley's beautiful, 89-year-old library building at 451 Jersey Street has been stalled once again. It is a scenario far too familiar to loyal patrons, who have been anticipating the library's facelift since 1988, when the first Proposition A bond measure allocated funds for a new main library and renovation of branch libraries.
The way the news surfaced, however, is worse.
On March 3, Friends of Noe Valley President Debra Niemann called Marilyn Thompson, head of the San Francisco Public Library's bond program, to ask about hosting a sleepover party at the library in July to celebrate the release of the new Harry Potter book. She and Tracy Wynne of Cover to Cover thought it would be a good community event and a great way to say goodbye to the library for a while, since it was slated to close for its long-awaited renovation in July--after having been pushed back from January, and then May.
"Marilyn said it was a great idea but it couldn't happen because of insurance reasons," Niemann recalls. "And then, as an afterthought, I asked her when we were going to have the next meeting about the inside fixtures for the library, which the neighborhood is raising money for. That's when she told me that the bids for construction were 25 percent over what they projected and there is now no date set for renovations to begin."
Niemann was stunned, then furious. "Why did I find this out in a casual conversation about something else? How long have they known this? When were they planning to tell the community?" she wanted to know.
After hanging up the phone, Niemann, along with fellow library fundraising campaign members Kim Drew and Carol Yenne, went into high gear. They mustered fellow residents and merchants and shot e-mails to everyone they could think of with clout at City Hall. It didn't take long for their voices to be heard.
On March 9, Acting City Librarian Paul Underwood sent the Noe Valley Library Campaign Committee a letter in which he apologized for not initiating communication with the community earlier. He wrote that he is committed to "working in conversation together with you in order to ensure that Noe Valley receives the library services that you want and deserve."
Architect Asked to Trim Costs
Right now, it doesn't appear that neighborhood leaders and library officials see eye to eye on exactly what library services Noe Valley wants and deserves.
The library administration has asked architects Carey & Company (who were brought into the project by neighborhood groups and who created the design that was approved in May 2004) to come up with two alternative scenarios that will be less costly and still meet the objectives of the remodel.
Niemann is skeptical, fearing that the alternatives will shortchange the neighborhood.
"Our stand is that we want the library renovated as planned. It's already a very modest renovation: a million in soft costs and three million in hard construction costs. That's nothing for an old Carnegie-era library," Niemann maintains. "They've mentioned repositioning the elevator, which is not insignificant because we spent a lot of time nuancing the placement of the elevator so it would not disturb the library's unique features or cut the size of storage and staff rooms."
Niemann also won't be happy until she gets "a hard construction date." Over the past 10 months, she points out, the library's closing has been postponed four times.
Dufty Lobbies Library Brass
District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty is working to make sure that the delay doesn't turn into an impasse. He wants to be sure that the city upholds its commitment in terms of the scope and specifics of the original plan approved by the community. "I think that when you're in the public arena, trust is your most important commodity," Dufty says. "The library acknowledges that they didn't really engage the support of Noe Valley about potential cost-saving measures, and once trust is lost or compromised, it's difficult to regain."
Dufty adds that he has spoken to incoming City Librarian Luis Herrera and outlined the neighborhood's concerns. "I have probably talked to him more than six times, and he doesn't even begin work in San Francisco until April 11," he says. "I'm confident of being able to work with him and the mayor's budget office to make sure that Noe Valley is satisfied with the scope of the renovations."
Steel Prices to Blame, Library Says
Speaking in the library's defense, Mindy Linetzky, the library's bond program administrator, stresses that no changes have been made to the plan as yet, and that nothing will change without the approval of the San Francisco Library Commission.
"We are currently getting cost estimates on two alternative options. In both cases, the public spaces remain exactly the same, the program room is the same, the number of books is the same, upstairs the beautiful library is the same. What we're looking to do is change some of the more expensive parts of the plan, potentially, such as excavating the downstairs for more staff space....
"The first priority for Noe Valley is to make the building safe," she says, "to give it a seismic upgrade, and to restore its historic beauty and longevity so it gets to be used 100 more years into the future."
Linetzky says the main culprit in this situation is inflation. "Unfortunately, the cost of the seismic upgrade rose considerably over the past year. Basically, steel prices, fuel prices, and cement prices skyrocketed, and we are trying to be fiscally responsible by looking at different options that would keep the building safe and keep the library services intact."
The Goal: 'A Safe, Beautiful, Renovated Library'
Neighborhood activists are wary, recalling that back in 1997, city officials seriously considered tearing down the current library (and constructing a new building) due to the high cost of retrofitting. It was the neighborhood's strong support for renovating the current building that saved it from the wrecking ball.
Some people think that 17 years is far too long to wait for a renovation and suspect the library has mismanaged funds.
Linetzky bristles at this accusation, pointing out that in 2003 the Citizens' General Obligation Bond Oversight Committee commended the library bond program, saying the staff had "demonstrated excellent planning and oversight of financial resources and timelines."
She also does not believe the library's renovation is in crisis, and says even with this delay, renovation should begin on the Noe ValleySally Brunn Library this fall. "We'd like to have a meeting with community members and discuss options once the cost estimates on alternative plans are in. I want to emphasize that nothing has changed at this point, and as a library user, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between any of these options we're looking at from those that were shown to the community. The bottom line is that the goal is to deliver a safe, beautiful, renovated library for all the folks in Noe Valley. If that can be done for $1 million less, or $500,000 less, so be it. What's important is the services, and programs, and the final product, not how much it costs."
Fundraising for Interior Fixtures Continues
Dufty appreciates how forceful Debra Niemann and Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association President Carol Yenne have been in expressing their views about the library and says they are "exemplary community leaders." He is thrilled that a recent fundraiser for the library at B.J. Droubi Real Estate on 24th Street was well attended by generous community members, and he hopes that this upset will not prove detrimental in the long run because neighborhood support is vital to raising funds for fixtures and other amenities for the library. (The interior furnishings are not included in the bond allocations.)
"It's important to me that this not distract from that very important campaign, and so I want to express my commitment that we will not be shortchanged," he says. "And I ask the neighborhood to come forward and please be generous in supporting the fundraising campaign for this beautiful branch library."
If you'd like to join with neighbors who are involved in the library's renovation, call Debra Niemann at 282-9918. If you want more information about the Branch Library Improvement Program (BLIP), contact Mindy Linetzky at 557-4354.
17 Years Since First Bond Measure
1988: San Francisco voters approve bond funds (Proposition A) to construct a new Main Library and renovate branch libraries.
19901998: Five branch libraries undergo renovation: Sunset, Presidio, Park, Mission, and Chinatown, which was also expanded. Noe Valley was slated for this first round of renovation, but in 1997, after many community planning meetings, the project was brought to a halt.
1994: Voters pass Proposition E to increase library hours and ensure stable funding for library operations.
1996: The new Main Library opens.
November 2000: Voters pass another Proposition A, the Branch Library Improvement Program (BLIP), totaling $105.9 million in bond funds. The money is earmarked for the renovation of 19 branch libraries, replacement of four leased facilities by city-owned branches, and construction of a new library in Mission Bay.
2001: Noe Valley neighborhood associations meet with then City Librarian Susan Hildreth and request that Noe Valley be in the first wave of branch library renovations under Proposition A. The groups also suggest that the city use the architectural firm Carey & Company, known for its historic preservation work.
2002: Voters pass Proposition F, which establishes a nine-member oversight committee to watch over the city's bond expenditures, including those in the Branch Library Improvement Program.
2002: Friends of Noe Valley conducts a survey assessing the community's needs and desires for the new, upgraded library, and results are presented to the San Francisco Public Library through Marilyn Smulyan, an independent consultant working with the library.
May 2004: Carey & Company's design for the library is approved, after a series of community meetings.
March 2005: The San Francisco Library delays closing the branch and asks for design changes, to take into account the increased cost of steel, concrete, and other materials.
This timeline was prepared using information provided by the Noe Valley Library Campaign Committee, the San Francisco Public Library, and past issues of the Noe Valley Voice.