The North Beach Library has finally opened its doors to a community eager to experience the outcome of one of the most contentious recent architectural disputes in San Francisco. The lead designer of the project, Marsha Maytum of Leddy Maytum Stacy, endured 11 years of community meetings, public hearings, and fierce neighborhood opposition to build a vision as highly contextual as it is efficient.
The project occupies a residual triangular site, formerly a parking lot, whose hypotenuse is Columbus Avenue, the major North Beach artery. This shape, inherently challenging for functionality, is also ripe with design opportunities. It is in this respect that the new library reestablishes the street edges to open its corners to city vistas. Its envelope houses state of the art amenities and luminous interiors with a very thoughtful skylight directly across the architectural stair located at the center of the plan. In contrast, the exterior is a gentle backdrop to a much-anticipated open plaza facing the Joe DiMaggio Playground, a singular landscape idea unifying what are currently piecemeal facilities. Equally compelling is the library at night, when the discreet glass slits offer glimpses of indoor activities.
The project increases functional space by 60 percent and replaces a rather bland 1959 library designed by Appleton & Wolfard, deemed unsuitable for retrofit or for landmarking. Opposing groups had presented the original library as a major example of mid-century design, part of an effort to landmark all the other branches in the city from the same firm. The case would have misrepresented the true contributions that San Francisco has provided in its own glorious mid-century legacy. The happy ending of the North Beach Library, the last of the 24 to be either built or renovated under a 2000 city bond, is a reminder to us all that there is plenty of work to be done to make San Francisco a living city, and not a museum frozen in time.