When the Pico Branch Library in Virginia Avenue Park broke ground in the summer of 2012, it signaled the culmination of three decades of work by local community activists.
The Pico neighborhood, historically Santa Monica’s most underserved, and its residents had strived for this public investment in their backyard and, despite roadblocks, economic downturns, and, at times, scarce public resources, had persevered.
The long awaited – and hard fought-for – library opened to much fanfare last summer. As a symbol, the Pico Library stands as a testament to the hard work of neighborhood activists who demanded vital public investment in their future and who worked with the city to finally realize a positive vision for their community.
The Pico Branch Library is no token public works project, either. The building itself is arguably one of the best examples of modern public architecture in town. Koning Eizenberg, the Santa Monica-based architectural firm that designed the project, has been awarded a half-dozen awards for the achievement, including, most recently the 2015 Australian Institute of Architects Jørn Utzon Award for International Architecture.
The award is the highest honor given to an international project by the Australian Institute of Architects, and is named after Danish architect Jørn Utzon, who designed the iconic Sydney Opera House.
This building says to the world: The Pico neighborhood deserves an award-winning public library as much as any other part of our city.
But it represents more than a victory for a neighborhood that has historically been home to many of Santa Monica’s residents of color; the Pico Branch Library also represents the success we have had as a whole city in managing and growing the resources we have available for quality investment in our future.
At a time when most other municipalities were struggling to keep existing libraries open due to the economic downtown, Santa Monica remained fiscally healthy enough that it was able to open a brand new library. The city spends between $12 and $12.5 million a year on our library system, a luxury we have thanks to decades of sound fiscal management, a diverse business community, and a healthy amount of growth that adds to our tax base.
This particular library is truly a reflection of our community’s values: It is a long overdue investment in a part of our community that has, historically, been overlooked. It is also Santa Monica’s most environmentally sustainable public building, earning a LEED Platinum rating, the highest designation bestowed by the U.S. Green Building Council. And the building is connected – both architecturally and programmatically – to the community to which it belongs, offering lifelong learning opportunities to all regardless of their background, age or socio-economic position.
Our libraries have become more than just places to store books. They have grown into community hubs and resource centers.
For a child whose family may not be able to afford a computer, the library may be the only place where she can engage with digital media and practice the computer skills that will be vital for her success in the 21st century job market. For the widower senior living alone, it might be the only place he can meet people with similar interests without spending any money. For the high school student striving to be the first in her family to go to college, the library can offer the support she needs in navigating the college application process.
Our library system is thriving. In its first year, the Pico Library alone issued about 1,800 new library cards, checked out about 200,000 books, and saw about 180,000 visitors.
Over the last year, Santa Monica’s library system has also increased the number of programs it offers by 25 percent with tens of thousands of people participating. Our libraries offer early literacy support and computer labs for children.
They also offer events designed to engage the whole community in lifelong learning, like Yallwest is a two-day book festival for young adult literature, and the How-To Festival, which consisted of 57 workshops at all five of Santa Monica’s libraries and covered topics like how to make music for children and how to code in HTML.
Well-invested public dollars can make a world of difference and it is our responsibility as a community not only to celebrate our past successes, but to assure that our city continues to have the resources necessary to serve all members of the community long after we are gone.
Cynthia Rose, Debbie Mulvaney, Irene Zivi, Natalya Zernitskaya, Jeremy Stutes, Leslie Lambert, Joanne Leavitt, Judy Abdo, Craig Hamilton, Fred Zimmerman, Meghan Moroney, and Simone Gordon for Santa Monica Forward. Read previous columns at santamonicaforward.org.