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Former San Diego library could become homeless shelter

The former Central Library in downtown San Diego could become an inclement weather shelter this winter and someday could operate year-round as a homeless shelter.

City crews already are working on the site in preparation for its possible opening, though at least one hurdle must be passed to clear up a question about the property’s title. A Superior Court judge has been asked to consider the city’s request to clarify the title, but no court date has been set.

Even before a record number of homeless people were reported living in downtown San Diego, Mayor Todd Gloria had directed city staff to assess the old library and other public buildings for use as a shelter.

There has been no official announcement that the plan is moving forward, however. Homeless advocate Michael McConnell, who almost daily monitors downtown’s homeless situation, appears to have been the first to notice activity at the library.

McConnell posted photos of the library on Twitter on Sept. 1 and wrote that he had been told the building might reopen as a shelter. In an interview this week, McConnell said it appears workers were building a new wall inside the building.

The Voice of San Diego reported the next day that a spokesperson for Gloria had said modest preparations were being done to the building in preparation for opening it as a temporary shelter during inclement weather.

On Thursday, Deputy Director of Communications Dave Rolland in the mayor’s office confirmed that the city hopes to open a 23-bed shelter at the old library in November.

“At this time, the Fire Marshal has approved a small portion for a six-month duration during the inclement-weather season,” he wrote in an email. “We’re continuing to work on plans to permanently deploy the site to address homelessness.”

The old Central Library on Eighth and E streets opened in 1954, replacing the 52-year-old Carnegie Library at the same location. The Central Library closed in 2013 and was replaced by the new Central Library at 330 Park Blvd.

The old library has been empty and unused for the past nine years, and several proposals for the building have been floated and dismissed since then. Tents and other makeshift structures used by homeless people have become a common sight on the sidewalk outside the boarded-up building.

In 2018, the city’s downtown planning agency Civic San Diego approved a proposal from Dallas-based Lincoln Property Company to convert the three-story building into mainly offices.

The developer later found a snag in the plans with the discovery of an 1899 deed that may restrict the site’s use to a library or reading room.

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whose philanthropic contributions include Carnegie Hall, donated $50,000 to San Diego that year for the construction of the library that once bore his name.

Department store owner and local philanthropist George Marston sold the E Street property to the city for $17,000 in 1899. The deed’s wording includes a clause that “assigns forever” the property’s use as a library or reading room.

The city has honored deeds associated with gifts in the past, such as the one from sugar magnates John and Adolph Spreckels, who donated Balboa Park’s Spreckels Organ to the city in 1914. The deed of gift calls for all concerts at the pavilion to be free to the public, which they have been to this day.

A memorandum from the City Attorney’s office in 2014 and acquired by the Voice of San Diego, however, argued that the Marston deed does not restrict the property’s use as a library or reading room because the land was not acquired by dedication, but rather purchased by the city at fair market value.

In March, the city filed a complaint to quiet title, a legal action to clear up claims on a property. The complaint argues that the original grant does not place a condition on the property, and the city operated a library on the site for more than 100 years and closed it only after it had fulfilled its use and another library had opened.

The Lucky Duck Foundation and other advocacy groups for San Diego’s homeless population have called on the city to consider using the old libraries as a shelter for years.

“It’s encouraging that they’re taking steps forwards,” Lucky Duck Foundation Executive Director Drew Moser said Thursday. “It’s steps forward at the speed of government,” he added.

Moser said a poll conducted by the foundation found 84 percent of respondents supported using vacant or under-used public property as inclement-weather shelters.

With the number of people living without shelter appearing to surge, Moser said there is an urgent need for action.

“We’re in a situation where there are hundreds if not thousands of beds needed,” he said.

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