By Chris Pocock
Several University Heights residents met with San Diego Public Library Director Misty Jones at the University Heights Branch Library last week to discuss efforts to transform the historic Normal School Teachers Training Annex into a community center and replacement library.
The focus on library relocation comes at a pivotal time for the University Heights library, which many residents feel is ailing from lack of space and funding.
According to the University Heights Community Development Corporation, the 3,749-square-foot library serves over 60,000 residents, as well as four elementary schools and middle schools, giving it the highest circulation per square foot of any library in the city.
Although the annex has sat vacant since 2009, the University Heights library was not among those elected to be upgraded in 2015 by the city of San Diego.
Plans to move the existing University Heights library to the annex have been in the works since 2004, when then-Councilmember Toni Atkins allocated $250,000 for a feasibility study performed by engineering firm Fields Devereaux to test the building’s integrity and structure. According to Ronald Johnston, past president of the University Heights Community Association and chair of the University Heights Library Task Force for the library relocation, the study determined the annex could withstand earthquakes and the ravages of time better than other adjacent buildings.
The plan has strong support among the UHCDC and the UHCA, as well as many local residents, whom at the meeting discussed their admiration of the annex’s beautiful facade and architecture. Also supportive of the project is Councilmember Todd Gloria, who said the branch is loved and utilized far more than its cramped space may suggest, and is nearing the top of the list of priority projects in Council District 3.
Gloria has worked closely with community members and the school district to present the option of the annex as a joint-use facility, but has remained aware of the hurdles facing the plan, including the lack of ADA access, parking insufficiency, lack of funding and differences in vision between the school district and the city.
Jones weighed her love for libraries against the obstacles facing the project.
“If it were up to me, I’d have a library on every block,” Jones said. “But the library world today is very different than it was in 2005; it would need computers … adequate electricity, conduits run throughout … I know that it’s a historical building, not a tear-down-and-build-anew building, but sometimes it can be more expensive to [renovate].”
Cost is by far the largest obstacle for the renovation.
The 2004 Fields Devereaux study found that upgrades to the facility would cost approximately $7.75 million for the improvements needed to make the annex library-ready. Given the rise in inflation and the increased cost of building materials, Jones roughly estimated the cost as $10 to $12 million in today’s dollars. Additionally, another costly reassessment must be performed before any repair work can be completed.
Playing devil’s advocate, Jones asked Johnston to justify the library relocation given the $14 million, 15,000-square-foot library being built in Mission Hills nearly a mile away. Johnston defended the plan, noting the size of the community and surrounding schools the relocated library would serve, the recent scrapping of a plan to build a library in North Park, and the lack of a community center in University Heights.
Despite the obstacles, Johnston remains hopeful.
“The range of optimism has been lower, such as during the decade we spent talking to the school district and three previous superintendents, with no positive outcomes,” Johnston said. “That was down in the 20 percent range. As to likelihood of success [now], I definitely feel that the odds are over 60 percent in favor.”
—Contact Chris Pocock at email@example.com.