Ortega Library Rebuild Gets OK to Move Forward

By Karen M. Kinney

In front of a packed City Hall room with more than 100 community members and representatives from library agencies, the SF Board of Appeals approved the demolition of the Ortega Branch Library on Aug. 5. The board said the building does not have historical integrity and the need to maintain preservation did not outweigh the demands of a growing community.

According to city plans, the 5,000-square-foot building will be replaced with a 9,400-square-foot modernized building benefiting a more diverse neighborhood. The main consensus of the crowd was for the demolition because they felt the building was insufficient and unsafe, while others felt strongly that the building was part of a historical focal point in the Sunset District and should remain intact.

In November 2000, the voters passed a bond measure for $106 million to upgrade San Francisco's branch library system and in November 2007, the voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition D, authorizing additional funding to improve the branches. The vocal and enthusiastic crowd was so anxious to voice its concerns regarding the demolition that the Appeals Board had to strictly enforce a one minute time limit for people pleading their case.

A gathering of children was the first to challenge the appeal, saying a new library would be better because there would be more books and a bigger reading area.

Michelle Tom, who grew up in the Sunset and is a member of the Golden Gate Mothers' Group and Friends of the West Sunset Playground, spoke first. She feels the Ortega Library was designed for another era and it's time to move forward.

"I believe the original design of the Ortega Library has served its propose and we need something more suitable for the change that has happened in the community since the '70s," Tom said. "I'm here representing the families that couldn't be here and most feel we need a place to foster a love of reading for all ages, which is safe and inviting for everyone."

A common concern of the community is the location of the existing building and its lack of visibility from Ortega Street. Residents feel this creates a dangerous environment, especially with three adjacent schools now surrounding the library, and trying to expand or upgrade the building would not be enough.

Sunset District 4 Supervisor Carmen Chu, who was present at the hearing, disagreed with the appeal motion and urged the Board to move the project forward.

"Renovation is not enough," Chu said. "I have personally attended community outreach meetings and the inception of the design comes straight from the residents and what has been heard from multiple commission levels."

The main proponent of the appeal is Inge Horton, a Sunset resident since 1972 and a member of the Bay Area-based organization of Women Architects and Design Professionals. On July 2, Horton filed an appeal on the grounds that the post-World War II building represents what was once a new era of libraries.

Horton does not argue that the library needs improvements and renovations, but feels this can be done with expansions while saving the unique international-style design created by the original architects.

Horton said the Branch Library Improvement Project (BLIP) originally said it would renovate the existing branch with a small expansion and make it seismically safe, more functional, and accessible, with technological updates. She claims there was no mention of the word "demolition."

"The library could be expanded because it's a free-standing building. If they (library overseers) would have hired a preservation architect they could have designed an addition to the library that meets the conditions of the needs of the community," Horton said. "The library does not have the expertise to decide if a building has historic integrity - they are only librarians and managers."

There was speculation that the SF Planning Department did not review pertinent new information supplied by Horton showing the growth possibilities of an expanded approach.

Tina Tam, preservation coordinator for the Planning Department, vehemently disagrees.

"Even after the initial memorandum and all new information given to the Planning Department, which was the best information we had at the time, we still were not convinced the building was implemented to its original design," Tam said. "The department feels comfortable this was the right decision."

Tam would like to see the public be more pro-active to find buildings worthy of protecting historic value before an appeal process is necessary.

"Let's find out if we can protect buildings instead of waiting for development pressure," she said. "We can then make the best use of people's property and go over all options."

Anne Wintroub, director of community and advocacy for the Friends of the San Francisco Library, who also attended the hearing, stressed that the biggest misconception is that the library is not interested in preservation. She says out of the 27 San Francisco libraries included in the bond measure, only three are being demolished. The rest will have major renovations.

The Ortega Branch Library has been closed since May 9.