North Beach Public Library Plan Sued By Neighborhood Groups

When the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to completely renovate the North Beach Public Library on a triangle-shaped lot at the intersection of Lombard and Mason streets last month, it looked like a newly redone library was soon to become a reality.

However, a lawsuit filed by a pair of neighborhood groups may put the brakes on the city's plans.

The Coalition for a Better North Beach Library and Playground and The Friends of Appleton-Wolfard Libraries have sued the city to stop the remodeling on a whole bevy of charges, including that local officials did little to preserve the history of the iconic 1959 building.

We feel there was no real evaluation of all the best options for the site, which includes keeping the open space on the triangle and restoring the historic building and expanding the historic building," said Howard Wong, a retired architect who is leading the lawsuit.

The complaint alleges that using the triangle space would violate the terms under which it was bought. "The Triangle was condemned specifically for open space and purchased by the City for open space, using open space funds," the lawsuit reads. "However, the use of the Triangle for a new library has never been submitted to and approved by the electors."

The Planning Commission approved an environmental impact report for the $12.5 million plan, which involves the demolition of the current branch and the construction of a new building along with the conversion of a proximate block Mason Street into a park connecting the library with Joe DiMaggio Playground.

Despite its environmental approval, the library plan has been the subject of intense opposition since it initially became public. Things got particularly hearted at a public hearing before the Planning Commission in in April. The Examiner reports:

One opponent, a self-described architectural historian, became so impassioned about the issue that when his three minute time to speak was over, he began beating the podium and shouted at members of the commission, saying they all need to be replaced. Commission President Christina Olague put the meeting in recess during the outburst, and a member of the planning staff said she "pressed the panic button," that alerts San Francisco sheriff's deputies. The man left soon after his comments, and the meeting returned to order.

San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission attempted to save the old library from being razed by naming it a historic site late last year; however, the Board of Supervisors overruled that designation the following month.

Even though the report recommended installing a display of the library's history in the new building replete with pictures and architectural drawings, that proved an unacceptable compromise for the new library's foes.

"The tortured path of this project is in many ways symbolic of the dysfunctionality in land use in San Francisco," Supervisor Scott Wiener told Streetsblog. "We have a highly popular, beautifully designed project to replace an outdated and inaccessible structure with a beautiful, usable and accessible new library; to create additional, much-needed open space in a densely populated neighborhood…Instead, a small group of opponents has stymied the broad community every step of the way."

Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius agreed with Weiner, telling foes of library, "enough already!":

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.

The rebuilding of the North Beach Library is part of a $106 million program, started over a decade ago, to renovate or rebuild 24 of the city's libraries as well as construct the Mission Bay Library--the first new library built by the city in four decades. The triangle plot of land developers hope to build on currently houses a weekend farmer's market.