On the Fate of Public Libraries and Democracy

Well, they did it!

The Downtown Library Council Subcommittee hauled off and voted unanimously to recommend that the City build a new library in the ground floor of a six story parking garage and abandon the library’s historic site in the Civic Center.

Oh, wait, you may not know what this is all about.

In 2016, Santa Cruz voted in Measure S, a county-wide property tax measure to raise funds to repair, restore and upgrade the County’s badly deteriorated library buildings after decades of deferred maintenance. Among the buildings in need of repair are the Downtown Branch, the flagship of the library system, sailing proudly in the Civic Center, next door to City Hall, the City Auditorium and other historic buildings.

STC-L-GIBSON-COL-0616-01

When Measure S was ballyhooed by the city fathers and mothers, they knew perfectly well that the funds garnered would be insufficient to complete all the work needed for all of the library branch buildings. But they pressed on regardless, not telling the people about this minor financial detail, sure in the knowledge that once approved, additional funds could be “leveraged” to complete the tasks at hand.

To overcome this fiscal failing, the City (mis)Manager dug into his bag of old ideas and pulled out… a parking garage! He suggested, without smirking, very much, that the city could save money and build a bigger Downtown Branch library in the ground floor of a five to six story parking garage, propping up the moribund parking project like a brick underneath the wobbly corner of a book case.

Parking garage 2

City staff fueled the spark of the idea by pouring gallons of library eye candy on the gullible public, images of huge, modernistic book boutiques in major cities around the world excruciatingly morphed into “multi use” structures, such as apartment buildings, multi-modal transportation emporia and shopping malls, with far more glass, glitz and glamor than books..

The Downtown Library Advisory Committee, formed in December 2016 to “help with the design of a new library,” swallowed it all, recommending that the City Council approve the new “21st Century” library in the ground floor of a yet to be designed parking garage.

As often happens, many people who pay attention took exception to this behind closed doors, bureaucratic bait and switch. A groundswell of opposition to the ugly car-centric edifice arose (see Public Libraries Parking Garages and the Future of Bad Taste), creating consternation in the ivy-covered halls of local government. Never to pause in the face of public disapproval of their favorite plans, City Staff rooted around in their bag of tricks and pulled out their favorite ploy: if the public doesn’t like what you offer, give them what they want.

With a wave of their bureaucratic magic wand, the library in a garage was magically transformed into a library plus affordable housing in a parking garage. Shazzam! Who could object to affordable housing?

City staff and some City Council members, including the member who was recused from voting on the project, who shall remain nameless (her initials are C.M.), quickly mobilized a cadre of downtown influencers to support the so-called mixed use project, releasing an epic flood of disinformation, misdirection and bald-faced lies about the project, how much it would cost, how tall it would be and how many, if any, truly affordable apartments would be included.

To cut to the chase, after nearly four years of political jiggery-pokery, and yet another City Council committee process, the decision, made so long ago, dusted off, repolished  and shiny with new empty promises, obfuscations and prevarication, will be reintroduced to the City Council as the pre-ordained recommendation of the Downtown Library Council Subcommittee to build a new Downtown Library under a six story parking garage. A people parking garage with cavernous ceilings and echoing hallways almost but not quite entirely devoid of books.

Caverness

Maybe.

It has not gone unnoticed by the aforementioned people who pay attention, as well as other thinking persons, that local democracy is suffering under the stultifying reaction to the Coronavirus epidemic. What once were face-to-face public meetings have degraded into awkward and limiting remote computer media encounters, with public commentary and questions relegated to faceless voices on scratchy and often unintelligible telephone connections. No longer can we mingle with our fellow citizens in the hallowed halls of government, exchange meaningful glances during the meeting, foment strategy before and after, look our public servants in the eye when they spout their meaningless rhetoric.

It is quite likely that COVID-19 hysteria will subside in the next couple of months, to the point that we can resume face-to-face public meetings, even if somewhat constrained by anti-social distancing.

What would be lost by postponing public hearings of critical public interest until we can meet again in public? Why the urgency to push through a controversial project such as the bastardization of the Downtown Branch Library when the public cannot effectively take part in the deliberations? Who gains from this abrogation of democratic responsibility, and who loses?

One thing almost everyone can do is to contact City Council members and express disappointment and dismay at the loss of our political franchise and our historic library building in the vital Civic Center.

If nothing else, send an email to citycouncil@cityofsantacruz.com and let them know that you want our democracy and our Downtown Library lest they make any more ill advised commitments to our political, economic and cultural future.

The ultimate fate of the Downtown Public Library building, and the state of local democracy, lies in the hands of the citizens of Santa Cruz, city and county.

It’s up to you.

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