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Disposition or Retention of MLK Main Library Building Subject of In-Depth Report to Guide DC Library Trustees

By Anthony L. Harvey

Accompanying images can be viewed in the current issue PDF

In a report prepared by the Urban Land Institute and released on March 5, 2012 by the DC Public Library administration (DCPL) containing 20 crisply and concisely written and well-illustrated pages, a fundamental benchmark was established for future consideration of the fate of the District’s historic landmark central library building at 9th and G Streets, NW, which houses the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library (MLK).

DCPL’s Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper welcomed the Institute’s report and expressed her hope that it would represent the beginning of a process by which the Library’s Board of Trustees, the DC Council, and the city’s Mayor would ultimately reach a decision on how best to use — or leverage the use of — the strategically located, 40-year-old historic modernist structure designed by world-renowned architect Mies van der Rohe in helping to secure the Library’s goal of creating an up-to-date downtown library for the 21st century.

The importance and economic value of the MLK library as a civic asset and the key role this asset plays in the on-going provision of a dramatically revitalized DC public library system and its rich range of services warrants a close examination of the Urban Land Institute’s  valuable summary report, substantial portions of which are quoted here.


“In the spring of 2011, DCPL asked the Urban Land Institute to conduct an Advisory Services panel on the disposition of the MLK Memorial Library building. The panel was held in the second week of November 2011. The scope of the panel’s work centered on the following concept: “What is the best value for the District for reuse or redevelopment of the MLK central library building?” The panel was asked by the Library to evaluate the following questions:

“Where is there 225,000 gross square feet in the downtown or Chinatown area for a new MLK Library?

“Where is there 100,000 gross square feet for library administrative space and a specialized children’s library east of the Anacostia River (Metro accessible)?

[The 225,000 plus 100,000 gross square feet are equal to the approximately 340,000 gross square feet now occupied by the Library in the MLK Memorial Library building.]

“Who are the likely buyers? [and]

“What is the potential for net revenue if the existing MLK Library building is leased or sold for each scenario considered?”

Following a week — described by the panel as “intense” — of interviews, site tours, and discussion, the panel considered development and redevelopment scenarios as follows:

“1. Rehabilitate the existing building (single user; library);

“2. Establish a co-tenancy in the existing building (multiple users; (library and other tenants); and

“3. Move the library to a new facility, using the sale or lease revenue of the existing building to fund a portion of the costs of a new building and site acquisition.

“The [panel’s] fundamental assumptions for each scenario are that (a) downtown D.C. will always have an MLK Library; (b) the library needs 225,000 square feet of space; and (c) regardless of scenario, additional public resources (funds) will be required. The panel did not recommend one scenario over another. However, rehabilitating the existing building will require a new funding source (scenario 1) because of the substantial renovation costs, and scenario 1 was deemed not feasible.”

Continuing, the panel noted that “the MLK Library sits in the heart of downtown’s Penn Quarter and is a location unrivaled relative to Metro transit access, proximity to entertainment and cultural institutions, and quality of neighboring land uses.

“The high degree of marketability of the local neighborhood is attracting significant investment and capital improvements to neighboring and nearby land uses. Development or adaptive use projects underway or recently completed include the following:

“CityCenter DC, $700 million development on the former Convention Center site;

“Skanska, recently completed $85 million development of an office and church building immediately to the west of the library site;

“MRP, planning a new, Gensler-designed office building across G Street [to replace the YWCA building]; and

“Mather Studios, adaptive use across G Street into loft and artist space in 2002.”

Furthermore, “with fewer than 15 sites remaining in the Downtown BID area, opportunities for additional office, retail, and residential space are limited. The desirability of the Penn Quarter as a commercial address, combined with scarce opportunities for new space, generates significant market value for potential alternative uses in the MLK Memorial Library. Although a variety of uses are marketable, the panel concludes that should alternative reuse of portions of the library be pursued, conversion into office space generates the greatest financial return for the DCPL.”

Scenario 1

Rehabilitation of Existing Building for the Exclusive Use of the MLK Library

“The MLK Library is housed in a building that shows tremendous wear after 40 years of use. The building’s infrastructure and equipment are original for the most part and in need of replacement. The building’s systems are inefficient, and the building lacks an ideal environment for a library visitor. Capital resources have been difficult to obtain, and the cost of any major work on the building is very high, in part because of the presence of asbestos. As a result, the library has suffered from many years of neglect and deferred maintenance. A wholesale rehabilitation is required for the library to succeed in its current edifice. Given the landmark status, the rehabilitation is complicated by the need to conform to historic preservation guidelines and retain the character of the original Mies design.

“The rehabilitation of the existing facility would result in keeping the MLK Library at its known and accepted location. The location has been cited by many of those interviewed as “Main and Main.” Its proximity to transit, entertainment, retail, and adjacent employment centers is unparalleled, and the fact that it is already a city asset negates the need for any additional acquisition costs. The building itself is a significant architectural jewel, which can more than accommodate a 21st-century ‘library of the future.’

“However, according to earlier studies provided to the panel, the cost of the appropriate level of rehabilitation would exceed $200 million and would require additional consideration for expenses related to relocation and storage, two moves, and an interim library lease. Furthermore, the library simply does not need all of the building’s space. For these reasons, the panel believes that keeping the library as the building’s sole occupant is not feasible.”

Scenario 2

Shared Occupancy of the Existing Building

“A second and more feasible alternative for the renovation and enhancement of the MLK Library is the rental of a portion of the building to another tenant. This scenario would require several major building modernization endeavors, including the following:

“Construction of a separate ground-floor entrance lobby on the northeast side of the building.

“Construction of two light wells (courtyards) in the middle of the building, allowing daylight for both library space and new tenant space to meet marketable space needs for downtown offices.

“Refurbishment of the lower levels, including light wells and skylights to make the gallery on the basement level an inviting and usable space.

“Refurbishment of the remaining floors to accommodate a new tenant and to implement the D.C. library of the future.”

Additional Floors Recommended for the Landmarked MLK Library Building

“Construction of two additional floors to increase usable and leasable space for the library and tenant space, respectively. Depending on landmark and historical requirements new floors can be achieved either by extruding the existing outer curtain wall or by stepping back the new floors from the existing curtain wall. The advantage of the first option is that more space is created, thus allowing more space for library and tenant uses. The advantage of the second option is creation of usable terrace space. Two important points arise in this regard:

“ The original Mies design for the building will accommodate at least two additional floors. Additional analysis will be necessary to confirm these findings, and the extruded or stepped-back options will need to be considered in light of the building’s landmark status.

“ The entire concept of International style architecture is flexibility within a defined outer envelope.

“New construction in the form of additional floors, light wells, and separate lobbies conforms to the Mies’ ‘universal building’ philosophy emphasizing flexibility of use throughout a building’s lifetime.

“The panel strongly believes that if Mies were alive today he would approve of such changes. This option is financially the most viable because rental revenues could fund the renovation of the existing structure, achieving the long-term goals of the library. The DCPL has determined that without administration and other centralized services, the new downtown central library will require approximately 225,000 gross square feet, substantially less than it currently occupies.

“Another derivative of this scenario could be a lease/leaseback financing approach, wherein the District would lease the entire building to a for-profit redeveloper for a period of approximately 20 years. The redeveloper would in turn finance the substantial rehabilitation of the structure according to the Secretary of [the U.S. Department of the] Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Buildings. In this financing structure, the developer would be able to claim historic tax credits against federal tax liability. The District would lease approximately 225,000 square feet of the building from the redeveloper. Commercial interests would occupy the remaining space. At the end of the lease term, the entire building would be owned outright by the District, which would continue to realize rental income from the portion of the building leased to commercial interests.

“Given the historic preservation sensitivities, the library could be situated on level A, most of the first and second floors, and a portion of the third floor, while the new tenant or tenants would occupy the remainder of the third floor and all of the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors. The library would have 225,000 square feet, and the new tenant would have between 165,000 and 182,000 square feet. Building improvements resulting in the provision of light to all of the floors and improvements to the building systems, elevators, and infrastructure would be undertaken.

“At current rental rates, tenant income could generate $4.1 million to $5.5 million annually and could be used to fund or finance a portion of the badly needed renovations. A shared occupancy alternative allows the correct sizing of the library while retaining the existing site. Hence, the MLK Library would remain at its existing site with all of the site benefits of location, transit proximity, and landmark status. Also, a new occupant and substantive building renovations allow a mental repositioning of the library functions and programs from the perspective of the library users. Again, this scenario needs to be tempered with the understanding that rehabilitation will cost $200 to $250 per square foot.”

Scenario 3

Relocating MLK Library to an Existing Building or Constructing a New One

“The third scenario provides the city and the DCPL an opportunity to create a new, iconic library of the future by building new or moving to a new, completely renovated facility. This scenario permits the original building to be used for either a single tenant or multiple tenants and would include the same renovations as scenario 2, such as construction of additional floors to increase leasable area and light wells to provide daylight in the middle of the building, but it maintains the first floor and outer shell to preserve those portions of the building subject to landmark status. From an economic perspective, this alternative is the most viable because the proceeds from the sale or lease of the existing building would generate substantial proceeds to be used for the construction of a new library.

“The DCPL would have the flexibility to work with the community to design a new or renovated facility that is specific to the library’s future functions, efficiency, and program and community needs — a facility that would include modern information technology infrastructure that will better meet the changing needs of the current and future library user. The ground lease may be a preferred mechanism in this scenario to alleviate reticence about the permanent disposition of a city asset. Additional costs may result from relocation expenses, and given the rapid build out of downtown D.C., identifying available sites may present challenges. As noted in the figure illustrating sales value, a minimum of about $58.8 million [for a building with two additional, stepped back floors at $250 per square foot], and possibly more [$94.047 million for two additional floors not set back at $300. per square foot], can be garnered through a long-term ground lease or sale of the existing building.”

The Urban Land Institute panel concluded its report with a set of suggested implementation strategies, one for the shared occupancy option, the second for that of the ground lease or sale option. Regardless of the option chosen — and Chief Librarian Cooper noted in conversation with The InTowner that other options might come forth during further consideration by stakeholders and decision makers on this matter — the Institute stressed that “implementation of one of the scenarios outlined in this report will require entrepreneurial skill, public leadership, and market support. The [Institute’s] panelists understand the strong undercurrent of skepticism and doubt from the broader community about the right thing to do at the MLK Library. [And skeptics] . . . were blunt with their criticism. The panel feels it is imperative that DCPL and the city move forward to set clear goals and time frames for making a decision about the future building. A sense of urgency is important in every aspect of implementation.”

The panel further noted that a decision will require completing a more thorough market analysis and the requisite engineering analysis of the outlined scenarios, confirming the ability of the building to accommodate additional floors. It will also require a more detailed analysis of rehabilitation costs, achievable lease and sale rates, and availability of nearby space to accommodate a new library in the event scenario 3 is chosen.

Chief Librarian Cooper echoed these expressions for the need of additional analysis before meetings with community groups and the public can take place; “I will be working closely with [Ward 6] Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the Council’s library, parks and recreation, historic preservation, and office of planning committee on these necessary town hall meetings and community forums,” stated Cooper during her telephone interview with The InTowner, noting that “Chairman Wells is already working on the plans for these events.” And Cooper stressed that these meetings and forums always work best when the participants are offered alternatives.

Editor’s Note: For complete background on this complex story, see the page 1 InTowner reports from 2006 and 2007 (all of which are available in the Current & Back Issues Archive at “Historic Modernist MLK Library Bldg. Fate, Relocation Plan Angers Majority of Residents Attending Mayor’s Meeting” (May 2006); “Mayor’s Plan for New Central Library to Replace Existing MLK Building Continues in Limbo; No Immediate Action Expected” (July 2006); “Mayor’s Plan for New Central Library to Replace Existing MLK Building Appears Close to Possible Decision in November” (November 2006); “Last-Minute Attempt to Salvage Mayor’s Plan for New Central Library Dealt Blow But Proponents Vow to Renew Efforts in 2007 — Surrounding Site Development Proceeding on Schedule” (December 2006); DC’s Main Library Building Given Landmark Protection — Improvements Already Seen (July 2007).