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DC Libraries Showing Improved Facilities and Service; Construction of Branch in Shaw Soon to Start, Mayor Accused of Disrupting Tenley Plan

By Anthony L. Harvey

A gathering storm comprised of Fiscal Year 2009 DC Public Library (DCPL) budgetary shortfalls — especially the loss of funds for 71 budget positions from FY ‘2008 — and the recent dramatic disruption of new branch library construction schedules — with the Tenley/Friendship branch, which was ready with detailed construction bid documents and District building permit applications, now being cancelled and replaced by the Mayor with plans for a mixed-use condominium project awarded to a private commercial developer, and continuing community controversy over programmatic priorities for computer labs and adult literary efforts in the District’s most distressed neighborhoods, all threaten to overshadow the substantial improvements achieved over the past 18 months in DC Public Library services and facilities.

The architectural design for Tenley, complete with plans, drawings and elevations was highly praised by the community, with only a “Smart Growth” organization expressing vocal admiration of the developer’s counter proposal — said to be for the benefit of an improved schedule for the rehabilitation of one of the library’s adjacent neighbors, Janney Elementary School. Public school advocates, together with those of next door St. Anne’s Catholic school, joined in opposition to the condominium tower proposed for this already crowded upper Wisconsin site and in support for DCPL’s Tenley library proposal.

The dire consequences of the budgetary crisis — announced at the DCPL’s July Board of Trustees’ meeting — included the closing of all DCPL library facilities on Fridays throughout the calendar year and on Sundays during the summer months, and the shuttering of the five kiosk-style community libraries every day of the week. Delays in constructing Tenley as a component of the Mayor’s condominium tower have yet to be established. Work with the Washington area transit authority (WMATA) and engineers over the Metro subway’s impact and that of a high water table on the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw branch library reconstruction schedule is estimated at a delay of only two months.

The continuing controversy over computer labs and literacy efforts are creating a running sore between the Library and advocacy groups, especially those focused on the Benning Road branch library community. Efforts are being made to significantly enhance DCPL outreach, with an emphasis on ANCs, library friends groups, and neighborhood civic associations.

Ironically, these storm clouds are gathering at the same time as Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, with the strong support of the Library’s Board of Trustees and the DC Council and an increasingly engaged and professionally led library staff, have succeeded in resuscitating a decrepit urban library system that was literally on life support — more closed than open, with mechanical systems constantly failing and an almost hostile environment greeting the dwindling number of patrons in many of the lesser-used branches and the central library downtown who were gamely attempting to use reduced services and materials.

The results of these efforts at improvement are plain to see: libraries are now open every day of the week with far better hours; four interim library facilities for the four, long-closed branch libraries are now open and are stunning successes. Defying the predictions of nay-sayers, these four temporary library outposts – Tenley/Friendship, Watha T. Daniel/Shaw, Anacostia, and Benning — are bright, cheerful, well-lighted and staffed, and full of new books, CDs, DVDs, and state-of-the-art computers. Equally successful is the American Library Association-supported and the Library Journal-funded “make-over” of the Southeast Library, with a DCPL comparable “make-over” of the Takoma DC branch library being next. Rehabilitation of the Mt. Pleasant branch library, while still in operation, continues with significant successes, and planning for both the reconstruction and expansion — and an interim facility — for the tragically burned Georgetown Library is on schedule.

Other improvements include new books reviewed in the Washington Post and the New York Times, for example, together with best-sellers and popular “how to” books are appearing on library shelves and display tables in a timely fashion, and more and more library patrons are greeted by proactively helpful staff. Improvements to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library building (MLK) are nothing short of miraculous. Banks of new, well-maintained elevators serve both ends of the cleaned and re-lamped building, modern public restroom facilities have been installed on the second and third floors, and the handsomely renovated Children’s Room and Black Studies Division are serving as models for the rest of MLK. A new adaptive services facility at MLK is presently being constructed to replace the outmoded and previously named Blind and Physically Handicapped Division, and a new first floor Young Adult Library and College Information Center is in final plan revision stage.

DCPL’s capital construction planning, implementation, and reporting — which is shared in written form with the public — is a model of public administration professionalism that could be beneficially adopted by the entire District of Columbia government. Based on open procurements with ambitious but straight-forward bid specifications and factual schedule reporting, inspiring results are highlighted in July’s reporting on the handsome designs for the long-planned, four new branch libraries at Tenley/Friendship, Watha T Daniel/Shaw, Anacostia, and Benning.

In yet another double irony that may come to haunt Mayor Fenty’s direct involvement in DC’s entire public library rehabilitation program, the enthusiastically received design and planning for Tenley/Friendship was abruptly replaced by the Mayor at the last minute with a contract award for a mixed-use public private partnership condominium project on top of the library and adjacent Janney Elementary School. With this decision, Fenty disregarded the overwhelming community opposition from ANC commissioners, civic associations, local historic societies, and Friends of the Library. “Smart Growth” advocates, however, applauded the Mayor’s decision. And the winning private developer, LCOR, Inc. of Pennsylvania, vowed to minimize delays in constructing a re-designed library facility beneath the planned apartment tower. Mayor Fenty asserted in a July 10th press release that “the selection [of LCOR, Inc.] presents the opportunity to provide a tremendous financial benefit to Janney Elementary School by using a portion of the proceeds of the deal to support Janney’s modernization.”

A battalion of Tenley/Friendship community activists and ANC commissioners continued their protest of the Mayor’s decision with eloquent testimony before the Trustees’ July 23rd Library Board meeting, effectively rebutting the Mayor and his planning and economic development staff’s assertion to DCPL Board of Trustees Chair John Hill that the LCOR, Inc. proposal had overwhelming community support. Indeed, no one appeared at the library meeting in support of the LCOR Inc. public-private partnership proposal.

Protests and commentary regarding DCPL’s FY ‘2009 budget shortfalls — announced at that same July 23rd meeting — were quick in coming, with Richard Huffine, President of the District-wide Federation of Friends of the DCPL Public Libraries issuing a call to action that urged citizens to write their respective council members. “The Library System needs your help to appeal to the District Council to find the $2 million that will avoid this. calamity [of closed libraries and reduced hours],” Huffine implored in a July 25th email. Robin Diener, Director of the Ralph Nader-founded DC Library Renaissance Project, followed with a press release headlined “Library Contemplates Closing Fridays In Spite of Continued Record Budget Highs.”

In addition to the loss of 71 budgeted positions, DCPL’s operating budget shortfall from FY ‘2008 of $47,634,898 to that of FY ‘2009’s $46,594,621 does not reflect the increases expected from such factors as necessary mandatory personnel cost increases, rising energy costs, and aggressive preventative maintenance programs in aging buildings and facilities.

Mayor Finds Funds

At a hastily called press event on August 4th at the Capitol View branch library in far Southeast, Mayor Fenty announced that he had found funds in a city debt servicing surplus account which would be used to restore library hours, thus avoiding the necessity to close the libraries one day a week as had initially been announced.