Virginia Avenue Park could be the home of a library branch serving the Pico Neighborhood. The City Council is undecided, looking at spaces along Pico Boulevard as well. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — When it comes to opening a new library branch in the Pico Neighborhood, there’s little question that the City Council is in support.

As far as the exact location, the opinions are less than unanimous.

Those differences came out Tuesday following a presentation by the Santa Monica Public Library about two possible homes for the proposed branch — Virginia Avenue Park and an undisclosed spot on Pico Boulevard.

The council, which barely had a quorum, was evenly divided as both Councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Gleam Davis expressed support for placing the branch on the boulevard, believing it would enliven the commercial thoroughfare while preserving open space, while Mayor Ken Genser and Councilman Richard Bloom backed the park option, pointing out the benefits of adding another attraction to the area.

“I think locating the facility on the site there is going to work quite well with the other pieces we have there now,” Bloom said.

Bloom added that the park has become a focal point for the entire city, adding that placing a library there would enhance the diversity of services offered.

Mayor Pro Tem Pam O’Connor and Councilmen Bob Holbrook and Bobby Shriver were absent.

City staff will continue exploring the possibility of building a library at the park while looking for other opportunities along Pico Boulevard before reporting back to council with a final proposal.

The price of opening a branch library could be expensive at either Virginia Avenue Park or elsewhere on Pico Boulevard, estimated to cost $12.8 million and $30 million respectively for construction and site acquisition. The branch would command an annual operating cost of about $870,000 at either location, Greg Mullen, the head public librarian, said. The project could be funded through the Redevelopment Agency

Residents in the neighborhood, which has the highest concentration of minorities and low-income families in the city, have for years sought their own branch. The idea was brought back to life again last year when officials with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District began working on plans for the reconstruction of Edison Language Academy and community leaders suggested a public library be placed on campus.

But the prospect of locating the library at Edison became unlikely as city officials met with the district, learning that design changes would delay construction. District officials also expressed concerns over keeping a portion of the campus open to the public during school hours.

The neighborhood has had access to service through the Fairview Branch on Ocean Park Boulevard since it opened in 1956, but some residents have said that Pico Boulevard represents a cultural divide that they believe keeps them away from the library, according to a city staff report. Other residents have also expressed concerns about safety issues for children crossing Pico Boulevard.

While some residents support a branch at Virginia Avenue Park, the Pico Neighborhood Association’s board of directors have urged city officials to explore a site on Pico Boulevard.

Linda Piera-Avila, who serves on the board, told the council that placing a library on Pico would help revitalize the boulevard and make it more pedestrian friendly.

“I know there are concerns that there are quite a few liquor stores along Pico Boulevard and I think the community feels that a library would be a better land use than a liquor store,” she said.

City staff searched for several properties in the neighborhood, keeping an eye out for parcels that were approximately 25,000 square feet that could accommodate parking for 28 to 30 cars, estimating that a library would take up about 7,500 square feet. None of the properties are for sale but one owner has expressed interest in engaging in co-development opportunities, Andy Angle, the director of Housing and Economic Development, said.

“We may need to look at something that would allow the library to go forward but also allow the current owner to continue their activity on the site,” Agle said.

If located at Virginia Avenue Park, the library could be situated in the zone reserved for the Farmers’ Market but be placed in a way to have minimal impact, Mullen said.

City staff is looking at two options for the park, including one in which about five stalls at the market would be impacted and another where none would be displaced.

Many residents have said they would be willing to give up a small amount of open space to gain a library at the park, city staff said.

“People saw a strong potential for synergy between the park activities and library services,” Mullen said.

Davis expressed concerns that construction could impact park patrons.

“My support for this library is that it fulfills a great need in a neighborhood that has many needs,” she said. “I think this project will serve the community greatly if we do it well.”

McKeown said the community fought long and hard to expand and reconstruct the park and would not want to lose any open space.

Some argued that the students at Edison Language Academy and Grant Elementary School would be better served if the library is located at Virginia Avenue Park, which is located just blocks from both campuses.

Genser, who was originally in favor of placing the branch on Pico, said he recently spoke to an educational advocate who pointed out that the park location might draw students who otherwise might not visit the library.

“There is a whole range of youth activities in the park,” Genser said. “That argument was very compelling to me.”

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