A decade ago, legendary public advocate Ralph Nader turned his attention to advocating for the public libraries in his adopted hometown, founding the D.C. Library Renaissance Project to bring attention to the system’s sorry state.
In the years since — thanks in some part to Nader’s activism and thanks in larger part to former Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his support for massive city investment — most of the D.C. Public Library’s neighborhood branches are in various states of being rebuilt or renovated, and there is new attention on plans to do the same for the central Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
But in one neighborhood, a coalition of community groups is sick and tired of Nader’s activism and is asking him to cease and desist the Library Renaissance Project’s meddling in the redevelopment of the West End Library.
Nader’s group filed an court appeal in May challenging the D.C. Zoning Commission’s approval of the West End project — which includes a new library and fire station and 160 units of housing on two parcels a block apart. The Nader group says the commission erred in waiving some affordable housing requirements for one of the two parcels. The neighbors say that argument was considered and rejected by the Zoning Commission, and Nader at this point is being needlessly obstructionist.
“By its opposition, the [Library Renaissance Project] is forwarding an agenda that is against the wishes of our community and its leaders,” reads a letter to Nader signed by five community organizations. “The appeal ... will only delay the construction of the new facilities and dearly cost the citizens of the District unnecessarily.”
Susan Haight, who leads the Friends of the West End Library, said she and fellow residents are sick of the stalling tactics. In addition to Haight’s group, the letter was signed by the West End Citizens Association, the Foggy Bottom Association, the West End Friends and the local advisory neighborhood commission.
”It’s really frustrating,” Haight said. “Because of their name, people think they support the library. In my experience, it’s the exact opposite. They are advocates, but they are not advocates for the library’s agenda.”
Joe Sternlieb, who has handled the project for lead developer EastBanc, said his firm is optimistic the suit will be swiftly dismissed and ground could be broken by March. But as long as the suit is pending, he said, it will complicate the process of securing construction financing.
The West End fight is the latest instance where library officials, city leaders and neighborhood and advocacy groups have become exasperated with the Library Renaissance Project’s advocacy — advocacy that, despite the group’s name, goes beyond improving libraries to incorporate other aspects of Nader’s activism, including a deep aversion to mingling public resources with business interests.
Nader, in an interview Thursday, says he has no intention of giving up the West End fight and acknowledges his library activism is about more than libraries. In the end, Nader believes the project’s lead developer, EastBanc, is simply making too much money on the deal and ought not have been exempted from affordable housing requirements.
”It’s a giveaway by the District government,” he said. “You don’t give away a $100 million property. ... It’s one of the biggest D.C. public asset giveaways since the [baseball] stadium.”
The outlines of the deal are this: EastBanc gets the land for free in return for replacing the current library and fire station with new facilities integrated into the mixed-use developments. Arguing that it could not secure necessary financing while meeting affordable housing requirements known as “inclusionary zoning,” EastBanc sought and received a waiver from the D.C. Zoning Commission.
The $100 million figure Nader cited reflects a deep disagreement over the value of the land EastBanc is getting; under official calculations, the land is worth about $20 million, which is closely offset by the construction costs for the library and fire station. (An earlier, unsolicited, no-bid iteration of the EastBanc deal was derailed thanks, in part, to Nader; the firm subsequently won a public bidding process for the redevelopment rights.)
The West End-ers note that the Zoning Commission approved the waiver with the blessing of at least one affordable housing group, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which is a major advocate for the “inclusionary zoning” regulations that were waived.
There’s another level of irony here: The LRP and related groups opposed proposed public-private partnerships that could have built affordable housing as a part of two other D.C. libraries, at Benning and Tenley branches. There, the LRP advocated for standalone libraries, voicing discomfort with the prospect that the spaces “will be sold off to developers.”
Things came to a head at a D.C. Council budget hearing this year, where libraries committee chairman Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) scolded the Library Renaissance Project’s executive director, Robin Diener, accusing her group of doing more to delay and derail library projects than advocate for the overall health of the library system — noting, in particular, the role the LRP and a related group, the District Dynamos, played in extending the Mount Pleasant library project. (Since then, Diener and the LRP have been more active in calling for more operating funding for the library system, and Diener praised the new MLK plans at a meeting last week.)
The West End conflict is only prelude to the fight that will come if the library trustees and elected D.C. officials choose to move forward with MLK plans that involve adding floors to the building and leasing much of the space for non-library uses. In some financing scenarios, the entire building would be sold, and the library space would be leased back to the city.
The commingling of public and private interests leave Nader and likeminded activists nervous, if not nauseous. But these kinds of partnerships are only going to become more appealing as city real estate values continue to rise and District officials, constrained by a city borrowing limit, search for funding streams outside the usual capital funding process — funding streams that allow more taxpayer dollars to be devoted to schools, social services and other worthy uses.
The question for Nader and likeminded activists is, can they stake out a position other than heedless obstructionism that ensures the city’s public assets will continue improving while ensuring a fair deal for taxpayers?