Proposal for New Facility Stuck at Council Panel

By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The proposal to build a new downtown central library suffered a major setback yesterday when a D.C. Council committee decided to keep the bill bottled up instead of quickly moving it forward.

Members voted 3 to 2 to table the measure, which would keep it in committee indefinitely as this year's council session draws to a close.

Building a modern library at the site of the old Washington Convention Center has been seen as a legacy project for outgoing Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). He has said he wanted the council to approve the project, estimated to cost up to $275 million, before he leaves office Jan. 2.

The bill needs to clear the full council twice before Williams can sign it. Proponents had hoped the proposal would win the support of a majority of the council's Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation yesterday, which would have put the legislation before the full council with two sessions left.

But when committee members sat down in the afternoon, council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) quickly moved to table the bill. Schwartz has vocally opposed putting a new central library on the valuable real estate on Ninth Street NW, saying residential and retail development there would generate much-needed revenue for the city.

The motion was not debatable, and council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) voted with Schwartz to table the bill. The three had met in Gray's office beforehand.

Council members Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), chairman of the committee, and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) voted against tabling the measure.

John W. Hill, president of the library's board of trustees, was stunned by the committee's move. Hill said he had made many efforts to address concerns about the project.

"I think there are a lot of issues that are still unanswered with respect to this," said Gray, adding that his vote doesn't mean he opposes the library proposal. Gray said he had questions about, for example, whether the library would be the best use for the site.

Gray, who is the incoming council chairman, said he also wanted to look further into the costs of renovating the Martin Luther King Jr. Library at 901 G St. NW, which is now the flagship library. Barry said he had similar reservations.

Gray, Barry and Schwartz declined to say how the idea to table the bill came about. "I'm not at liberty to disclose who suggested it," Barry said.

Hill later said he was concerned that the committee action puts up to $30 million in federal money for the library system at risk -- $15 million for a new central library and $15 million for branches. A request for that money is pending in Congress, and Hill said lawmakers there might balk if they see the District not acting.

"This isn't over," Hill said.

Patterson agreed that the proposal isn't dead. She said she hoped to persuade one of her colleagues to move it out of committee. She also could introduce emergency legislation before the full council.

"I'm disappointed, but I'm hopeful my colleagues will change their mind," she said.

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