Last fall a blue-ribbon panel of planners, developers and architects assembled by the Urban Institute looked at what could be done with the historic but increasingly unsuitable Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown.
In presenting its initial findings last November, the group looked at options ranging from the expensive option of (a) renovating the building to continue use solely as a library to previously pondered option of (b) selling off the building and using the proceeds to build a new central library elsewhere to the novel move of (c) expanding the building and dividing it between a library and another, revenue-generating use.
The panel’s final report is now public, and it largely reinforces the impressions it left when giving its initial presentation.
As for (a) — renovating the whole building for use as a library — forget about it: “[T]he cost of the appropriate level of rehabilitation would exceed $200 million and would require additional consideration for expenses related to relocation and storage, two moves, and an interim library lease. Furthermore, the library simply does not need all of the building’s space. For these reasons, the panel believes that keeping the library as the building’s sole occupant is not feasible.”
As for (b) — relocating the library entirely — the report notes that while selling the building or leasing the real estate might generate plenty of cash, it might make little financial sense if the city has to find another suitable site downtown, given that “[a]dditional costs may result from relocation expenses, and ... identifying available sites may present challenges.”
That leaves (c) — some sort of mixed use — where the building is expanded upward and the library shrinks to occupy only the bottom two or three floors of the building. The rest can be just about anything, but “office space generates the greatest financial return,”the report notes.
The panel goes ahead and says an extra floor or two would have been A-okay with architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who originally envisioned more floors for the building: “The panel strongly believes that if Mies were alive today he would approve of such changes. This option is financially the most viable because rental revenues could fund the renovation of the existing structure, achieving the long-term goals of the library.”
So all this might sound exciting, feasible and otherwise altogether dandy, but the biggest obstacle to a better MLK Library isn’t a lack of big ideas or even a lack of money but a lack of political will.
The panel makes a note of this:
The panelists understand the strong undercurrent of skepticism and doubt from the broader community about the right thing to do at the MLK Library. Specific constituencies from whom the panel heard during the interview process, such as library advocates, supporters of the homeless, groups generally suspicious of any major actions by city government, and others, were blunt with their criticism.
The panel feels it is imperative that [the D.C. Public Library] and the city move forward to set clear goals and time frames for making a decision about the future building. A sense of urgency is important in every aspect of implementation. Not uncommonly, the implementation of big ideas becomes mired in jurisdictional processes, special interests, and unforeseen circumstances.
Let it be clear that Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper has no intention of becoming mired in anything.
In a news release accompanying the final report, the D.C. Public Library said it will indeed proceed with planning for options (b) or (c), working with an architectural firm to “examine how the MLK Library can be reconfigured for co-tenancy” while also working with city planners to “explore whether there are viable alternate locations downtown” for a new central library.
This is all set to be done by fall, and the “results of the analysis will be used to continue the conversation on the future of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library with residents, city leaders and other stakeholders.”
The report in full: