Housing Complex

Summary Judgment: Bellevue Is D.C.’s Best New Library Yet

A few months ago, we took a look at Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper's latest architectural showpiece—the Bellevue/Washington Highlands/William O. Lockridge Library, depending on whom you ask—while it was under construction. It's finally finished, and I swung by over the weekend to see how it felt.

Now, the David Adjaye-designed building isn't much to look at, from the outside. The wooden "fins" on a rough gray stucco-like surface, and the way protruding rooms sit awkwardly on irregular plinths, make it feel slightly unfinished. In this neighborhood of the purely conventional, it resembles nothing more than a UFO that's paused for a moment on the side of a hill.

The interior, however, is something special. An intricately composed Rubik's Cube of glass and concrete, it creates dozens of spaces for different kinds of activities, separated from each other with varying degrees of opacity and yet still loosely bound together with a central light well. Clear exterior walls on the main floors bring the surrounding neighborhood in, making inhabitants feel as if they're suspended in the air, while the bulbous breakout rooms provide a greater sense of enclosure. The three levels also allow more raucous activity to settle to the more community-centered ground floor—Saturday was open house day, with kids racing around yelling—while adult activities can take place in relatively tranquil top-floor study areas.

The library may take some getting used to for some folks accustomed to the more traditional open floor plan. Critics will also carp that it's extravagantly complex, in a system that can't even keep buildings open on Sundays. Once you learn how it's put together, though, it becomes as useful as it is beautiful, and a great gift to an area that's not attracted much attention. (DCMud has a more complete photo set here).

My one beef is the choice of furniture. These chairs are murder.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    I wonder what Dave Chappelle would have to say about the crashed UFO in this 'hood of Far SW.

    No way around it that the naming of this library exemplified the intellectual minimalism of Mayor Gray & others.

    All in all -- we hope this new library kick starts some econ development nearby.

    Nice work, LDP. You sure do get around town.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AdamLDC Adam L

    "Critics will also carp that it's extravagantly complex, in a system that can't even keep buildings open on Sundays."

    Again, we have a problem of people not understanding how municipal budgets work or the difference between operating funds and capital funds. General operating budgets are paid for from regular taxes (sales, income, property, etc.) that the city collects. Those can be used to pay for salaries, electric bills, copier paper, whatever the city wants. Those funds, however, are in tight supply.

    Capital funds, the kind used to finance public building projects like libraries, are derived largely from investor income (e.g. sales of municipal bonds). Lucky for DC, our stronger-than-average credit rating and favorable property market makes the city a good investment. This means the District can afford to build new schools, rec centers, libraries, parks, etc. without using much precious general operating revenue. I'm not suggesting the city can afford to build whatever it wants at no cost to taxpayers, but it's certainly a better situation than more cities find themselves in.

    However, one sure way for a city to shoot itself in the foot is to use bond revenues to pay for general operating expenses. If the District were ever at risk of defaulting on its bond payments, the city could sell public properties (like those constructed with bond revenues) to satisfy the debt. However, if that money is not used to build/improve public properties and goes instead to pay for general operations, then investors get nervous. There's essentially no way for the city to recoup that money once it's spent in case DC needed money to repay the bonds; you can't very well take back people's salaries or unuse electricity.

    Adequately funding libraries should be a priority for the city, but those who claim that money spent to build public facilities should be used instead to pay for more teachers, police officers, or librarians are missing the mark.

  • Anonymous, Too

    Adam L,

    Excellent mini-tutorial on finance and budgets.

    My guess is that LDP's snarky comment was made to belittle the folks who do know about budgeting and are asking pertinent questions about the City's priorities; e.g., why are we building all of these fancy-schmancy libraries when we can't afford to hire enough staff, keep them open nor maintain them?

  • TM

    I hate those chairs!

    Adam L:
    You're right that capital and operational funds are different. But it's not true that all capital expenditures come from muni bonds. Also, of the ones that are financed that way, it's also the case that the city needs to pay those bonds from general revenues, which thus affects its ability to do things like keep libraries open on Sundays. So while people shouldn't look at, say, $10 million paid for a library and ask why that money couldn't have been applied to operating expenses, they also shouldn't ignore the effect the debt load has on the operating budget.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AdamLDC Adam L

    @TM

    You're right, but I didn't say that all capital expenditures come from municipal bonds. However, the vast majority of it does, which is why there are stricter rules governing their expenditure. And while it's true that the obligations have to be repaid from general operating funds, our bonds are so good that spending on debt service has only grown 5% over the last decade, which is one-quarter the rate of inflation. By comparison, the total DC government budget has grown by FOUR TIMES the rate of inflation in the same period. In essence, the District is getting an amazing deal in the way these new buildings are financed. The public benefit of these new rec centers, parks, schools, libraries, etc. are attracting more people to the city who are therefore contributing more in taxes to fund other government services. The Council just has to get its priorities straight with how it wants to spend that money.

    In addition, unlike money applied to general operating costs; the city owns the properties we pay for out of the capital budget. We can sell surplus/obsolete buildings later and, thanks to the District's strong property market, often at a profit that goes right back to city's general operating fund.

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