The board also heard from real estate analyst Jair Lynch, who put some rough figures on the various options now before the board. Simply renovating the library as is, without the internal reconfiguration, would cost the District $5 million to $10 million a year in regular maintenance and upgrades. The plans presented by Freelon would cost between $175 million and $250 million. That could require an increase in the District debt limit, and could be a hard sell with the D.C. Council and voters. But other options, including a state-of-the-art automated parking facility below ground, might bring in new revenue, as would renting space on new floors added above the existing library.
The “dream big” approach of Wednesday’s meeting was probably intended to generate momentum toward solving one of the District’s most fraught architectural sagas. The Martin Luther King building is widely respected among architecture enthusiasts, and the city designated it a historic landmark in 2007. But despite new enthusiasm for the mid-century modern look, and concerted efforts at more consistent maintenance in past years, it isn’t universally loved. As Freelon acknowledged, if the library site at Ninth and G streets NW were bare ground, he could build a new bells-and-whistles library much more cheaply than remaking the old one.
Since at least 2000, when a team from the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects drafted a study for adapting the library, the city has studied, dithered and delayed finding a solution to the building’s long-standing maintenance and design issues. In 2006, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) pushed hard for moving the library to a new home on the site of what was once the old convention center, but he couldn’t sell the idea to the council.
In recent years, the old main branch has come to seem even more forlorn as the library moved forward with innovative and critically acclaimed new branch libraries and renovations. This year, Canadian newspapers published a “letter from Washington” detailing the sad state of the Martin Luther King branch and the role it plays in providing basic shelter and service to the homeless.
The plans presented by Freelon are, Freelon said, “only ideas.” But they are moving the library in the right direction, first and foremost, by keeping it in its existing home.
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who chairs the committee that oversees the library, attended Wednesday’s meeting and was pleased that the library was thinking about ways to remake the building. “What I like about it is they have met the challenge of making this building an exciting place for a new library,” he said.
Freelon’s team acknowledged the many legal and economic obstacles to its plans, including questions about what will be acceptable given its historic landmark status. Without mentioning specifics, David Maloney, the State Historic Preservation officer for the District, acknowledged that keeping the library in its current home was “a preservation plus.”