San Francisco Law Library suing over facility size

Last week’s Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee meeting was a doozy, and not just because each public speaker got two minutes to speak and Supervisor Mark Farrell spent three hours trying to get lawyers to stop talking after their time was up.

The reason that 81 people showed up to speak — almost all of them lawyers who are solo practitioners or work for nonprofits — is because they want a larger public Law Library. And straight from the “completely predictable” file, the Law Library is suing to get a larger space.

San Francisco’s charter requires it to provide “suitable and sufficient quarters for the Law Library.” But just what constitutes “suitable and sufficient” is where The City and the library disagree.

From 1915 until 1995, the library occupied about 14,000 square feet in City Hall. Renovations forced it to move to the War Memorial Veterans Building, where it only had 8,559 square feet until 2009, when it expanded to 12,816 square feet.

Once again, renovations are ousting the library as the War Memorial building prepares for a seismic retrofit. The library and The City selected a building at 1200 Van Ness Ave., which only has 15,633 square feet available, with another 4,367 square feet opening up in 2014.  

The City and its consultant say that amount of space is “suitable and sufficient,” noting that the library hasn’t properly “weeded” its inventory by discarding books available online. And the new location’s annual rent is $720,000, far more than the $190,000 at the War Memorial building. And The City will pay up to $1 million to renovate the new space.

But that offer wasn’t enough for all the lawyers who pleaded their case last week. They want a 30,000-square-foot library. At times, their arguments were compelling, as in, “Not everything legal is online. What is online is not free. We need the books.” At other times, it was less compelling, as in, “I don’t do computers.”

The full board voted on the matter Tuesday, and everyone except Supervisor David Campos agreed that 20,000 square feet — more space than the library has ever occupied — is “suitable and sufficient.”

But there still remains the library’s lawsuit seeking to prevent the move until a 30,000-square-foot location can be found. Farrell said that if the library is able to hold up the massive retrofitting project, it would cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.”

A hearing on the case is set for Friday. In light of the bigger, more expensive space being offered, even as The City wrestles with a $130 million deficit, Farrell got it right when he said: “This is a very generous offer.”

Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at  6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at

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