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DC Public Library System-wide Resurgence Having Impact City-Wide; Residents Applauding New and Renovated Buildings

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

Thanks to the DC Council’s capital budget enactments, and successive Mayoral allocations and allotments to the Board of Trustees of the DC Public Library (DCPL) system for the construction, restoration, expansion, and renovation of closed, burned out, and severely dilapidated neighborhood libraries throughout Washington, the DC library system has begun delivering over the past two years sparkling new and expanded neighborhood libraries.

The brand new library buildings in the Shaw (Watha T. Daniel), Tenley/Friendship Heights, Benning (Dorothy I. Height), and Anacostia neighborhoods have previously been the subject of extensive and illustrated reporting by The InTowner. (See PDFs in Current & Back Issues Archive: “Opening of State of the Art New Branch Library in Shaw Acclaimed for its Design and Collections,” Aug. 2010, PDF page 1); “New State-of-the-Art Library in Tenleytown to Open Late January, Jan. 2011, PDF page 1; “City Council Hearing Spotlights New Libraries in Shaw & Elsewhere,” May 2010, PDF pages 4 & 5.)

Also included have been the restoration and expansion of libraries in Petworth, Takoma DC, and Georgetown — with the first two restorations being interior ones and that of Georgetown being both interior restoration and roof replacement following the disastrous fire of four years ago along with an expansion of the rear ground level to provide additional usable space.

Architectural and contractor competitions were held for all   seven of these undertakings, and their finished products of this new and expanded construction, together with new collections and state-of-the-art computers, have been applauded throughout the communities. Several of these new and restored libraries received prestigious design and historic preservation awards, especially for the stunning new Shaw neighborhood library designed by Peter Cook and Associates with the firm of Davis Brody Bond & Aedas and that for the Tenley/Friendship libray designed by the Philip Freelon Group with Washington’s Ronnie McGhee Associates. The results of the Georgetown restoration and the resultant expanded building designed by Martinez and Johnson have been described by library patrons as “breathtaking.”

The second quarter of fiscal year 2012 — the first three months of January, February, and March, 2012 — will see the    completion of three additional new, restored and expanded neighborhood libraries, the first two located east of the Anacostia, the third in Mt. Pleasant. Those in Anacostia — in Ward 7 (Francis A. Gregory) and Ward 8’s Bellevue neighborhood (formerly Washington Highlands and still to be  named) — are both designed by David Adjaye of Wiencek/Adjaye Scott Knudsen with Jair Lynch Development Partners.

Adjaye, the acclaimed architect of libraries built, say some, from the inside out, and deemed “idea stores” and located in working-class London neighborhoods, was selected on the basis of an extensive competition, one requiring plans and models from the competition finalists, in association with the Freelon Adjaye Bond Smith Group, to be the lead design architect for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, scheduled to be built on the National Mall close to the Washington Monument.

Plans, designs, and an initial walk-through with the architect of the first of these two new branch libraries, both nearly completed and both architecturally leading-edge structures, were enthusiastically — even excitingly — described in informal remarks by DCPL Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper to the Library Trustees’ November, 2011 quarterly board meeting.

Phase two of the third neighborhood library nearing completion is the Mt. Pleasant renovation, restoration, and expansion project, designed by Core Architects’ Dale Stewart in association with Smoot Construction; it is currently underway and was reported on by the Library’s Director of Capital Construction Jeff Bonvechio at the November trustees meeting. Its interior work, reported Bonvechio, “will consist of total upgrade and modernization of all mechanical equipment as well as provide additional and functional library program space.”

This historic Carnegie branch library building, together with a rear extension building, sits on 16th and Lamont Streets — the boundary between Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights, both in Ward 1 and both of which communities use this branch library, it being the ward’s only neighborhood library. (For our earlier report see “Ambitious Expansion Plans for Library in Mt. Pleasant Roils Community; Many Object to Design and Question Programs,” Oct. 2009, PDF page 1 avail. In Current & Back Issues Archive.)

Three smaller, additional library facilities have been completed during the past two years. These include a 5,000 square-foot storefront library replacing the Parklands/Turner kiosk — and keeping the same name. This first additional new facility — the Parklands/Turner “storefront library — is similar in size, scope, computers, and collections to the recent Georgetown and Tenley/Friendship interim libraries,” reported Bonvechio. The second and third of these additional libraries are both what are called co-location facilities, the first of these  being a library facility co-located with facilities of the Department of Parks and Recreation; these two combined facilities, Deanwood Community Center, are named for their surrounding neighborhood. The other co-located 6,500 square-foot library facility is called Northwest One and is combined with the DC Public Schools’  Walker Jones School; it replaces the much smaller nearby Sursum Corda kiosk.

Another neighborhood library undergoing renovation and restoration is Northeast in Ward 6. Phase One of the project, exterior restoration, was substantially completed in May, 2010. This involved improvements to its historic windows and doors, together with security lighting, masonry restoration, landscaping and signage. Interior renovation and restoration awaits selection of a contractor from the five design/build proposals received by DCPL. This two-phased project is similar to the phased approaches used for the Petworth and Mt. Pleasant projects.

Capital improvements to the downtown central library building, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library (MLK), are continuing. In its report to the trustees at the November meeting, the DCPL noted its lack of funding for a total renovation and its consequent decision to “strategically choose projects that improve services and modernize the space while being respectful of the historic nature of the building” — the early 1970s Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed structure was designated a National Historic Landmark in April of 2007.

Making possible the “strategically” chosen projects is the allotment of $2.9 million in the Mayor’s fiscal year 2012 capital budget to create a new Business Science and Technology Division, including the localization of 100 public access computers on the first floor of MLK — a part of the building that is included in the historic landmark designation — and to redesign space in the little used Level A below for flexible use by the Enhanced Business Information Center (eBIC), library programming, the University of the District of Columbia, and the DC Community College, as well as by community groups.

Consideration of a full renovation of the central library building continues. While dramatic improvements have been made in the operational maintenance of building systems and services, including a sparkling relamping and marble floor polishing of the great hall and the renovation of elevators and upper floor restrooms and that of several reference divisions, significantly improving the children’s room, Black Studies and Adaptive Services divisions, and a New Teen Spot and College Information Center designed by Sorg Associates, the building, which was completed in 1972 and never renovated, is desperately in need of a major, comprehensive renovation and restoration.

DCPL, using $120,000 of its capital improvement budget funds, together with the Downtown Business Improvement District, recently engaged the Urban Land Institute to assemble an advisory panel of outside experts to interview 70 prominent and representative Washington stakeholders on their concerns and opinions regarding MLK — its location, size, condition, and appropriateness for a library of the future. A preliminary report, available both on the Urban Land Institute’s website (http://tinyurl.com/bodom2x) was presented to an extremely well attended audience in the MLK building’s great hall on November 18, 2011.

To this reporter, the bottom line seemed to be one of recommending the renovation and restoration of MLK as a mixed-use building, retaining MLK for the downtown central library function at the present, 9th and G Streets location, and adding two floors to the building’s present four above-ground floors, with an outdoor terrace around the first of these two additional floors, and reserving 225,000 to 250,000 square feet of the present 440,000 square feet for the library’s collections, programs, and services with the remainder, plus the new square footage from the additional floors, being reserved for revenue generating use. Light wells through the four central cores of the building and an opening of the building’s dark and forbidding stairways was also proposed. The Urban Land Institute’s final report and recommendations will be released in 60 days.

The elephant in the room during all this deliberation was, and is, the continuing shortfall in DCPL’s annual operating budget. There remains on the part of library administrators and staff, the Board of Trustees, the District’s indefatigable library activists, and library patrons generally a profound concern for the adverse effects of the cumulative cuts over the past four years in the library’s operational budget and the dire consequence of these cuts on levels of staff, hours of service, the maintenance of the basic collections, information technology capabilities, and the recruitment and training of library staff.

Dramatic and outstanding improvements in the public library system and services, together with the recently constructed new buildings and facilities under DCPL’s present administrative leadership and board of trustees — thanks to the funding provided in the District’s capital budget by the city council and successive Mayoral administrations — has not been matched by requisite increases in the operating budget. On the contrary, that budget has been slashed in at least four successive annual DC operational budgets and their respective supplements. The consequence is the irony of beautiful new libraries and library facilities on short hours, open only two nights a week and on those nights opening three-and-a-half hours late, and closed all day Sundays, except for four hours in the afternoon at MLK.

Many of these new library buildings and facilities are in parts of the District desperately in need of publicly accessible library materials and electronic information access. The DC public library is the vital backstop for those residents who cannot afford computers and telecommunication access to the internet. The public library has traditionally been the treasure house for those without home libraries and those in need of a helpful librarian. Restrictive hours, typically 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., further discriminate against those working the same daytime hours in which the libraries are open, to say nothing of being open only eight hours over the weekend, except for MLK’s four hours on Sunday none being open on Friday evenings — and this in the nation’s capital.