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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.

By Marc Fisher |  July 11, 2008; 8:15 AM ET
Previous: Dithering Over D.C. Libraries | Next: Virginia's Seinfeld Legislature: Now, Nothing


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Since Councilman Harry Thomas, Jr. is chairman of Libraries,Parks and Recreation would it not be reasonable to see how he and his staff weigh in on all this? Was he asked for comment in this piece?

Posted by: lquander | July 11, 2008 9:25 AM

For some reason the update left out the construction of new libraries in Shaw and Anacostia. Is it because these are cases where the Library system and neighborhood residents are getting along? Relations between DCPL and Tenleytown have also improved, with all the acrimony being generated by the determination of the Deputy Mayor's office to put commercial development on that postage stamp-sized lot.

Posted by: pleasant1 | July 11, 2008 10:55 AM

MLK should stay right where it is. It is a memorial to Martin Luther King and is the only building in D.C. that was designed by Mies Van Der Rohe. It just needs to be updated and restored and would cost less money than to move, renovate, and add on wings to the Historic Carnegie Library. The new wings would be expensive in order to match the current building and many mature trees would be cut down. Also, I don't think any historic review board would want the Carnegie's exterior to be changed in anyway. Isn't it listed as Historic?? Lastly, the Washington Historical Society has a 100 year lease at Carnegie. Where are they supposed to go?? They are the ones who restored the Carnegie not to long ago.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 11, 2008 11:23 AM

Fenty admitted yesterday that he hadn't even looked at DCPL's design for the Tenley-Friendship branch, while Cheh admitted that she hadn't seen LCOR's best and final offer. So how can either of them conclude that LCOR's plan is better than DCPL's?

And if they are going to make their decision based on so little information (mixed-use vs. stand-alone), then why did Fenty let DCPL spend a million dollars and a year of hard work designing a new library for Tenleytown, only to nix the plan a couple months before groundbreaking? What a waste of everyone's time and money! As a citizen who has now gone through this design process twice now, only to have my branch delayed for years once again, I'm disgusted.

And this is not a case where it just took Fenty a while to bring the community around to the idea of mixed-use. In fact, the trajectory of public opinion has clearly moved in the opposite direction.

Before an RFP was issued, there was a real division between people who wanted to explore a public-private project and people who felt they had enough information already (we've been down this road before and we had a detailed unsolicited proposal prior to the RFP) to know it would compromise facilities at both the library and the school.

But once the community saw the three proposals that emerged from that RFP, even the Janney SIT came out opposed to all three (including LCOR's which fully incorporated the library) and folks who were previously supportive or undecided were convinced that this was a bad idea and the library should move forward as DCPL had planned, while DCPS should be encouraged to move Janney, the most overcrowded elementary school in the system, forward in the modernization queue as part of Rhee's right-sizing efforts.

To add insult to injury, the community was excited by DCPL's "cool" design, while LCOR has chosen to partner with the aptly named Grimm, the firm that produced the previous, unbuilt and universally despised, design for the branch back in 2004 or 2005.

Posted by: smithhemb | July 11, 2008 11:37 AM


The design for the stand along library was hardly cool. It is a simple glass building within nothing exciting or unique about it.

The public trajectory and sentiment is hardly opposed to the announcement yesterday by the mayor. Perhaps the circle of people you travel with and talk to is small, but for the broader community, this is an exciting proposal and time for our community.

Posted by: Tenleytown Resident | July 11, 2008 11:41 AM

We are a city of truly "magnificent intentions" with little resolve to hold our elected officials accountable. The MLKjr Library has been studied for rehab and remodeling in 2002 and found no issues that would keep the building from remaining as a library and being built to the 5 stories that it was originally designed for by the world famous architect, Mies van der Rhoe. In fact his modern design and construction techniques are a decided plus for keeping this wonderful architectural gem as our main library. As well this site is very accessible to the public by bus and Metro at their front door. Access to the Carnegie site via Metro is blocks away.

The current MLK site suffers from years of neglect by past Library Boards and Mayors but none that can not be addressed. I believe we continue to see this benign neglect of District buildings and facilities by the current administration. I see the newly built recreation facility at the King-Greenleaf Recreation Center in SW that has been herald as a wonderfully designed and inspiring building being neglected by Mayor Fenty's administration. It will not be but a few years before someone is crying to tear this building down because of neglect by our city government.

Posted by: Disappointed District resident | July 11, 2008 12:30 PM

For the last 9 years I have been propping the handicapped door of the Northeast Library Open with my foot while I try to maneuver my stroller in the door. The door is so heavy that it knocks my older boys over when they try to help.

I would argue a person in a wheelchair would have no opportunity to use the Northeast Library.

Would it be too much to ask for ADA accessibility in 2008?

Posted by: threeboysindc | July 11, 2008 12:47 PM

and for info on the new Anacostia neighborhood library, go here:

Posted by: DG-rad | July 11, 2008 1:11 PM

I am tired of Sue and her merry band of NIMBYs claiming to speak for all of the Tenleytown-Friendships Heights community when it comes to the Janney-Tenley developments. They speak for no one other than their small but hyper-vocal band of NIMBYs. Want to see how much support their viewpoint has in the community - take a poll. The great silent majority wants progress. The NIMBYs want to pretend Tenleytown is still in the 1950s. I'm sick and tired of a couple of loudmouths with too much time on their hands claiming to speak for me and everyone else in the neighborhood. They don't. Neither does the four NIMBY ANC commissioners who represent their own views as the "official" view of the community.

Posted by: Tenley Resident | July 11, 2008 1:53 PM


Give me a break. Eat at McDonalds or wherever you fat a** lands and keep the food and drink out of the libraries. I don't want to have to clean up your trash when I am there. Since these are government buiuldings and DC residents feel they are entitled to the government providing everything, the trash will be left where it falls after the contents are consummed.

Meeting rooms? Give me a break on that too. You want to have a meeting, find someplace else. The library is supposed to be quiet so we can read in peace. We don't need to listen to your meetings.

Posted by: DC Voter | July 11, 2008 3:15 PM

@DC Voter....meeting rooms mean like ANC Meetings, community meetings, Ward wide meetings. Right now, everyone scrambles to meet at a church or Guapos. This is a legitimate and good community building aspect to any regional development.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 11, 2008 3:58 PM

ANC1D Asks the DC Council and Mayor to Delay Reconstruction of the Mount Pleasant Library and Insist on Local Engagement.

ANC1D resolves to ask the DC Council, DC Public Libraries and Mayor to Delay Reconstruction of the Mount Pleasant Library and Insist on Local Engagement.
Further, ANC1D asks that the ANC law mandating acknowledgement and response to ANC1D resolutions be adhered to.
ANC1D advises the DC Council, the Mayor, the DC Public Library (DCPL) Board and administration to assure that DCPL changes its misleading practice of holding "community design" meetings that do not seriously engage residents and other users (like schools) in finding needs and interests.

ANC1D authorizes its staff to set a high priority for these changes, and authorizes an expenditure of up to $3000 to clarify the legal situation sufficiently so that users can decide upon appropriate legal responses. The staff should advertise for and select consultant services to assist towards the success of this project, and seek other partners (on a matching fund basis) and participants.

DCPL has ignored its duty and the law by not responding to ANC1D resolutions on this matter. Instead, DCPL at great expense has put on so-called "community design" meetings which have mostly been top-down lectures with negligible participation by users and residents, and with small and unrepresentative response from local residents.

At the second such meeting, June 10th, Director Cooper noted that almost all of the decisions had already been made, and that much of the presentation by the architects had already been ruled out by her decisions. Similarly, there has been no response to the petitions by local civic groups.

This kind of pseudo public meetings appears Machiavellian and would be a farce except for the expense, and for the distraction away from a sincere effort at understanding and providing for the needs of potential users.

ANC1D notes that this misbehavior by DCPL seems to be part of a larger pattern around five branches and not just Mount Pleasant, a pattern that has aroused law suits, protests by other ANCs, and the mobilization of neighborhood groups.

ANC1D invites participation by other ANCs and civic groups to encourage or force DCPL to obey the law, and start to reap the benefits from a more progressive policy: Encouraging participation from all parts of the city towards greater literacy, public education, and an imaginative engagement in a creative civilization.

DCPL's current behavior belies its intended public purpose. We call on other organs of government and civic groups to persuade DCPL away from its patterns of misbehavior that so misrepresent the ideals of civilization supposedly carried in its collections and by its dedicated staff.

Passed 2008-07-01; vote: 5 to 0

Posted by: Gregg Edwards | July 12, 2008 1:09 AM

If the similar in style and equally (or more) important Wilson building can be expanded, than so can the Carnegie library.

Posted by: Mark | July 12, 2008 9:47 PM

Way to go Gregg,

Like at so many of our community meetings, you are off topic and out of touch. What I would be interested in seeing is where that $3,000 ANC (meaning MY) money goes. I live near the Mt. Pleasant library and can say that you surely don't represent me! Stop being a lap dog for outsiders who come to our community meetings.

More on topic (take note Gregg) my concern is that if there was a series of design meetings, and then those meetings are disregarded, what is the purpose of the design meetings. Will something similar happen with Mt. Pleasant and other libraries when the mayor decides that he has a different plan than the one already voted on and funded.

I know that it comes down to politics and establishing your name. After all, why would folk like Gregg have a posting about a completely different matter if it wasn't about that? But, for once, can we really focus on the issue at hand. If the Library's process - with all of its criticisms - can be set aside by the mayor for a plan that had NO community input, why does the Library have to continue it process? It seems like we are paying a lot of money for rubber stamps. If they are not intended to be rubber stamps, then this Mayor should do what the last Mayor did; delegate authority and focus on something outside of a press appearance.

Posted by: Marcus | July 14, 2008 7:38 AM

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