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Landmarking libraries

September 5, 2009

Historic Preservation Commission to discuss landmarking Park Branch and other libraries Sept. 2

by Peter Warfield, Library Users Association

Park Branch Library
Park Branch Library
San Francisco – San Francisco Public Library, in its push to demolish two historic library branches and inappropriately to renovate at least two other historic branches, violated the public’s right to obtain public information and make public comment, according to San Francisco’s official open government watchdog group, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF).

And the Board of Appeals, just before it heard an appeal of the Ortega Branch demolition permit, enforced newly-created rules of reduced access to its office files that were unlawful, the SOTF found.

Fortunately, as these violations are publicly adjudicated, awareness is growing about bad plans and planning process, as well as the City’s many valuable branch library buildings.

Our efforts have helped alert architectural preservationists to the value of Park Branch library and helped lead to a scheduled Sept. 2 discussion at the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) on whether to landmark the City’s Park Branch library and some half-dozen Appleton and Wolfard libraries, of which North Beach and Ortega branches are examples, and both of which are scheduled for demolition and replacement by new buildings.

Park Branch, built by the City in 1909 without Carnegie money, is San Francisco’s oldest library building. It has a generous open floor plan 100 feet long by 41 feet wide, soaring 23-foot high ceiling, built-in perimeter book shelves, and enormous windows on all four sides that allow great quantities of daylight to flood in. The branch is scheduled to close for renovation for a year, starting immediately after its 100th birthday party Oct. 29. The eight Appleton and Wolfard libraries in the city were built in the 1950s and 1960s, also providing much light and usually a windowed connection with a park or garden.

The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF) determined that the San Francisco Public Library and the Board of Appeals violated the public records law when they denied or restricted access to documents that we requested.

The SOTF voted unanimously, 8-0, on the two complaints after hearing from both sides at its regular meeting Aug. 25.

The library refused to provide “50% Construction Documents” related to the San Francisco Public Library’s Park Branch renovation project, saying that allowing inspection could jeopardize the integrity of the City’s bidding process. The SOTF rejected this argument outright.

On a third complaint, a majority of the SOTF found that Board of Appeals Executive Director Cynthia Goldstein should have provided requested oral information, but the 5-2 vote fell one short of the number needed to take an official action that creates an Order of Determination. We had asked what attorney Ms. Goldstein consulted the day after our first arrival at the Board of Appeals office July 30, to change long-standing access rules permitting unrestricted viewing and copying. “That’s irrelevant,” she replied. The new rules, now determined to be unlawful, required that all identifying names, organizations and contact information of those writing letters of support for and opposition to the Ortega Branch demolition permit appeal be redacted (blacked out) from copies and that no notes of them be taken during review of the file.

The SOTF agreed to postpone to its September meeting a fourth complaint, asserting that the Library Commission violated public comment rights at its regular meeting March 19, 2009.

In addition to this most recent August finding of a library violation, the SOTF found at its July meeting that Library Commission President Jewelle Gomez violated the law when she shouted down a member of the public, stopping an intended public comment critical of the library’s North Beach branch renovation process at the Commission’s June 4 meeting. Our testimony helped obtain the finding of a willful violation by showing that the President did, or should have known, that the silencing was unlawful — and the tape we brought helped prove the case.

At another recent HPC meeting that included branch renovations, it became clear that the library employed well-known preservation architects to design the renovation of Noe Valley Branch, in a project that has won awards, but, as noted by HPC member Alan Martinez, the library did not employ preservation architects for Park, Merced, North Beach or Ortega Branch libraries.

The Board of Appeals Aug. 5 hearing upheld the library’s demolition permit on a 3-2 vote – with both Supervisor-appointed members opposed to demolition and all three mayoral appointees voting to allow demolition. Afterwards, Library Users Association sent a letter to the Board of Appeals informing members about our experience at the office, out of public view, just before the hearing. The letter concluded by urging the body to “consider some action to prevent your office’s inappropriate and illegal interference in public access [from tainting] your hearing result.” The board did not reply.

It is most unfortunate that the library has used unlawful means to advance its questionable plans and bad planning process. It is additionally disappointing that the Board of Appeals does not appear to want to address hearing fairness issues.

But we look forward to preservationists and the HPC increasing everyone’s understanding of and appreciation for San Francisco’s valuable library heritage and hope that the library administration will come to change its plans accordingly.

Peter Warfield, executive director of the Library Users Association, can be reached at libraryusers2004@yahoo.com.

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