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Mt. Pleasant Branch Library Expansion and Site Planning Actively Involving Affected Residents

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

The vibrancy of Washington’s multi-cultural Mt. Pleasant community was in full force and fully matched by passionate expressions of concern at a standing room only town hall meeting at the historic, Carnegie-funded Mt. Pleasant Public Library’s fourth public design meeting on March 26. These concerns delved far deeper than just design issues, moving into program areas and public meeting rooms, Ward 1-wide library service coverage, and underlying neighborhood fire safety and emergency vehicular access to apartment buildings and row houses adjacent to the library at Lamont and 16th Streets and south toward Harvard and Mt. Pleasant Streets.

This remarkably productive meeting was deftly organized and led by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and DC Public Library (DCPL) Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper. Calmly and concisely, Councilmember Graham, assisted by Mt. Pleasant ANC Commissioner Gregg Edwards, whose single member district encompasses the library, outlined the community’s chief concerns. These include a more intensive involvement of the community in library design and program decisions, the impact on fire safety and EMS access, and the wisdom of expanding the library building — the only branch library in all of Ward 1 — while other neighborhoods in the ward have no library services within walking distance.

Ginnie Cooper, assisted by DCPL capital projects staff and the library’s architects, presented a dramatically revised — and warmly well-received — design concept for the renovation and expansion of the Mt. Pleasant library facility. Cooper pointedly commended community inputs for having improved the original design. In place of a side yard, glass cube expansion on the Lamont Street side of the building, DCPL’s revised plan envisions a rear extension with an ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) qualifying entrance ramp on the library’s 16th Street side; this would obviate the need for the switch-back ADA entrance for the front of the building. In place of the glass cube — derisively referred to in the neighborhood as the “ice cube” — DCPL presented a plan for an outdoor garden-style reading space.

Members of Historic Mt. Pleasant, led by Fay Armstrong, reacted positively to the revised design, especially to the elimination of the Lamont Street switch-back, the restoration of the grade level portion of the front façade of the 1920s-built structure, and the retention and restoration of the building’s grand front steps and the side stairway that leads directly to the second floor children’s room. Further exploration of DCPL’s proposed rear rather than side expansion — including the necessary elimination of the enclosed, rear yard wooden sun porch — an add-on to the back of the building — was enthusiastically endorsed by members of all factions in attendance.

Longtime ANC Commissioner Jack McKay joined the lively discussion with an eloquent plea for sticking to an earlier plan that called for renovation of the existing library without any expansion; this, argued McKay, would free up funds for storefront, “mini-libraries” in other Ward 1 neighborhoods desperate for library facilities of any kind that are within walking distance. Immediate neighbor Evelyn Brewster gave passionate witness to the continuing fire safety and EMS issues relative to the present site notwithstanding the revised building plans, reminding the audience of the tragic aftermath of the recent Deauville Apartments fire and its destruction of the building and extensive damage to the church behind it. Other neighbors added their voices, noting the absence of alleys or intersecting driveways along the entire stretch between the library on Lamont and the Renaissance Apartments at Harvard — effectively blocking any internal fire fighting and EMS access to such a densely inhabited residential block.

Chief Librarian Cooper and staff members responded directly to these concerns, reporting that the DCPL Board of Trustees had recently directed the library staff to make a comprehensive, District-wide study of the distribution of library services, and that fire and EMS officials had signed off on the adequacy and code compliance of the library’s design plans.

Chris Otten, Adams Morgan ANC Commissioner, who is also Ralph Nader’s Library Renaissance Project’s Community Outreach Coordinator and a driving force behind the Ward One Library Coalition, renewed the Coalition’s plea for a more meaningful involvement of the community in DCPL design and program plans, adding a primary concern that such “an improved process not be unwieldy and [that it] provide a quick way to come to a resolution that appeals to as broad array of residents as possible.”

Councilmember Graham orchestrated a productive close to the meeting by asking for expressions of proposed next steps. Fire safety concerns elicited the most immediate response and Graham called for a town hall meeting in April with the Fire Chief and the Fire Marshal. Chief Librarian Cooper responded with DCPL’s expectation of appearing with its revised plans before the federal Fine Arts Commission in May. ANC Commissioner Edwards called for a joint, open meeting between the Mt. Pleasant ANC and DCPL and its architects. No schedule for such a meeting was established.

Among the many interesting ideas offered at this extremely civil public meeting was a spontaneous suggestion from a member of the audience that the enclosed sun porch be saved and moved from the rear yard at the back of the building and installed as a gazebo in the proposed outdoor side garden. Enthusiastically received, an immediate call was made for a prospective patron or donors to pay for such a project.