Noe Valley Voice June 2005

Noe Library Renovation Back in Gear

By Laura McHale Holland

Cost overruns. Delays. Poor communication. Flaring tempers. These are not the things we usually associate with libraries, but they all applied in April when the Voice last covered what has become a 17-year saga about the promised renovation of the historic Noe Valley­ Sally Brunn Library.

Well, perk up. In this chapter, we have some good news: Thanks to the actions of library supporters, the fast footwork of District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty, and the leadership of Luis Herrera, who took over the reins of the San Francisco Public Library on April 11, the Library Commission voted on May 6 to increase the budget for Noe Valley's seismic retrofit by about $675,000.

The commission also agreed to revise the project's schedule, which means the branch is now targeted to close for renovation in September of this year.

"With the additional allocation, we're able to move forward with the project at Noe Valley," Herrera said following the decision. "We looked at all the projects slated for completion to make sure we honored the commitment that was initially set forth in the bond program, which was to do the seismic retrofit and to modify the facilities for ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] access. Those are the key priorities, and the funds are there for that. We're also maximizing space so that we can keep book collections intact, add to them wherever we can, and enhance the overall services we offer our residents."

Historic features of Noe Valley's 89-year-old building at 451 Jersey Street will also be preserved, as planned. Some interior modifications will be necessary to slash costs, but they will not affect library services or public areas.

How have the plans changed? Mindy Linetzky, the library's bond program administrator, reports that, unfortunately, the staff area will be smaller than on the original blueprints, and the staff restrooms will be moved. On the positive side, the community room is in the same location and will be slightly larger. It even has a little nook that in the future could be used for a kitchenette. Plans for the historic upper level of the building remain unchanged.

This is a relief to those involved, some of whom have worked on the project since 1988, when voters passed the first Proposition A, approving bond funds to construct a new Main Library and renovate branch libraries. A second bond measure, passed in 2000, earmarked $105.9 million for renovation of 19 of the city's 26 libraries. The Noe Valley Branch, with an earthquake hazard rating of 4 (the most hazardous rating), was supposed to be near the top of the list.

Dozens of community meetings and design reviews later, Noe Valley's Carnegie-era jewel was put on hold this spring because construction costs had skyrocketed 25 percent since plans were approved. There was talk of scaling the project back, and the neighborhood went ballistic.

"Had construction started sooner, we wouldn't have run into this cost problem," explains Debra Niemann, president of the Friends of Noe Valley and a longtime library champion. "The biggest question we need to ask ourselves is: Why is it taking so long for the project to take place? The neighborhood approved design plans a full year ago, and the second bond was passed almost five years ago. Why did it take so long to get to this point?"

Still, Niemann is glad the $4.2 million project received a boost in May. "I have to give a lot of credit to Bevan Dufty--he worked hard on this--and to Luis Herrera. He recognized the neighborhood's commitment to our library. The first thing he did was apologize for the breakdown in communication. He wanted to do the right and fair thing." (As reported in the April Voice, Niemann learned about the cost increases and delay in a casual conversation in March with library bond program manager Marilyn Thompson. In response to protests from Niemann and others, Acting City Librarian Paul Underwood wrote a letter of apology in March for not initiating communication about the problem sooner.)

Herrera, whose career as a librarian has spanned almost 30 years, served as director of the Department of Information Services for the Pasadena Public Library for 10 years before accepting the position as San Francisco's top librarian.

He says being new to the job has given him a fresh perspective. "I'm impressed with the thought given to planning [in San Francisco].... There's been intentional involvement of neighborhood communities in the planning, and that takes time to fully do it right," Herrera says. "I'd venture to say that this is one of the most ambitious renovation programs in the country, and what it tells me is that the community really values its neighborhood libraries. There's going to be real passion as each project evolves. This bond covers 19 renovations and five new library buildings. It's a program that has been carefully thought through with a tremendous sense of commitment from the project managers to make sure they honor the commitment, and I'm here to support the endeavor in every way I can."

Through phone conversations with Supervisor Dufty, Herrera got involved in Noe Valley's renovation before he and his wife Nancy (also a librarian) even arrived in San Francisco. During his second week here, he met with Dufty and members of Friends of Noe Valley, the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, and concerned neighborhood residents. By the time of the Library Commission meeting, he was up to speed on developments, which helped push the project forward.

Fundraising Campaign to Pick Up

One of the reasons neighborhood activists were so upset about the delay was that they had already started to do their part in the renovation. Local library patrons have been asked to raise money for what the bond program won't cover: tables, chairs, computers, shelving, and other interior fixtures.

"Our goal is to raise $150,000, and we're currently at about $40,000," says Kim Drew, who with Carol Yenne (head of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association) chairs the Noe Valley Library Campaign Committee. "We officially kicked off our campaign in October 2004. The first phase is more quiet, where we solicit contributions by specifically targeting individuals and organizations for donations. As we get into the later stages of the campaign, we'll be more public, doing broad community-wide events."

Even though the campaign is still in the early stages, Noe Valley realtors B.J. and Lamisse Droubi hosted its first major event, a cocktail party fundraiser, on March 16. Bill Yenne, author of San Francisco's Noe Valley, spoke about the historical significance of the library and gave away copies of his book as door prizes. Bevan Dufty also spoke, reaffirming his commitment to the library's being renovated as planned, and Alice Carey, the architect behind the renovation blueprints, spoke about the history of the Carnegie landmark libraries.

"We were exceedingly grateful for this event," says Drew. "Personally, I'd love to have the upset behind us and proceed with our fundraising."

Niemann agrees, with some reservations. "We're going to continue to keep an eye on the project. You can't just relax and assume everything will just get taken care of."

To get involved with the fundraising, call Kim Drew at 643-4695. To join in neighborhood oversight of the project, call Debra Niemann at 282-9918, or to inquire about the progress of the renovation project, call bond program administrator Mindy Linetzky at 557-4354.