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Library officials concerned about financial ask in rebrand of City Hall public space

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Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco, Calif. Monday, March 27, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

The “Civic Center Commons” may become the rebranded public space around City Hall, potentially even under the management of an outside organization, as San Francisco sets its sights on transforming the area like never before.

With the long-term strategy under discussion by city officials, more details are surfacing about the effort, which could even bring new amenities like a cafe with food service to the plaza.

SEE RELATED: SF plans major Civic Center transformation

The coordination among multiple city departments is meant to address long-standing challenges for the area that attracts a large number of homeless persons and drug users, who also tend to frequent the Main Library.

But last week, some library officials raised concerns about contributing $100,000 next fiscal year toward the initiative since it falls outside of the department’s essential function.

“I don’t want them to suck up all our time and resources and energy as well,” said Library Commissioner Zoe Dunning. “It’s a great project and program but I also want to be very wary and protective of us focusing on our core mission and not getting too distracted with that.”

City Librarian Luis Herrera said he shared Dunning’s concerns. “Initially we pushed back. We said we wanted to make sure that this money is going to be well spent,” Herrera said. “It’s still a question mark. We are willing to engage on this first year and see how it plays out.”

The so-called Civic Center Commons remains a work in progress. Roberto Lombardi, director of library facilities, said that while Amy Cohen at the Office of Economic and Workforce Development is considered the “lead person,” there are discussions of hiring an outside group to “run the organization.”

“A very important goal of the Commons is to build an ongoing management structure, some way to really tie everything together,” Lombardi said. “Somebody has to manage the initiatives that are going to keep these three areas [UN Plaza, Fulton Street and Civic Center Plaza] operating as one coherent whole.”

Even though library officials expressed concerns last week about the $100,000, the library has already spent $75,000 this year on efforts that are expected to be expanded under the Civic Center Commons initiative.

That money has gone to the nonprofit Hunters Point Family, which works with disadvantaged youths in the southeast neighborhoods, to provide the monitors that oversee public art displays and attempt to keep the peace.

The monitors also track behaviors, such as how many dog feces bags are used, the number of public safety incidents and how many people, for example, stop to play the xylophone set up in UN Plaza.

Herrera acknowledged he wasn’t certain how the money would be spent. “It is not clear what our specific $100,000 will go to — a portion perhaps could be for staffing for that nonprofit entity.”

Library Commission President Mary Wardell Ghirarduzzi, however, suggested the effort would bring a coordination to longstanding concerns. “Can I hang out in this area and, just kind of walking in and out of the library, and feel safe — those are things that we know that people have been concerned about,” she said.

As the library debates its role in the Civic Center Commons, The City is discussing expanding the use of buildings in the area, including Bill Graham Auditorium — which is managed by Another Planet Entertainment and leases the facility from The City.

Additionally, the Planning Department issued a request for proposals for projects for the public space, the San Francisco Examiner previously reported.

“Design alone cannot be expected to solve social problems, but thoughtful design can be a part of the solution,” reads The City’s request for proposals. The request said the contract amount is for $600,000.

The Planning Department would not release details Monday of the 18 proposals received by the March 1 deadline. They are being evaluated this week and the top three will be invited in for interviews.

Meanwhile, the Recreation and Park Department is exploring opening up a cafe with food service in the Civic Center Plaza.

This comes after Rec and Park recently broke ground on two replacement Civic Center playgrounds using a $10 million gift from the Helen Diller Family Foundation.

“The gift of these playgrounds served as a catalyst for a renewed focus on improving and activating Civic Center and the surrounding area,” said a Rec and Park statement on Feb. 14.

“While the Department has been offering food amenity such as Annie’s Hot Dog cart daily, and Off-the-Grid every Friday, there still seems to be a desire from the community for a fixed food and drink amenity at their neighborhood park,” said Rec and Park spokesperson Connie Chan in an email Monday. “Therefore, the Department is looking for a solution to this community request.”

Peter Warfield, who heads the group Library Users Association, raised concerns last week during the Library Commission hearing about whether the efforts were intended to clear out the “undesirables.”

He pointed to past efforts like community ambassadors and the formation of a Civic Center Community Benefit District, which the library also pays a fee into for enhanced services in the area.

“I am very concerned about the library’s somewhat schizophrenic approach to poor people, to homeless people,” Warfield said. “It’s not clear to me at all what this is really about.”

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