Escondido has one of the most expansive and glorious civic centers and city halls of any community its size. If city council members have their way, a new “big vision” library might join those civic buildings in Grape Day park, rather than just apply a Band-aid to the existing library on Kalmia.
On Wednesday, March 23 things took a turn for the lyrical when Councilman John Masson quoted rapper Eminem: (but without the accompanying rhythm, as one councilmember quipped) “Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?”
Masson proposed that the city of Escondido go big or go home and instead of expanding the old existing library, go for the “big dream” and build a library that can stand the test of time on the north end of Grape Day Park in the Woodward parking lot. The library would complete the civic center with the Center for the Arts and City Hall on the same property.
The discussion was prompted by an update on library expansion by City Manager Graham Mitchell and Loretta McKinney, director of library and community services.
The staff request included the following action that was requested of the council:
“It is requested that City Council consider the Library expansion survey results and provide direction whether to place a bond measure on the November 2016 ballot or develop an alternative financing public/private partnership plan.”
And boy! Did they provide direction!
The survey showed that over 60% of the 400 or so likely voters contacted by landline and cell phone favor a library expansion and would vote for it.
The Escondido Library opened in 1980 when the population was 64,000, now it serves 147,000 in the same 47,000 square feet. Since 1980 community uses have changed, technology has evolved, all making the current library inadequate for the expanded community, according to the staff report. There is no room to add to the book collection, said McKinney.
In 2010 the council received a concept presentation for a new, modern state-of-the art library by the Escondido Library Board of Trustees and Escondido Library Endowment Foundation. Later that year the council approved of $200,000 to fund additional studies and a conceptual plan.
In 2011 the council approved of a consultant agreement with Group 4 Architecture for $188,555 for a conceptual design. That design was delivered to the council two years later.
On June 18, 2014 the council adopted a five-year capital improvement program, which added $257,000 to the existing Library Expansion project account.
The poll, conducted in December of 2015 by the Lew Edwards Group, noted that about 20% of those surveyed used the library regularly and 80% used it sometimes.
About 68% said they would support a bond measure.
While noting that Escondido voters seem supportive of a bond measure staff said it might be better to take the extra time to explore a public private funding source and produce a more comprehensive plan.
Kathy Eisler, of the Escondido Library Foundation board, told the council: “Escondido library is thirty-six years old and is unable to serve the community’s needs effectively. The population has grown considerably. Our current library is fulfilling a role as the busiest public facility in the city, but it can’t meet the needs.”
She added, “I believe and the foundation believes that joining with the electorate we can significantly improve library facilities in our city and significantly improve our civic presence in downtown area. The foundation stands ready to assist the city in all aspects of this community effort.”
At this point Masson opened with his poetic introduction and added, “We have one shot at building the library of the future in my mind and I would like to see our staff look at the possibility of building it in Grape Day Park, not applying Band Aids, a brand new library in our park and get that centralized within this civic space.”
He said the city would be “selling ourselves short” by just rehabilitating an existing building. “This thing could be so cool!” he said. “It could have a reading terrace and a café. We have a chance to engage with the center of our town, adjacent to the park, adjacent to our schools and really do this thing right. We’ve got to think bigger in Escondido. In the past we’ve sold ourselves short. If I’m going to get behind a bond I want to make sure I’m excited about it!”
“This is the right idea!” declared councilman Ed Gallo, who added. “This city has a history of building things too small, other than this city hall complex. Our new police station was outdated in ten years. Kit Carson park’s auditorium was too small. The concert hall at the California Center was too small.”
He said that he too wanted to avoid using a Band-Aid. “Why are we building to last thirty years? When I grew up in a small town our library was one hundred years old. Why don’t we just do it right the first time? It’s not like we have to do this thing right away. We don’t have to do it this year.”
Councilman Mike Morasco supported bringing the issue before the voters, but was reluctant to do it during a presidential election year. “We got one shot and I won’t to be certain we are successful,” he said.
He said he leaned less towards repairing the existing library. “I envision something a little more grandiose that would endure the test of time and be the equivalent of our city hall. If our primary goal is just to take that property and rehabilitate it I can get behind that, but if we have the potential of a public private partnership and do a new construction I would be very supportive.”
Councilwoman Olga Diaz asked how much money is anticipated in a bond election and was told $50 million.
“I love the thought of a new or expanded library,” she said. “I love this concept and the idea of a library beside the park and the creek. I want to chase the good idea. We’ve never executed anything this amazing.” She said she feared that if they pursue the dream that the actualization might be delayed and nothing accomplished.
“Sometimes the vision costs more than the reality. The library bond is probably the best shot we are going to have. Talk me into this,” she said.
Masson said expanding the current library is always an option, but it’s better to take the same $50 or $60 million and “build a brand new library and hand the keys over. It’s a real library. It’s not just plunking a new library where we have a library now. This is vision. I can get behind it. I can get the community behind it. We’ve got to go big. We’ve got one shot at building a bitchin library. It needs to be in the park and be top shelf.”
“Can we still do that in this cycle or are we talking about this taking five years?” asked Diaz.
Mayor Sam Abed said, “The entire council is passionate about a library. We are behind you one hundred percent. The existing facility was not our first choice. I agree with our colleagues about the big vision. This would be the best civic facility our city would ever have beside the civic center.”
He added, “An important vision like this cannot be decided by the five of us. We need the community involved. This is the dream project.
“Grape Day Park is one of the most precious parks in Southern California. Go to Grape Day park and you see a few people unless you have a great event.” Adding a library would bring more people to it. “I know timing is critical. I believe we should engage the community in a vision like this before we move forward,” said the mayor.
He favored a second tracking poll once the council gets a chance to start pitching the idea to the public. Such a bond would require two-thirds of the voters to approve.
“I’m supporting giving back to staff to engage the community. If we could get that kind of vision it would be the best thing we could give back to our community. This would have a tremendous impact on our civic center. Let’s hear from the community,” said Abed.
Morasco said he’d like to see a swimming pool added to the mix. “This is more than just a library it is an expansion of the park. This might be the place and maybe the time for a municipal pool,” he said.
City Manager Mitchell said, in essence, “not so fast,” saying that he and staff would need six months to do the needed study. “Then the community visioning can happen. Then you will have the surety when you present the vision. We will have to bring some things back and reallocate some library funds for a study,” he said.
Masson will present the “big dream” idea of building a new library at the next Economic Development meeting on Thursday, April 14 at noon.