Why a Brand-New $10 Million Library Has Been Sitting Empty for Months

One unfortunate outcome of California doing away with redevelopment agencies.

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Manny Domingo/Facebook

The sleek $10 million building pictured above is Northside Library, located in the San Francisco-area city Santa Clara. As you can see in the photos below, it's 99 percent complete - so why has it been sitting empty since last July?

A look at the Northside Library's interior and exterior onditions. (via "Settle the Northside Library Funding Issue Now" on Facebook

The explanation begins two years ago, when California Governor Jerry Brown shuttered the state's redevelopment agencies in the face of a massive budget deficit. These RDAs, which used local tax increment financing to fund neighborhood improvements like affordable housing and parks, had been criticized for lacking oversight.

The RDA's were abolished in 2011. Cities had until February 1, 2012 to return any unused money, but they weren't supposed to start new projects. However, a month before the deadline, Santa Clara gave $18 million in RDA funds to the Santa Clara City Library Foundation and Friends, a non-profit tasked with overseeing the process of building the Northside Library. 

The project broke ground in July 2012, construction finished in July 2013. At that point, the county swooped in with a temporary restraining order, preventing the city from finishing the project.

Why did the city forge ahead with Northside when it was clear by 2011 that RDA funds would need to be returned?

According to the city, the library had been in the city's long-term plans since the 1960s. When construction for Rivermark, the city's new master-planned community, got underway in the late 1990s, three acres of land were specifically set aside for the new facility. So from Santa Clara's perspective, planning and work for Northside Library began way before the RDAs were dissolved.

The county disagreed, arguing the city violated the law by starting construction with RDA assets after the agencies were shuttered.

So now, Northside is tangled in a "bureaucratic nightmare," says Tracy Wingrove, Interim Executive Director of the Library Foundation. “These government entities are spending money to fight over this, when it could just be resolved by opening the library," she says. 

From the top: a rally at City Hall, a sad sign affixed to the building, the community's makeshift "milk crate library"  (via "Settle the Northside Library Funding Issue Now" on Facebook

Since last summer, the Library Foundation has met with a long list of city, county, and state representatives to enlist support for completion of the project. It organized rallies in front of the library as well as City Hall, drawing more than 1,300 people. In September, the community also set up a "milk crate library" at the Northside entrance. The makeshift solution, filled with books left over from book sales and donated by residents, appears to be a permanent fixture now.

Still, for the families who moved to the area for its proximity to schools, shopping, and the promise of a new library, the wait is frustrating. On the community-organized Facebook page, a resident writes, "Every time I walk by the library with my kids it's so sad seeing a new empty building - is there anything more we can do?"

Not really. Northside Library is still missing essentials like books, bookshelves, and computers. Wingrove says the city is seeking other sources to fund the final stretch. City Manager Julio Fuentes, along with California Assembly Member Bob Wieckowski, are also working with the state controller and Department of Finance to negotiate an agreement.

According to Jeff Barbosa, Wieckowski's legislative aide, the situation in Santa Clara is hardly unique. Similar disputes are popping up around the state. Barbosa says the governor is thinking about bringing back a different form of redevelopment funding. But first, these problems will have to be resolved.

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