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Renovated MLK Central Library to be for Library Purpose Only; Trustees Nix Plan Calling for Extra Commercial Use Floors

 Accompanying images can be viewed in the February 2015 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

In a bold and decisive unanimous vote at its January 2015 quarterly public meeting, the Trustees of the DC Public Library (DCPL) adopted a resolution supporting a design approach to the renovation and expansion of the four-story Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library (MLK) that calls for a stand alone library building with a fifth floor addition filled with library and directly related cultural programs and activities.

Friends of the MLK Library and DCPL’s own advisory committee members who were present at the January meeting were taken aback by the unexpected announcement of the resolution and by the absence of any proffered details regarding the financial analysis and programmatic projections supporting such a decision. These library activists nonetheless expressed pleasure at the Trustees move, reversing as it did the long-standing position of a previous library administration that the building’s existing four floors provided more floor space than required by present and future library programs.

Ironically, it has been the unceasing actions over the past 10 years of vocal and organized library activists that has saved the strategically located central library site and its historic Mies van der Rohe stark and distinctive modernist structure at 9th and G Streets, NW, from a previous mayor’s recommended wrecking ball and the proposed subsequent movement of the MLK ibrary into a mixed-use office or residential building in downtown DC’s new upscale City Center, as well as by the “wait and see” attitude of that era’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) that left the building undesignated as an historic landmark and thus subject to demolition and redevelopment.

A press release from the DCPL’s media relations officer George Williams, issued immediately following the Trustees January 28th meeting, summarized the Board’s rationale, noting that its recommendation for a fifth-floor addition approach instead of a three-story, mixed-use addition was arrived at after further consideration of “the requirements for a modern library, factoring in community feedback and reviewing the cost-benefit analysis of adding three new floors” — an earlier recommended alternative that reflected a now outdated library estimate that only 250,000 square feet were needed for a reconstituted MLK central library, the notion being that by adding three floors in a public/private partnership that sold the Library’s air rights would generate the funds for renovation of the building’s remaining floors.

“After months of listening and learning, the Board had several goals,” Gregory M. McCarthy, president of the DCPL board of trustees stated at its Jsnuary meeting. “First and foremost, it was essential to make possible additional space for programming in a spectacular central library. We also wanted to create a hub for educational, cultural and civic expression for the whole city and we wanted contribute to the social and economic activation around MLK in downtown.  The concept we’re advancing does all of that.”

Continuing, the library’s press release referred to the DCPL’s December 2014 revision of estimates for space needs as having been arrived at from a revision of its program in order “to incorporate new library uses and to include ideas from more than 3,000 District residents . . . [concluding that] . . .the new program will require the entire 400,000 square foot building plus a fifth-floor addition” and that the District Government has committed $208 million in its capital budget over the current and three subsequent fiscal years. This, it was asserted, is “enough to cover the cost of the modernized library with the fifth floor addition the Library Board supports in its resolution.”

After a full page discussion of new and prospectively expanded library programs, the library’s press release provided live links to three lengthy and fascinatingly analytical documents underpinning the Library Trustees and Library Administration’s recommendations — these being created by national known real estate advisory services such as the CBRE Group and the architectural and engineering consulting firm GDG — overseen by [Jair] Lynch Development Advisors, LLC.

An executive summary was included. Its analytical findings fully support the Board’s decisions, noting in its first conclusion that the Library needs the full building for its program. “In 2012, the initial programming suggested the library could be less than 50% of an expanded building with an addition and thus several options were investigated from a financial, programmatic and ownership framework. In 2014, DCPL confirmed it needs 100% of the existing building and a small fifth floor addition totaling approximately 50,000 SF to become a 21st Century library of the future.”

Secondly, it found that “the net positive financial benefits of selling the air rights for floors 6, 7, and 8 would likely be less than 10-15% of the total costs to renovate the library based on size, location, entitlements with Federal Government, and the complexities of a local/public private process that will include widely accepted and laudable public policy goals such as affordable housing.”

Continuing, it noted that “the net positive programmatic benefits of co-locating a private use in an addition on floors 6, 7 and 8 are limited as office or residential uses likely will not significantly increase patronage and customer usage, which is a primary goal of a downtown central library. In addition, DCPL will have to consider the complexities of ownership in a mixed use building in which the public use will be more two thirds of the potential space.”

Major time delays would occur, it observed, and “an addition on floors 6, 7, and 8 results in a significant alteration of the existing historic structure as well as a time consuming procurement and negotiation with a private developer. This will add complexity to the existing review entitlements such as the Historic Preservation Review Board but will also add a legal proceeding with the Mayor’s Agent to determine if the historic structure can be altered to accommodate an addition. Please, note the Mayor’s Agent process would be subject to the appeal by any party to the District Court of Appeals.”

A significant budget risk occurs with time delays. “The existing funding of $208 MM from the District Capital Budget will likely fund the main library but could be jeopardized with an extended process.”

Moreover, such an addition of three floors, the analysis argues, would eliminate the tax credit option. And, as further argued, “Historic Tax Credits are a viable option and could raise 10 – 15% of total capital if the library elects to pursue a redevelopment approach that is more aligned with the preservation of the historic structure and thus does not propose an addition on floors 6, 7 and 8.”

Furthermore, it is stated in the summary that floors 6, 7, 8 are not required for the creation of an exciting program. “DCPL will emphasize first improving existing library services and expanding programmatic partnerships with non-profits and for profits organizations to increase patronage and enhance the customer experience. To that end, DCPL will design exciting space from the arrival at 9th and G Streets to the rooftop garden on the 5th floor that will allow the program come alive and make the MLK library a premier destination downtown.”

The summary concluded with a powerful statement on the primary importance of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library legacy. The summary also makes clear that “DCPL that it will respect and honor the historical significance of the building and the legacy of its namesake Martin Luther King Jr. by allowing the public components of the project to exist throughout the building.”

Addendum C to the analytical document puts to rest the speculation about the number of floors contemplated by the designers of the building, and the number of floors that could be supported by the present built structure. After observing that “the library building has been found to be generally structurally sound and in good condition but numerous water related defects were observed during the inspection,” the study includes findings and recommendations to “avoid further damage . . . [and further observes that] . . . according to available information the initial building design included a 150 psf allowance for an additional library floor. The combined geotechnical and structural evaluation conclude that two additional floors of apartments and/or offices may possibly be added without any modification of foundations as long as the library’s fourth floor continues to be used for offices and that the final loading does not exceed the initial design load. If future loads were to exceed the maximum design column loads, new piles and structural modifications will be required to support the additional loads.”

Concerned citizens and students of the MLK modernization saga — as well as students of the weeds of Washington budgetary, regulatory, demographic, and analytical pathways will find it rewarding to read and absorb these fascinating and data-rich appendices. They are full of facts and plainly stated conclusions with real examples of comparable phenomena. The rich statistical and financial data — specific to Washington and the metropolitan area — are current and clearly presented.

The Historic Preservation Wrinkle

The weeds of Washington’s approving and historic preservation venues are equally fascinating — for very different reasons. After scrambling to get ahead of the preservation process, the Director of the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) and the State Historic Preservation Officer — two separate statutory positions but both occupied by the same person, David Maloney — have taken hard-line and rigid positions on the age-old question of what is permissible in adaptive re-use proposals for historic landmark structures — decidedly different from a flexible Miesian approach — one that calls for the revision of existing building programs when times change and needs become different.

As State Historic Preservation Officer, Maloney issued a written statement to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) on December 3, 2014, asserting that all alternative solutions to the MLK modernization proposal brought forward by DCPLand its architects would have adverse affects on that historic structure — other than the alternative to do nothing. He further asserted that, as a general principle for the MLK modernization design process, “rather than thinking of this project as an opportunity for transformative design, the team should focus on ways to meet Secretary of the Interior’s standards while accomplishing the Library’s goals.”

Further, Maloney, in his Historic Preservation Office role as co-author of the staff report on MLK modernization, specifically directed the project principals to adhere to the Design Guidelines for the MLK Library building as adopted by the HPRB in January 2012. These guidelines contain over 70 pages of detailed specifications and treat HPRB’s landmarking of the building and its first floor lobby and reading rooms as applying to the entire building — all floors and the entire structure, inside and out — and the site on which it sits. He proudly notes that some of the criticisms he expressed in his December 3, 2014 epistle to the NCPC have already been addressed in the Library’s revised concept submission, “for example, a larger addition and new entrances on the G Street facade are no longer shown.”

Maloney seems to be especially offended by any proposal to remove any of the ornamental yellow brick interior and exterior walls — none of which are load-bearing and on the exterior seem at variance with the Miesian concept of transparency between interior and exterior space and on levels two, three, and four dramatically contribute to the claustrophobia experienced by users of those levels.

An earlier proposal presented to the Friends of the MLK Memorial Library and library staff by project architects that eliminated these visual obstructions was electrifying to observe. (See, “MLK Library Space Needs Now Stated as Requiring 100% of Existing Building,” InTowner, November 2014 issue pdf, page 1.)

These eliminations, too, may now mostly be gone. For those looking to a “transformative design” resulting in a respected but transformed historic Miesian building — such as David Garber whose eloquent testimony is captured in the accompanying sidebar below — the proposal and staff report presented to the HPRB at its January 22, 2015, meeting for concept design review and, presumably, for approval was very disappointing. So too, apparently, to the HPRB, which responded by downgrading this agenda item from “concept review” to simply “informational” with no action taken by the Board. Although present at the HPRB meeting, Maloney neither spoke nor was called on by the Board to speak.

Testimony Presented by Logan Circle Resident David Garber at January 22, 2015 HPRB Hearing

“I’m here because I’ve been following
the exciting process of the MLK
Library’s planned expansion and renova-
tion, and because I believe that we have
a unique opportunity to preserve what’s
special about the Mies building while
also injecting new life into it. As an MLK
library user, I am looking forward to the
day when it feels like real investments
have been made to bring the library into
the 21 st century, while retaining some
of the mid-century roots that give it its
unique character.

“That said, seeing the latest design
updates based on historic preservation
and other reviewing agency comments
left me feeling frustrated and disappoint-
ed. When the city decided to reinvest in
the Mies building rather than build a
new flagship downtown library at City
Center, the message wasn’t that we want-
ed to keep things as close to exactly how
they are as possible. The message was
that we saw the value in an architectur-
ally significant building, and that we
wanted to turn what is now a mostly drab
and enclosed space into a showpiece that
is both functional and beautiful.

“The design competition held last year
to create that showpiece also encour-
aged the kind of creativity that many in
the city were and are still excited about.
Architecturally distinct modern
additions, bold interior alterations in
the name of openness and functionality,
and – very refreshing in federal DC – a
general coloring outside of the lines. To
watch a world-renowned architecture
firm win the competition based around
a certain bold and publicly applauded
vision, and have that vision warped by
a subjective and frankly overly cautious
historic review process should be viewed
as moving backwards, rather than forward.

“I’m here today to urge the board to reject
the two concept alternative
presented to you today, and to reject
the Historic Preservation Office’s report
and call for a reconsideration of Section
106 Option C, including the translucent
glass cores, the removal of selected
opaque walls, construction of a two-story
oval theater on the fourth floor, the curvilinear
roof addition – which is more
appropriate to distinguish it from the
sharp lines of the existing structure – or
if reconsidered at a later date, the more
architecturally-bold multi-story addition,
and pedestrian-unfriendly and uninviting
exterior walls. I was particularly offended
by the notion that the rooftop not be
activated, as it is visible from surrounding
buildings. Adding vibrancy and green
space to our city’s roofs is an incredible
way to add vital public space and new
experiences of and in the city. It would
be a massive missed opportunity to lose
out on what can and should be a defining
feature of the new MLK library experience.

“As a reviewing board tasked with
preserving and highlighting our built
heritage, I appreciate the weightiness of
adapting a unique building and bringing
new design elements to a space that
hasn’t seen much of any alteration since
it’s original completion. I hope you will
take this opportunity to help shape a new
central library that respects the original
intent of the design while bringing in
new life, new reasons to visit, and bold
design statements. Freezing the existing
building in amber and only calling for
muted and what comes across as fear-
based minimal changes is the wrong
direction. Let’s show the rest of the
country that its capital city isn’t afraid of
progress and architecturally significant
adaptive reuse. Preservation and contemporary
architectural expression are not mutually
exclusive, especially for a public building
meant to highlight the best of built democracy
and to draw new users to a now-stale space.”