The Vote: A New DC Library?
In the waning days of Anthony Williams' mayoralty, several of his most ambitious projects are hurtling toward one resolution or another. The standoff over how to develop the land surrounding the new baseball stadium appears to have been resolved in favor of expediency, with little regard for how the neighborhood might blossom. The District finally pulled off the land swap that could soon result in another new stadium along the Anacostia River, this one for the DC United soccer team. A rewrite of the city's basic planning document may yet be approved, cementing Williams' vision of a city with a denser population and more retail and residential development around Metro stations.
And today, a committee of the D.C. Council is set to vote on one of the mayor's most controversial proposals--vacate the city's main downtown library and build a new, state-of-the-art library on the site of the old convention center.
At the moment, it looks like a 3-2 vote and it's anybody's guess which side will prevail. But if three council members from the group of Kathy Patterson, Marion Barry, Carol Schwartz, Phil Mendelson and Vincent Gray can put the interests of the city and its current and future library users first, they'll go for the mayor's plan. (Patterson and Gray are considered likely Yes votes, Schwartz is opposed, and the other two will make this interesting right up to the moment of the vote. My money's on the former mayor-for-life, The Situationist himself, to cast the deciding vote in favor of the project.)
Here's what's at stake: The development of a big, extremely valuable and important space in the center of the city. A failed and embarrassing library system in a city that desperately needs a new way to make a real difference in the lives of children who are poorly served by public schools, as well as in the lives of the unconscionably large number of adults who lack functional literacy. And an opportunity to join other American cities that are discovering how central libraries can take advantage of the Internet age to become a public gathering space in a time when too many people live ever more atomized lives.
The old convention center site has been slated from the start for a public use. A plan for a National Music Center appears to have faded away, but the idea of a new central library as part of the redevelopment has gained strength. The site plan now calls for about 700 housing units, 20 percent of them reserved for low and middle income families; offices; an open plaza; retail space; and the library. Schwartz wants to give over the library piece of the land to more commercial development, which is always a worthy goal in a city that is woefully short on retailing (and definitely needs the tax revenue).
But great downtowns also need people magnets that serve a deeper purpose than shopping. Such improvements can attract the foot traffic that could then support more and better retail outlets. There is both economic and social wisdom behind the notion of mixed use development, and the experience in other cities is that the new breed of central libraries bring together people of all social and economic strata.
Some defenders of the old Martin Luther King library site on G Street NW say it would be cheaper to renovate that sadly neglected building, and it would keep an important institution in a historic piece of architecture, the black box designed by Mies van der Rohe. But the famous architect always thought of buildings such as the King Library as spaces that could be used for almost any purpose, and there's interest in converting the MLK Library to offices, museum space or some combination of private and public functions. What it's clearly not suited for is to support the many functions--study space, reading, performance space, meeting halls, social gathering spot--that a modern library fulfills.
Nobody is calling for the MLK building to be torn down; under every proposal out there, it would be preserved and renovated.
For many people, this choice comes down to money. It's always hard to find anything approximating truth in studies comparing the costs of public policy actions, and especially in this case, where the relevant studies were conducted by or for groups with a vested interest in one or another outcome. But the estimates the District has come up with say that a new library and a renovation of the old would each cost about $290 million, or half a baseball stadium. And it's a given in the money-raising business that it's much easier to raise cash for a new project than it is for a rehab of an old building.
As the council's committee on education, libraries and recreation reports in its study of the library decision, the relatively close cost figures for the two options mean that the choice should be based on which facility would support the most ambitious and creative programs. That makes this a slam dunk for a new downtown library. The transformation of Washington during the Williams years is by no means complete, and there are important gaps in his overall list of accomplishments, but this mayor will go down in history as one of the most visionary leaders of a big city during this period, and a new central library would be a crowning achievement indeed--and a chance to have a real impact on the yawning and unacceptable gap in success that keeps Washington a divided city.
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