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City Council Hearing Spotlights New Libraries in Shaw & Elsewhere; Mt. Pleasant Controversy Aired

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.]

A relatively placid DC Public Library (DCPL) budget hearing on May 3, 2010 — only 14 of 44 public witness slated to testify before DC Council Committee Chair Harry (“Tommy”) Thomas’ Libraries, Parks and Recreation Committee appeared — was dramatically interrupted when Ward 8 ANC Commissioner Cardell Shelton electrified the proceedings with an angry blast at his absent DC Council and library committee member Marion Barry and an extension of his angry words in the direction of Chairman Thomas’ staff before launching a passionate plea for priority attention being placed by DC Council members on the need for vocational training and occupational opportunities for young people and returning veterans who reside in Wards 7 and 8, both east of the Anacostia River. Shelton, a still working, vigorous 85 year old senior, listed half-a-dozen job training areas in desperate, immediate need and called on libraries as well as parks and recreation resources to provide facilities for such — not just “buildings that stand there.”

Chairman Thomas diplomatically reminded Commissioner Shelton that DCPL plans for the new Ward 8 Washington Highlands branch library building call for flexible, swing spaces and community meeting rooms; it is anticipated that the uses of these spaces will reflect expressed community needs and desires in conjunction with DCPL operational resources.

Washington Highlands and Ward 1’s Mt. Pleasant branch libraries were the only subjects of specific branch library criticism. Silence or enthusiastic praise from public witnesses enveloped the other two-dozen DCPL library facilities. Testimony bitterly critical of DCPL administration and its pro-bono citizen Library Board of Trustees from Robin Diener and Chris Otten of the Ralph Nader Library Renaissance Project was countered by Chairman Thomas, especially when gently chiding Otten, who also serves as an Adams Morgan ANC commissioner, for refusing to take credit for the Nader project’s constructive contributions to DCPL’s already strikingly successful District-wide library rebuilding and modernization program.

The Ward 2 Watha T. Daniel/Shaw branch library at 7th Street and Rhode Island Avenue, scheduled to open in handsome, brand new quarters in July, 2010, is a case in point. Community-desired glass panel walls, a vegetative green roof, flexible study and meeting rooms, and improved security plans are all at least partly, if not totally, reflective of community recommendations — which were further articulated and coordinated by the Nader library project.

The new building is replacing the much-reviled, nearly windowless 1970s Brutalist-style structure in favor of an open and welcoming library building to meet today’s needs. (For images showing the architect’s rendering depicting how the new building’s exterior will appear along with a photo of the old building prior to its demolition, see “Shaw and Mt. Vernon Neighborhoods Finally to See Actual Ground-breaking for Long-Awaited, New Watha T. Daniel Branch Library Building,” Sep., 2008, page 1; available in the PDF at http://tinyurl.com/2aerals.

So, too, the controversy surrounding plans that are underway to renovate and expand the facilities of Mt. Pleasant’s original 1925 Carnegie branch library building at Lamont and 16th Streets. Summits, surveys, strenuous community and ANC meetings and hearings and considerations by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and the Fine Arts Commission, together with staff review and National Capital Planning Commission review have all taken place. Recommendations from the Fine Arts Commission and the HPRB have been incorporated into the design, now known as “Design G,” superseding six previous designs and incorporating at least a fourth version of a new, American With Distabilities Act (ADA) conforming access ramp leading to a single, glass “hyphen” connecting structure between the historic structure and the relatively small two-story rear addition. This is planned to be the single main entrance to the library; it would be used by both handicapped and non-handicapped patrons.

(For background, see “Mt. Pleasant Branch Library Expansion and Site Planning Actively Involving Affected Residents;” Apr. 2009, page 1 and “Ambitious Expansion Plans for Library in Mt. Pleasant Roils Community; Many Object to Design and Question Programs,” Oct. 2009, page 1, both available in the Current & Back Issues Archive at http://tinyurl.com/2v4repy.

In a rare coming together of usually competing neighborhood antagonists, Historic Mt. Pleasant, the Mt. Pleasant ANC, and adjacent apartment building residents and their supporters, including the Kalorama Citizens Association, have continued to oppose DCPL’s new library plans.

A first, and powerfully stated reason, is the fear engendered by the unsuccessful efforts by the DC fire department on the night of March 12, 2008 to control the fire at the Deauville apartment building on Mt. Pleasant Street resulting in the catastrophic destruction of that structure — leaving only portions of the outer walls – along with the fire, smoke, and water damage to the church building behind the Deauville facing 16th Street. The church building is said to be now ruined.

Given the lack of an alley or courtyard in the long triangular space stretching several blocks from Lamont to Irving Streets and bounded by 16th and Mt. Pleasant Streets, the ANC and nearby residents, as well as the Nader library project, have seized on the occasion of the library’s planned expansion to plead for the use of the site’s rear and side yards for fire lanes that might provide fire and EMS vehicles with better access to the rears of nearby buildings. Historic Mt. Pleasant wants little or no expansion; rather, it supports an historic restoration program like that of DCPL’s widely heralded Takoma Park historic restoration — this in another of the three Carnegie-funded DC branch library buildings constructed in the early part of the last century.

The Library Renaissance Project and its District Dynamos have joined the fray, attempting to further galvanize the community in opposition to DCPL’s Mt. Pleasant library plans, and are working with the ANCs of Adams Morgan and Mt. Pleasant in the production of coordinated, $3,000 consultant studies challenging DCPL’s ADA access plans, its overall design, and its asserted non-responsiveness to fire safety issues.

The Adams Morgan consultant’s harshly negative findings regarding these issues were immediately challenged by the DCPL administration; the alleged ADA compliance failures were rebutted by Core Architectural Services, DCPL’s design contractor for the Mt. Pleasant library restoration, renovation, and expansion project and the report of the Core findings was released to the public. Mt. Pleasant ANC Commissioner Gregg Edwards, who currently chairs the commission, eloquently and with lawyerly precision expressed to Chairman Thomas his continuing outrage at what he perceives to be DCPL and other agencies flouting of the District’s public laws stipulating the requirement that “great weight” be given to ANC resolutions — in this matter, 13 resolutions with 183 particularities.

Chairman Thomas again patiently reminded these three hostile witnesses that he is in constant communication with Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham regarding Mt. Pleasant library plans and with Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry concerning Washington Highlands — both wards are the only ones across the city that have just a single library to serve all of their residents.

Ironically, the real budget issues affecting DCPL are the reductions in appropriations spelled out in the Mayor’s proposed 2011 budget and the negative affects these budget cuts would have an already reduced staffing, hours of operations, and services in an urban library system that is only now being brought back from the dead through the indefatigable efforts of DCPL administrators and staff led by Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper and the leadership provided by the Library’s Board of Trustees.

Initial fruits of their labors include the restoration of services, collections, and facilities at the Martin Luther King, Jr. main library; the opening of two, stunningly attractive new modernist branch library buildings in Southeast — chock full of new books, DVDs, CDs, and state-of-the-art computers (both PCs and Macs) –- The Benning branch on Benning Road near Minnesota Avenue and the Anacostia branch at Good Hope Road and 18th Street. Also receiving positive community responses have been the interim libraries, both modular and storefront, provided during constructing the new buildings for Watha Daniel, Tenley in Friendship Heights, Benning and Anacostia, along with those serving users of the burned-out Georgetown library, responses to Takoma Park’s restoration, and  the makeover of the Southeast branch building and site near Eastern Market.

Other equally ambitious — large and small — DCPL projects are moving toward completion. All of them have materially benefited from the efforts of increasingly informed community residents, ANCs, and neighborhood activists. Chairman Thomas concluded his lengthy one-day hearing by affirming his continuing efforts to restore current 2010 budget cuts and those being proposed for 2011 and echoed Chief Librarian Cooper’s expression of DCPL and its Board of Trustees priorities of keeping libraries open as much as possible, minimizing any adverse budget affects on collections and services, and completing DCPL’s current library restoration and new building construction projects, whereupon DC could then look at gaps and inadequacies in current service areas.