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By Corrie M. Anders
Let the celebration begin. Noe Valley's historic library has escaped a million-dollar financial crisis that had threatened to derail major renovations planned for the seismically feeble branch.
The San Francisco Library Commission last month agreed, somewhat morosely, to dig deeper into its pockets to find the money to make up for construction bids that came in one-third higher than officials estimated.
The commission's Jan. 19 decision was the final hurdle in the on-again, off-again effort to start work on the Noe ValleySally Brunn Library at 451 Jersey Street, a 90-year-old, unreinforced masonry building that could easily crumble in a major earthquake.
City officials also set a Feb. 11 closing date for the branch. The news of a firm date--after being rescheduled a half-dozen times over the past two years--sent the eight-person library staff into a spasm of jubilation and a rush to get ready for moving day.
"We're trying to inventory the collection and put things in order, and throw away or send away things we might not need when we reopen," said Carol Small, the library's acting manager. The permanent collection of 30,000 books, computers, and furniture will reside in temporary storage until the branch reopens in late 2007.
The commission's action also reinvigorated local efforts to raise $130,000 to pay for interior and other costs that city funds won't cover. The fundraising effort had been in limbo because of the ongoing renovation delays--and prompted one of the largest donors to put a $15,000 pledge on hold.
Kim Drew, chair of the Noe Valley Library Campaign, said the group was working to resecure the $15,000. So far, the organization has raised $63,000 in contributions and pledges to pay for new computers, tables, chairs, shelving, and other interior fixtures.
Before shutting the doors on Saturday, Feb. 11, the library will hold a farewell party from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Both Drew and Small invite the neighborhood to come take a last look at a much-loved institution, named for Sally Brunn, a Hoffman Avenue resident who worked tirelessly to save the branch in the 1980s.
Earthquake-Proofing Way Overdue
Construction crews will take over the site two or three weeks after the library closes--nearly 17 years after the deadly Loma Prieta earthquake rattled through the Bay Area and pointed out the urgency to upgrade the library.
"I'm thrilled and I'm greatly relieved," said Debra Niemann, a neighborhood activist and library champion. "Now we can actually dig dirt."
Niemann said several local organizations deserved credit for keeping pressure on the city. But she said District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty played a major, behind-the-scenes role in guiding the project through financial barriers. "It wouldn't have happened except for Bevan Dufty," said Niemann. "He's been with us every step of the way, making sure our voices were heard and that they took us seriously."
The overhaul will make the library less vulnerable in a major quake, as well as improve aesthetic and working conditions at the branch. The renovations will include seismic strengthening, energy-efficient and technological upgrades, improvements for handicapped patrons, a new full-service elevator, new bathrooms, better lighting and bookshelf space, and enhanced work areas for library staffers.
The remodel will not tamper with the main architectural details of the two-story Beaux Arts building, which has a Spanish-style façade of brick and terra cotta. The building cost $45,500 when it was completed in 1916 under the patronage of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
Following the 1989 earthquake, a city study found that the building posed "a clear and present danger"--ironically the title of the most popular book in the nation that year. The structure received a highest possible earthquake hazard rating of 4.
In November 2000, San Francisco voters approved Proposition A, the Branch Library Improvement Program (BLIP), a $105.9 million bond measure to renovate 19 of the city's 26 branches.
Noe Valley residents and Carey & Company, an architectural firm known for its historic preservation work, meticulously worked out a retrofit blueprint. But their endeavor stalled in early 2005 as the project ran into financial trouble as construction costs escalated.
The delays rolled over into last month's Library Commission meeting, which drew about 50 Noe Valley residents who sought to block any attempt to stop the retrofit or lower costs by chipping away at the original design.
"There is not another alternative but to move forward to keep this architectural treasure," Dufty told the commission. "People worked hard....to keep [it]."
'Perfect Storm' Swamps Estimate
Finance specialists initially estimated that the construction portion of the $5.7 million project would total $2,819,000. But officials were stunned when they opened the contractors' bids two days before Christmas and found that the lowest of three proposals was $3,770,000 (from L. C. General Engineering & Construction, Inc., of San Francisco). The amount was $950,000--or about a third--more than officials calculated it would be.
Speaking at the commission meeting, Marilyn Thompson, head of the San Francisco Public Library's bond program, explained that the city ran into a "a perfect storm" of problems: rising costs of concrete and steel, a building boom in China, and Hurricane Katrina repair work that drained the pool of potential contractors. In addition, she said the lack of an adequate staging area at the Jersey Street site and the building's historic nature had bumped up renovation costs.
"This project, as designed, will cost $3.7 million, which is $700 a square foot or $200 more than we planned to spend," Thompson told commissioners.
She noted that bid prices were good only until Feb. 20, and the library's building permit application was set to expire in April.
Thompson gave the commission three options:
* Put the project up for another round of bidding.
* Redesign the project and dramatically cut back the scope of the renovations.
* Find funds to pay for the extra costs and complete the renovations as initially designed.
Residents Say Spend the Money
City Librarian Luis Herrera urged the commission to dip into the bond program's emergency reserve fund and get on with the renovations now. But with many other libraries preparing for renovations and facing possible higher costs, several commissioners said they were worried about setting a precedent of using reserve funds. Yet they acknowledged that the Noe Valley project had been in limbo far too long.
Before making its decision, the commission got an earful from Noe Valley residents.
"The library is not just for kids. All of us baby boomers will be happy in 20 years to have that library to go to," said Georgia Schuttish, a Duncan Street resident who moved into the neighborhood in 1986.
Schuttish said delaying the work would cost more in the future and that the commission "might as well go ahead and spend the money now and get it done."
David Brodwin, another longtime resident, agreed. "It pains me to see the mess we're in," he said. "You can't increment your way out of this. We've got to get out of this loop," and "we've got to do it now."
At the end of the day, the "do it now" forces were persuasive, and the commission voted to extract an additional $825,000 from the reserve fund. (The full $950,000 was not necessary, since Herrera had removed several minor items from the renovation plans prior to the meeting.)
The project is now expected to total $5.7 million--$3.7 million for construction and $2 million in other costs, such as hazardous material abatement, architect fees, and permits.
Let's hope the renovations will be worth every penny.
WATCH FOR THE BOOKMOBILE
The Noe ValleySally Brunn Library's two-year closure for seismic renovation doesn't mean you'll have to leave the neighborhood to find a copy of Charlotte's Web or A Million Little Pieces. City officials have set up interim services that will start shortly after the library closes. They've also extended hours and services at other branches.
The interim services so far include:
* Bookmobile service on Elizabeth Street near Diamond (in front of St. Philip's School) on Monday and Wednesday, 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
* Preschool story time and lapsits held weekly--location pending.
* Extended hours at the Eureka ValleyHarvey Milk Library, 3555 16th Street near Market.
* Hold materials will be routed to the Mission Branch Library, on 24th near Valencia Street. Patrons can designate a different pickup location through the San Francisco Library's web site, www.sfpl.org, or make a request at the service desk of any branch.
For more information on interim services, call 557-4353.