A New Library

Thursday, December 14, 2006

THE MARTIN Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, long neglected, is a dismal place that ill serves the people of the District. But a plan to replace it with a state-of-the-art facility on the old convention center site is, unfortunately, in trouble.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) had hoped that one of his last accomplishments in office would be to win D.C. Council approval for a new central library. But he has been unable to muster the necessary votes, and he faces an uphill battle in trying to win emergency approval when the council meets once more before he leaves office. It is regrettable that too much attention has been focused on how the library would be part of the mayor's legacy, rather than on how it would serve the city's future.

There are legitimate concerns about the proposal. Council members are right to question its estimated cost of $275 million; to worry about the impact of this spending on the city's finances; and to wonder if a central library should be given a higher priority than fixing the branch libraries. Yet not even the fiercest critics of the plan think it is acceptable to continue the status quo of the King library. It would cost as much to renovate the current facilities as to construct a new building, according to an analysis by D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. Moreover, the historic Mies van der Rohe building that now houses the library would not easily lend itself to the airy, open design needed for a state-of-the-art operation. Neighborhood libraries need help, too, but holding the central library hostage would serve no purpose, particularly now that a new library director is winning praise for her efforts to turn around the whole system.

The convention center site is prime real estate for the city, but there is no better public use than a library. It would serve as a vibrant gathering spot for learning, as has been the case in cities such as Seattle. Other parts of the site would be used for retail space, offices and housing.

Mr. Williams worries that if the council does not act by the end of the year, momentum for the library will be lost. This haste has undermined some trust, and it's important that the merits of the plan, not its timing, take center stage. Unlike the baseball stadium, which had to meet certain obligations with Major League Baseball, there is no deadline looming for the library, and it's important that the concerns from both council and community be fully resolved. Mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty (D) supports the new library, and Mr. Williams should hope that one of his last ideas for the District becomes one of Mr. Fenty's first achievements.

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