SF Chronicle: Foes of new North Beach Library – enough already!


Foes of new North Beach Library – enough already!
C.W. Nevius, Chronicle Columnist

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The opponents of the new North Beach Library have gone through an unfortunate progression. They began with legitimate concerns, fell back to thoughtful disagreement, and now they’ve moved on to tin-foil hats and conspiracy theories.

A lawsuit filed two weeks ago to derail the project was met with groans by community groups, city leaders and planners who have been going over the same hurdles and arguments for years.

“I have been here five years, and I have been working on this for 4 1/2,” said Deputy City Librarian Jill Bourne. “We counted up the number of hearings we’ve had and it was something like 15, way more than required.”

By overwhelming majorities, the commissions, boards and committees have enthusiastically approved the idea of tearing down the outdated (opened in 1959) ugly duckling that is the old library in favor of a nicer, larger (by 3,000 square feet) and more family-friendly structure – with the addition of an improved playground.

It doesn’t matter. Retired architect Howard Wong, who is spearheading the lawsuit, hasn’t budged.

“We feel there was no real evaluation of all the best options for the site,” he said when the suit was filed.

That sound you hear is hundreds of families, library supporters and civic leaders grinding their teeth. No real evaluation? OMG.

At a Board of Supervisors hearing for the project – where the supervisors voted 11-0 to move it forward – the handful of protesters who showed up were given a lecture by Supervisor Scott Wiener. He revisited those remarks this week.

“This has gone through every conceivable process, from multiple commissions to the Board of Supervisors,” he said. The opponents “need to just stop. Enough is enough.”

But it is never enough. Although preparations are under way to start construction next year, Wong submitted his own plan, a freelance project from out of left field.

Howard, I told him this week, you are starting to look like a crank.

“The way to frame it is that this is not to stop it,” he said serenely. “It is to get a larger playground and a bigger library.”

Right, except that those plans have been vetted, and they don’t work. And yet the Lost Patrol continues its crusade.

“It’s not just me,” Wong said. “Two major neighborhood organizations, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers and the North Beach Neighbors, are in support.”

Actually, that’s not true. Neither was an original backer of the new library, but a member of the North Beach Neighbors board of directors said the group has yet to hold a meeting to consider a position on the legal action.

Hill Dwellers President Jon Golinger says flatly: “We are not supporting the lawsuit.”

“The reality is that this new library and open space have tremendous momentum and support in our northeast neighborhoods,” said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who represents North Beach.

“People want parks and playgrounds – not litigation,” said Recreation and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg.

Good luck. Last week, Wong unexpectedly attended the opening of the new 10,000-square-foot Visitacion Valley Library. Bourne says it was a long and difficult project, requiring community input and lots of moving parts. But she says the result was such a success that her staffers thought surely Wong must have been impressed. They were tempted to approach him, and say, “Why are you against (something like) this?”

My guess would be the answer would involve something about city precedent from 1988 and open space in the small triangle on Columbus. The lawsuit may be settled soon, but there’s a fear that if he loses, Wong might appeal, tying this up for years.

“When we finally open the North Beach Library it will be such a glorious day,” Bourne said. “And my son (now 9) will probably be in college.”
C.W. Nevius’ column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail him at cwnevius@sfchronicle.com.


This article appeared on page C – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle