Point Richmond Council Opposes Tearing Down Library

By Geneviève Duboscq, Special to the Planet
Friday May 18, 2007

At a contentious meeting of the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council (PRNC) on Monday dues-paying members voted 60-7 against supporting a local committee’s proposal to tear down the Richmond library’s Westside branch in Point Richmond and move the branch’s operations to a nearby rental facility. 

The city of Richmond has a unique method of ensuring community participation in local issues: 37 neighborhood groups meet, many of them monthly, under the auspices of the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council to discuss issues of importance to locals and bring concerns to the nine-member City Council. 

PRNC president James Bottoms said in his opening remarks on Monday that the gathering of about 80 people in the basement of Our Lady of Mercy church was the largest PRNC meeting he had ever attended. Also present were Richmond’s Vice Mayor Nathaniel Bates, Councilmember Harpreet Sandhu, and past Mayor Rosemary Corbin. 

Sallie DeWitt, a business analyst and longtime community volunteer, spoke on behalf of the committee to move the library. She explained that the move is part of a proposal to create a “village green” in the center of Point Richmond, much like town centers in Healdsburg, Windsor, San Rafael and Mill Valley. 

A village green would increase foot traffic in the area and stimulate business, committee members believe. “Business in Point Richmond is hurting,” said DeWitt, whose stepdaughter owns a framing shop and gallery downtown. “It’s not dying but hurting.” 

DeWitt told the audience that the committee seeks “a reopened library and community services center in a safe, secure, modern facility, and a vibrant, thriving, attractive and safe downtown where all can gather as friends” for art and musical events, as well as farmers’ markets. 

Such events already take place in the area around the library, she said in an interview on Tuesday, “but they’re in the street. Personally, I think it could be a more attractive event if we didn’t have to be in the street and work around a generally dilapidated center that’s been that way for years now.” 

The Westside branch library is located at 135 Washington Ave. in the heart of Point Richmond, on a pie-wedge-shaped block that also houses the area’s fire station. Opened in 1961, the library doubles as a community center. It was closed, along with the Bayview branch library near South Carlson Boulevard, in May 2004. 

According to Monique LeConge, director of library and community services, “The city of Richmond found itself in debt close to $35 million” that year. In addition to closing the two branches, Richmond cut library staffing from 80 to 21 people. Richmond’s only remaining library was then open to the public for only 24 hours a week. 

LeConge began working for the city in October 2004. The city library now has about 60 staffers, including librarians, library assistants, library aides and pages to shelve materials. The main library is open 42 hours a week, and the book-mobile runs four days a week. 

With capital improvement funds in hand “to do an extreme makeover” of the two branches, including adding new carpet and new paint and buying new materials and computers, the Westside (Point Richmond) and Bayview branches are scheduled to reopen sometime this summer, said LeConge. 

But on May 1, the Richmond City Council decided to consider whether the committee’s proposal to move the Point Richmond library was viable. No one seemed quite ready for this action. 

DeWitt said that the all-volunteer committee had no previous notice that the City Council intended to reopen the libraries this summer. “It was only a few weeks ago that (we heard) that the city was not only ready to reopen the library but to spend tens of thousands of dollars on it.” 

If the Point Richmond branch reopened, chances were that the village green would never become a reality. 

She said the City Council decision “caused [the committee] to go faster, and I think that’s what caused the problem of people thinking we were going behind their backs, which wasn’t true.” Some locals became suspicious that the committee had gone straight to the city council in order to bypass the city’s Design Review Board, which reviews proposed changes to local buildings. 

According to DeWitt, the committee would have preferred that the library reopen temporarily in its current location while the committee fleshed out its proposal with projected costs and a fuller plan. 

Meanwhile, back at the library, LeConge was eager to fix the Westside branch’s roofing and mold problems, and order carpeting and furniture. “It’s frustrating to be very close to remodeling branches, making them more like libraries in other communities that can really serve their communities, and then to have to wait.” 

Community members at Monday evening’s PRNC meeting were vocal in their opposition to DeWitt’s presentation about moving the library and creating a village green. Some audience members raised questions and comments as she spoke. PRNC president Bottoms asked the audience to hold all comments until after DeWitt had given her talk. 

So many people wanted to speak after DeWitt’s presentation that Bottoms limited them to two minutes of comments each. About 18 people spoke, most making sure to mention how long they had lived in Point Richmond. One community member used his allotted time to chastise people in the room for their rudeness, calling their behavior “reprehensible,” regardless of how they felt about the committee’s proposal. 

Asked the day after the meeting whether the committee would change its proposal to the city council, DeWitt said the committee would withdraw its proposal. 

“There’s no path forward for this proposal as we had envisioned it, none. We really wanted to know if the community wanted to consider a proposal that included at any time in the future relocating the library. And what we got back was a resounding ‘No.’ ... It was a little more intense and hostile than I would have liked, but I don’t expect people to always agree with me.” 

A longtime community activist who has raised funds for educational and nonprofit groups in Richmond and greater Contra Costa County, DeWitt said that the hostility she encountered at the PRNC meeting “has left me confused, quite confused, because I don’t know how to respond to that. So I’m going to have to consider that for quite some time. And when I do move into the future with this community, I will take that into consideration and be much more wary.”