Mayor Braves the Mies Mystique

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday defended his proposal to sell the 36-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and replace it with a smaller $207 million state-of-the-art building at the old convention center site.

"We cannot afford to sit on our hands when we are faced with this unique opportunity to build the best central library we can," Williams testified during a D.C. Council committee hearing, adding that the debate has been narrowly focused on the current library's architecture rather than the needs of the city's children and adults.

The mayor spoke in favor of a bill to authorize the financing and construction of a new library and the issuance of tax revenue bonds to pay for capital improvement projects for the city's 27 libraries.

Several community advocates testified that the main library, built by renowned German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, should be renovated and maintained as a historic landmark. Others asked that city officials weigh the costs of construction against renovation before making a decision.

"I'm torn," Richard Layman of the Citizens Planning Coalition said after he testified. "The current library stinks. But it is bigger than the proposed new central library. I don't want a new library that's smaller, but the jury's out whether that building can be fixed."

Williams said he was increasingly concerned that "some have gone off track" and lost sight of the opportunity to build a 21st century facility with books, computers and literacy programs.

"Failure to approve the bill will leave our library system reform efforts seriously deficient," Williams said after listing 14 other cities that have built new libraries. "Let me be clear: This is a social issue. Our educational aspirations and social goals must be the driving principles behind the building of any library. Form must follow function."

Yesterday's hearing, held by the Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation and led by Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), was the second public meeting in two months at which officials and residents could sound off about the library plan.

Williams was joined by John Hill, president of the library board of trustees, and the incoming library director, Ginnie Cooper, now executive director of the Brooklyn, N.Y., public library. A report by a blue-ribbon task force is expected to be released in the next few weeks, Hill said.

More than 50 people asked to testify, and several dozen were in the Wilson Building chambers at times during the daylong hearing.

The government's experts said that it would cost more to renovate the deteriorating building because the library would have to temporarily move out of its location at Ninth and G streets NW, but independent experts said that the construction could be done in phases and not be so disruptive.

Some residents questioned whether the city could actually lease the building for an up-front payment of $60 million.

"My reaction is the same now as it was when I first read the mayor's proposal: What on earth is he thinking of?" said Gary Imhoff of DC Watch, a government watchdog group.

Union representatives for library employees said the workers need a suitable environment now because they work in hazardous conditions with poor ventilation and broken elevators. Sometimes, they said, employees are confronted by disorderly homeless and mentally ill residents who regularly use the library as a "respite station."

"It is estimated that it may take up to five years to get a new building constructed," said Anntoinette White-Richardson, who represents 300 library employees. "Eight hours can sometimes be too long for staff to work under the current conditions."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company