By Yvette tenBerge
Although plans to build a much-needed library in San Ysidro surfaced more than four years ago, a recent location change has outraged some residents who feel that the new, politically-backed site could endanger the safety of their children and keep the new facility out of the reach of many families.
Bertha Alicia Gonzalez has been a resident of the roughly 27,000-member community of San Ysidro for 42 years. She is the president of the Friends of the Library and a local business owner. She is among a group of residents in favor of building the new library at the originally proposed site, which is surrounded by six schools, rather than at the new site, which is located in the Las Americas shopping center along the United States/Mexico border.
She recalls an agreement made between the San Ysidro School District (SYSD) and the City of San Diego in 1998. “The school district donated the land for the purpose of building the library, and the City of San Diego promised that they would search for the funds to build the library at that location,” says Ms. Gonzalez, who participated in various meetings with “higher-ups” in the City, as well. “The pact was sealed.”
Ms. Gonzalez states that the City went so far as to hire an architect, Manuel Oncina, to prepare the plans. “Manuel visited and talked with almost all of the community to find out what we wanted. He had breakfast with us, and even brought pictures of beautiful libraries that had already been built in other places,” says Ms. Gonzalez. “We chose one of those designs, had him add room for child care and even picked the colors of the walls.”
As far as she and the other members of her group knew, all that was left to do was sit and wait for the library funds to trickle in and the new 25,000-square-foot facility would be built to replace the old, 4,098-square-foot library that was constructed in 1924 on West San Ysidro Boulevard.
However, on January 30, 2002, Councilman Ralph Inzunza of District 8 held an un-publicized, open meeting to announce the change of location for the library proposal. Alicia Jimenez, a member of the Friends of the Library and a proponent of the original site, was one of the few community members present at the meeting.
“The meeting was held in a room that holds 48 people and about 18 people were there. When one of the business people present asked why he hadn’t received an invitation, he was told by Mr. Inzunza’s aid that the office mailed out 4,000 notification cards,” says Ms. Jimenez. She states, though, that most of the people present were not representative of the various sectors of the community. Instead, they were employees of CASA Familiar, a local social service agency run by Andrea Skorepa.
Ms. Skorepa has been a vocal supporter of Sam Marasco, the owner and developer of the Las Americas shopping center, for years. She has also received publicized donations from his firm LandGrant Development, and lists him as a member of her agency on the CASA Familiar website.
Ms. Skorepa states that the term “conflict of interest” is hard to define, but says that she supports the plan to build the library in Las Americas solely because she “wants her community to prosper.”
Ms. Jimenez recalls Mr. Inzunza’s final statement about the new library proposal: “He told us that if the new library wasn’t built in the Las Americas shopping center it wasn’t going to be built at all.”
Mr. Inzunza’s office did not return La Prensa San Diego’s calls or its invitations to comment on the situation and his tactics.
William C. Sannwald, Manager of Library Design and Development for the City of San Diego, has worked for the City for the past 23 years. He is responsible for overseeing the site selection process for libraries throughout San Diego County and states that the original agreement between the San Ysidro school district and the City of San Diego was informal. He points out that neither the District nor the City signed an official agreement, that the district’s superintendent and business manager have changed and that the district can no longer help the project along financially.
“The district was willing to donate the land for the 25,000-square-foot library and parking, but the City would have had to take care of roughly $9 million in construction expenses,” says Mr. Sannwald, who explains that the City originally planned, and still plans, to submit a grant proposal in line with Proposition 14 which, if awarded, will commit the state to covering two thirds of the estimated $13 million in costs. “There is only a one in five chance of getting this grant, and if we do, the City will still have to cover one third of the cost plus the land.”
José Manuel Torres has been the Superintendent of the SYSD since November. He states that the District was never asked whether or not they could put up funds toward the project.
“However, with the tight budget coming down from the state for the next couple of years and with our own building projects in the works, it would be difficult to appropriate additional funds for construction costs,” says Mr. Torres, who adds that the land offer still stands.
In 1996, the City of San Diego established 766 acres in San Ysidro as a “redevelopment area.” Projects built within such locations can receive local monetary incentives. Mr. Sannwald states that the district-donated site, located on Otay Mesa Road east of Interstate 805, is not a redevelopment site, and the City could, therefore, not count on this extra funding if they decided to build the library there.
Pat Hightman is a Redevelopment Program Manager and has been with the City of San Diego for nine years. She negotiated the agreement that the City entered into with Mr. Marasco in 1998 when he purchased the land for the Las Americas shopping center, which is within the San Ysidro redevelopment area. She was the person who received the call from Mr. Marasco this year proposing that the new library be built at Las Americas.
“In the contract that Mr. Marasco signed it shows he must provide 50,000-square-feet of cultural space. LandGrant felt that Las Americas should be more than just a shopping center, but the terms weren’t really defined anymore than that,” says Ms. Hightman. She adds that when Mr. Marasco called, he offered to provide materials for the project, including the shell of the building, parking spaces and exterior maintenance. This could total as much as $3.2 million.
Mr. Oncina, the architect hired by the City to draw up the original plans for the library, admits that it was not only the community that was surprised by the City’s abrupt change in plans. His firm, Manuel Oncina Architects, Inc., which has thus far completed plans for 10 libraries, was just as surprised.
He explains that he was selected in April 2000 to help turn the vision for the San Ysidro library into a reality. “Prior to the selection process, I did ground work. I met with the Friends of the Library; I met with the District who was partnering with the City at that time, and I met with CASA Familiar. I had a really good experience with everyone,” says Mr. Oncina, who admits that he was “blindsided” by the City’s announcement to change locations and architects.
“The City kept blocking my contract, and in 2002, I got a call that said Councilman Inzunza had changed his mind; he had forged a relationship with a developer who had his own architect. I think it’s just politics,” says Mr. Oncina, who is not sure whether or not his experience with the City is unusual. “I will say that I felt emotionally attached to San Ysidro because of their conditions, and I could see that they really needed this library.”
Celia Celiceo is the Vice-President of the San Ysidro Women’s Club and a supporter of the library’s originally proposed location. She claims that the site would serve 85 percent of the community, while the Las Americas location would serve 15 percent of the area’s “students, faculty and residents.” She believes that the community should be given a choice as to where they want the library to be located.
“The question was not whether the library was going to be built or where, it was when. All of a sudden there was a change of plans, and the bottom line seems to be that we don’t have the money - they do. The original location is truly more suitable, safer and it’s more appropriate for families,” says Ms. Celiceo, who laments the way in which Mr. Inzunza went about making his decision. “He should have at least given the community the chance to hear both sides of the issue, which he never did.”
Jean Romero has been a Trustee of the SYSD for the past eight years. She supported the original agreement between the District and the City in 1998 because she “believes it would make the community a better place to live.” She also feels that having the library in a shopping mall near the border exposes children to such things as crime, drug traffic and alcohol.
“My personal commitment as a representative of the district is to enhance the lifestyle of the community. I don’t believe that a library at Las Americas is the best thing for families and kids because it puts children in danger. Mr. Inzunza once said that the location of the library didn’t matter because parents ‘always drive their kids to the library,’ but that’s not the case in our community,” says Ms. Romero, who points out that many residents of San Ysidro do not have cars. “Even if the City stands to save money on this project if it is built in Las Americas, it is still not what is best of the community, and we deserve better.”