The Next Libraries: D.C.'s Big Plan
No sooner does Thursday's column check up on the troubled D.C. library system four years after four branches were shuttered than along comes Mayor Adrian Fenty to announce that he's going in a different direction than his libraries chief.
Here on the blog today, a more detailed look at what's happening to replace those libraries--and what's holding up the works.
In meetings across the city, D.C. libraries director Ginnie Cooper and her staff have been showing mock-ups of branch buildings planned for four neighborhoods that have lived without libraries for four years. The buildings for the most part look bright, fresh and architecturally splashy and even cool. It's what's inside the buildings that is causing some grumbling, as library users agitate for more space for meetings, more books and materials, and a more books megastore approach to design, including cafes.
Cooper says she is not averse to breaking the traditional taboo and adding food and drink to libraries, but she says she's had to lead a reeducation campaign with librarians who still see that policy as sacrilege. So far, the compromise envisioned at some of the new branches is to make space available for vending machines--not the Starbucks-style cafe that many users crave.
When Cooper ran the libraries in Portland, Ore., she built a library with a Starbucks in it. But she says the chain pulled out of the building a few years later, both because they had in the interim opened their own shops nearby and because the library wasn't open long enough hours for the coffee spot to make the numbers it sought.
Cooper says she is newly and energetically optimistic that the transformation she came here to create in Washington's libraries is finally on the road to fruition. The politics of the change have been tough, Cooper has faced battles in one neighborhood after another, a major branch burned down, and nobody seems to agree on just what libraries ought to be in the new media landscape.
But after watching the city's libraries drift and decline for many years, and after seeing how little a very libraries-oriented mayor was able to accomplish, I've been pleased by how much Cooper has managed to get done, even in an administration that is, in the words of one of the mayor's top aides, "pretty much only going to stick its neck out for schools."
Here are some details of what Cooper is trying to do at key libraries around town:
Benning: This Northeast library, torn down four years ago, is supposed to be rebuilt by 2010. Cooper says she's determined to make that happen, so she's trying to look past the neighborhood controversy over a developer's proposal to swap land with the city and put the new library in his proposed retail complex. Cooper says that even with the $1 million donation the developer has offered in addition to the land swap, "there was no money to build or staff the three stories" that the developer proposed for a taller library. "This is not an idea that is being actively pursued right now," she says, a blow to activists who are supportive of the City Interests developer.
Tenleytown: The longstanding controversy over what to put on the site of the former Tenley library pits not only neighbor against neighbor, but also city government against D.C. Public Libraries. Cooper's preference is to move ahead with her plan for a standalone library on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street NW, while building the facility to accommodate a residential and retail complex that could be built smack up against the library, or even cantilevered over part of it.
The private development under that scenario would front on Albemarle Street, sharing the library's back wall, which was being designed with no windows in case the Fenty administration chose that path--which it did yesterday.
"The decision is going to be made by the deputy mayor and the mayor," Cooper told me a week before the mayor's announcement. "My hope is that they let us move forward with our building." But Fenty announced that the private developer LCOR will move ahead at the Tenley site on a combined library, school and residential project--a vision at odds with Cooper's. Fenty's move is a fulfillment of a campaign promise to stand tall against neighborhood NIMBYs and choose to put density around Metro stations, especially in places like Tenleytown that are woefully underdeveloped and could be strong engines of economic growth.
Looking beyond these current battles over branches, I asked Cooper whether it didn't make sense to shutter some of the city's many small neighborhood libraries and instead build more comprehensive and well-stocked regional libraries such as those that have become so popular in suburbs such as Rockville and Fairfax. "That might be great, especially for upper Northwest," she replied. "Building Tenley doesn't preclude that."
The city's heaviest library users live in upper Northwest--the three historically most used branches are Georgetown, Cleveland Park and Tenleytown--but many use suburban libraries because they are so vastly superior to the city's. The city might lure back some of those patrons--and perhaps even save money--if it closed three or four of the branches in that part of the city and opened one much larger and more sophisticated regional library.
Georgetown: Work on rebuilding the Georgetown library after the devastating fire there last year is scheduled to begin this summer, with construction finishing by mid-2010. An interim library is expected to open in the next few months in the former Staples storefront on M Street across from the Cady Alley development.
Although the historic library will look much as it formerly did after the reconstruction, the interior will be much improved, featuring an outdoor reading terrace modeled after a similar space the building sported in its early decades, and a new attic-level space for the Peabody Room, a lush, comfortable reading room with a cherished history collection. That room, notable for its woodwork, has been salvaged and the wood is being pulled out of the ruined building this summer to be rehabbed by carpenters and restorers.
The District is seeking $13 million in damages from the contractor that the city blames for starting the fire. The remake of the library is expected to cost $20 million including the cost of the interim facility and $750,000 for new books.
West End: Although this sadly neglected library in Foggy Bottom is not scheduled to be renovated for some time, there is a move afoot to include the library in a much larger redevelopment of city properties including police and fire facilities. After a proposal by Georgetown developer Anthony Lanier to include a new library and fire station in a block-long residential and retail project blew up in the face of community protest and a sneaky effort to approve the deal through an emergency Council vote, a more deliberative process is now underway.
"We're about the only two-story building in that community," Cooper says, and she declares herself to be more than open to incorporating the new branch there in a larger development--as long as the library has a prominent street-level entrance. When Cooper was in Portland, she notes, "We did several projects that had housing as part of them."
Martin Luther King: The main downtown library, which Mayor Williams was eager to ditch in favor of a new central facility on the old convention center site, is once again the subject of discussions about its repurposing. There is serious talk of moving the main library back to its former home at the Carnegie Library building in front of the new Convention Center. The Carnegie building is much smaller than the King library, but Cooper says two wings would be added to the structure to nearly triple the available space.
The library's offices and administrative functions would move to an office building in Anacostia under this scenario, reserving the Carnegie building for public use. There are technical impediments to expanding the Carnegie library, including a Metro line and utility lines that run under the building. But Cooper says the D.C. government remains strongly interested in moving in that direction.
Overall, Cooper says the city's libraries are making so much progress that the nature of public complaints is changing dramatically: "Last year, we were still hearing, 'We want the lights to work and the toilets to flush.' Now it's 'Will we have more children's programs and movies?' We are now on the right path and I'm seeing the evidence in the people coming in the door and the numbers of materials that are circulating."
There remains, of course, a long way to go, but there is finally movement in the District's libraries and that is good news indeed.
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