Housing Complex

Panel: MLK Library’s Got to Share Space or Move

What the library would look like with a couple more floors.

Back in November, we got the gist of what an expert panel would recommend for D.C.'s aging central library: Either build two more floors on top and lease part of the building to another tenant, or sell the building and move the library somewhere else. Today, they released their full report, which makes even more clear that the library just staying in its existing building wasn't an option—there's no way to finance $200 million in needed renovations without private money, and the library just doesn't need all the space anyway.

So, how to make the other two options work?

The build-on-top-and-lease-out scenario, the Urban Land Institute panel said, would be the "financially most viable" option because new rental revenue from between 165,000 and 182,000 square feet of space would generate between $4.1 and $5.5 million annually. The problem with that option is that it would require the library to rent space elsewhere for a couple years, while the building was under construction.

The other idea—selling the building and moving elsewhere—presents the very difficult problem of locating 225,000 square feet in the central business district. The panel identified a handful of potential redevelopment sites, like the not-long-for-this-world FBI building on Pennsylvania Avenue, but those are subject to lots of forces beyond D.C.'s control.

What's the difference in the two options from a librarian's perspective? Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper says it's a wash. "It's almost hard to contrast them, because in the end, I think the result would be the same," she says. The current facility has probably never achieved its potential as a library, because even though the virtue of Mies van der Rohe's design was that it allowed many different configurations within a rigid box, there was never enough money to achieve the optimal one for a library's purposes.

"It's wrong, wrong, wrong, a thousand times wrong for how we need to use our libraries these days," Cooper says. "Could this place be a really wonderful central library? Maybe. I don't know the answer to that. We do know that we have the best location possible."

Meanwhile, some fixes are needed now. Cooper has requested $60 million over the next four years for upgrades to the central library in the fiscal 2013 budget, for things like a new heating system, elevators, and gaskets to insulate windows, which are now starting to break. And Cooper, as well as the panel, think the city should move forward as quickly as possible to decide what to do with the building long term, because in the mean time, the building is just getting more expensive, and less useful.

Here's the full document:

[scribd id=83958791 key=key-29q8byg4d5mg5xv0hm69 mode=list]

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    Thanks for the link.

    FWIW, accepting what they say about how much space a central library "needs" shouldn't be taken at face value, as most central libraries in major center cities with specialized collections have libraries larger than the amount of space they say is required.

  • Axel

    Wouldn't it be wonderful if the DC Public Library could become a quasi-independent entity with its own board and endowment, like the New York Public Library? A great capital deserves a great library, but generations of DC politicians -- Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty excepted -- have largely ignored library needs.

    If the MLK library were to move out, the best use of the landmarked Mies building would probably not be as commercial space. Optimally, DC should do a land swap with the Federal government and then the Smithsonian could acquire the Mies building as a modern art addition to the museum complex across the street. This would further strengthen the this part of Penn Quarter as a vibrant arts and entertainment district. Mies designed the National Gallery in Berlin, which provides wonderful space for modern art -- the present MLK building, while more vertical than its Berlin counterpart, would probably be better suited as a museum than as a library. DC could then build a new, hopefully iconic, but more usable library on land swapped with the Feds.

  • Steve

    They should take the building up to the height limit. The building seems, like Dulles was, to be made for expansion with the same design, in this case, with additional floors. It also would make the building look more like the DC version of a classic Mies office building.

  • LOL

    I really like your idea Axel.

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  • Anonymous

    "Wouldn't it be wonderful if the DC Public Library could become a quasi-independent entity with its own board and endowment, like the New York Public Library?"

    Actually, DCPL is a quasi-independent entity with its own board, and foundation. Unfortunately, they do nothing, and raise no money. The current Board of Library Trustees is headed by John Hill, local success story and currently finishing up his long term as ED of the Federal City Council.

    Hill was on the Control Board and was brought in by Tony Williams. He's a very pleasant and well-spoken guy but, IMHO, an empty suit when all is said and done.

  • Thayer-D

    Axel nails it. Modern sculpture museum, a truly see through building like Meis always imagined it.