: views from the Hill

Thursday, September 04, 2008

North Beach Library and why it matters

I've been having a nice back and forth exchange with Luis Herrera, the guy in charge of the San Francisco Public Library, re the Library's dumb idea to put the new North Beach Library on top of the Triangle.

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Some history.

Years back a couple of guys wanted to build a four-story building on the 4120 sq ft triangular piece of land bordered by Columbus, Mason, and Lombard. The top three floors would be "handicapped-accessible" apartments (including one for the 84-year-old mom of one of the owners) and the ground floor would be retail.

The guys had worked their way through the planning process and the neighbors' objections and finally got approval when our esteemed District 3 Supervisor decided that the land was really needed more for parks and recreation and pushed through eminent domain proceedings for the parcel.

You had neighbors for buying 701 Lombard (the parcel) for parks parks parks. We need every inch of green space we can get, was the cry.

You had neighbors adamantly opposed to using eminent domain to take the parcel.

Oh, what a mess it was.

The parcel was taken through eminent domain. Case closed. Park to follow.

But wait.

Five years later the Triangle re-enters the picture. The parcel has continued to be used for a parking lot because San Francisco Rec and Parks doesn't have the money to turn the parcel into a park, plus it's so tiny, plus Mason Street cuts through and separates the parcel from the rest of the Joe DiMaggio Playground, plus it wouldn't do for the tot playground (too close to busy Columbus), nor the bocce courts (you must be nuts to even consider it), nor ...

Enter the Library.

North Beach Library was built fifty years ago and it shows. The library (at its most optimistic) is 5337 sq ft and serves a population of 27K, according to some statistics. (As a notch point realize that all the work to expand the Saratoga Library, which serves 35K as a generous estimate, was to expand it from 18K sq ft to 48K sq ft.)

At a public meeting, Wilma Pang -- one of our candidates to replace our esteemed termed-out District 3 Supervisor -- said that the Library was too small even when she was growing up way back when. (She's sixty-seven now.)

Too-ing and fro-ing over the years. Maybe we could put the Library where the boarded up Pagoda Theater sits. That idea was knocked down. Maybe we could. ...

So public meetings were held. Three of them. After the second, it seemed the Library was leaning toward tearing down the old library and building a new 8500 sq ft library at the corner of Greenwich and Columbus. Hooray.

At the third meeting, the Library said it had decided the Triangle was the best spot for the Library for various reasons.

The Triangle? I asked Luis Herrera before the third meeting began.

"We've worked it all out." he told me and passed me over to Brian Bannon, head of branch libraries, for soothing. Brian said words to the effect that he hadn't liked the idea of a triangular library either at first but that the architect had come up with some ideas that would make it work.

Make it work?

Do we want the best library possible for North Beach or do we want one where we go to the architect and say, we know this is a really lame spot for the Library, but can you possibly make it work?

Luis Herrera has been very patient answering all the questions I've thrown at him in e-mail, but it still doesn't work.

How, I asked him, does a 4120 sq ft parcel (per the City Assessor's records) support a library with a 5700-5950 sq ft footprint. (Plans are for a ground floor of ~ 5900 sq ft for public service areas and an upstairs level that will be 2,800-2,950sf that will include a community room, staff lounge, 2d floor bathrooms, &c.)

Well, of course, we close Mason Street and push as far into Mason as we can without disturbing or blocking access to the utilities that run under Mason. (Oh! Don't let the neighbors hear about that!)

So the Triangle, as far as I can calculate using my rusty algebra (Hey! There IS a Use For Algebra!) is 85' on the Lombard side and 96' on the Mason side. [Anyone want to go out there and measure it for me?] The new footprint, if my Algebra holds, will be 98x107', pushing thirteen feet across the sidewalk and into Mason and another eleven feet up toward Greenwich.

All of this exercise is, of course, funded by bonds and such that citizens passed to retrofit our aging libraries, to build a couple new branches, to add more computers, and to get the libraries up to current ADA standards. If we had just rearranged stacks &c. at the current library to meet ADA standards, we would've lost considerable public space in a library that's already so cramped.

The theory is that this new library with its 5900 sq ft ground floor will have room to expand the collection 10-15%. Really?


The other feature this new library will have, which has not been mentioned, not even a peep, is no way ever to expand any more. Once we build on the Triangle, we will have pushed the envelope to the edges of the utilities under Mason, which cannot be covered by anything that can't be dug up when needed. (Think grass, concrete, garden.)

Expand further, should it turn out we need to? No. There will be no way. Ever. Unless, of course, the City bites the bullet and moves the utilities. Did I mention that I was quoted a cost of $2.1million to relocate the tot playground and rework the tennis courts? Imagine what shifting underground utilities would cost!

So who is pushing for the Triangle site? Folks concerned with the Joe DiMaggio North Beach Playground do not want the Library to have a larger footprint and take any playground area. Hey, I'm a member of Friends of Joe DiMaggio Playground and I've worked to raise money for the park, but I never realized that a decent library wasn't important when it came to sharing dirt with the playground. Some people would rather shove the Library onto the Triangle (which turns out to be a pretty useless piece of dirt for the park to utilize) and recapture the dirt where the Library now stands.

Dirt. Dirt. Dirt. It's all about dirt, isn't it?

I asked Luis Herrera if anyone had thought of shutting down Greenwich from the west-most garage door to Columbus, freeing up some additional square footage that way. There'd be less squawk than the squawks about closing Mason. The extra dirt the library would need would be offset by the dirt from the closure. The Triangle could be a greenspace with benches and a statue of Joe DiMaggio or whatever.

Well, no. No one had even considered closing Greenwich, because the space available there was sufficient for programmatic needs without pushing onto Greenwich, that is, of course, until the push to use the Triangle came along.

Last week I stopped off to talk with Carlo Cestarollo, who runs the Alfa Center across the street from the Triangle. Had you heard, I asked him, that they're planning to put the new library on the Triangle? Two stories?

Carlo was flabbergasted. It's supposed to be a park, he said. Some place for people to rest as they walk from North Beach to Fisherman's Wharf. Benches. Shade. A bit of green. When did they change their minds?

Good question. When =did= they change their minds? And why?

Last week, I wrote the following to the Library Commission, which meets today to put their stamp of approval on the Triangle location.

I've been wondering whether to head down there and do my public testimony. Probably not. After all this bickering back and forth, I'm fed up. Do the people pushing the Triangle location care about libraries or about tennis courts?

Enquiring minds think they know the answer.


I received a note from Julie Christensen asking me to write a note in support of the plans for our North Beach Library proposed at the August 21 18 Community Meeting. I won't be doing that, and here are my reasons why.

The Triangle is the wrong place for the proposed "new" library. The people proposing the Triangle as the right place care more about the park and finding some "useful" purpose for the Triangle than they do about our little library that could, our little library that needs more room, more books, more staff space, more everything to better serve our community.

With the public spaces (except for the program room) kept on the ground level at the Triangle site due to staffing issues, the public spaces in the new library will not be much bigger, if any at all, than the old.

Add in staircases and elevators for the second floor program room and staff space, the acute angular corners, and other factors and we wind up with a "new" library but not much of one. Sure we will be ADA compliant, which is important. Sure we will have wiring for additional computers, which is important. The "new" library will have a much-needed teen area (we have the second highest YA circulation in the City) but at what expense for other public spaces?

We'll have a new building! Yippee! But where's the added space that's been needed for decades, let alone any hope for an expanded collection, room for services, or even additional chairs and tables?

The Triangle will give us a new library but none of the extra space, services, facilities that we've needed for years.


There is no rush to approve the Triangle as the spot for the new library. Take some time to make the right choice, because once the choice is made, even a "preliminary" choice, it will be hard not to fall in line because the choice has been made, and it's in the works ...

Whether the architects can "make do" or "find a way to make it work" is not the question.

Is this the best site for the library?

Is this what is =best= for the library?

Before any decision is made about whether the new library should be on the Triangle, at least two things need to happen in tandem.

Sal Busalacchi, who lives on Mason, suggested at the 21 18 August meeting that instead of =modeling= what =might= happen if Mason is closed, the City should temporarily close the street segment for a month and see what =really= happens to the traffic patterns. Such closure would ease the minds of the neighbors, if the traffic patterns flow as the models suggest, but could put the kibosh on the idea of closing Mason if the traffic patterns change as neighbors anticipate.

While the K-rails blocking Mason are up, label them:

Temporary closure of Mason.
Permanent closure is proposed as part of
plans to build the new North Beach Library
on the Triangle.

In addition to the temporary closure and signage, story poles need to be erected on the Triangle, showing the outline of the new library so that neighbors can see the impact of putting the library there.

Put the K-rails, the signage, and the story poles in place. See how it works out. In the mean time, neighbors can discuss the Triangle location, which is not the location that seemed the location of choice in the meetings leading up to the 21 18 August meeting.

Revisit this question in 2009. Plans to build a new library aren't even on the 2010 calendar. Take more time to pick the location.

The Triangle is not the right location for the North Beach Library.

Have I mentioned I don't agree with Julie Christensen's views on the proposed siting of the new North Beach Library?

Sal Towse
34 Darrell Place
San Francisco, CA 94133

What Julie asked us to write:
Let them know:
I support a new North Beach Library on the triangle.
I support the conversion of the adjacent block of Mason Street to park land.
I appreciate our department leaders working hard to come up with a real solution to our needs.

The proposed joint Library/RecPark plan (as shown at the Aug 2118 Community Meeting) does the following:
1. Gives us a new, spacious library.

2. Allows the old library to stay open until the new one is ready.

3. Opens up the existing library site to be added to recreation and green space.

4. Lets the library move ahead without waiting for RecPark funding, which we hope will come in a 2013 parks bond, if not sooner.

5. Saves money that will be lost to inflation if the library schedule is delayed.

[Yes, indeed. I did say August 21 instead of August 18 for the meeting date throughout the note. May the kittehs forgive me. ...]

** Addendum 1 **

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