Williams Makes One Last Bid For a New Downtown Library

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

In the final days of his administration, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams is lobbying to save his plan to build a state-of-the-art library downtown at the old convention center site at 10th Street and New York Avenue NW.

Though he is confident that Mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty (D) would promote replacement of the landmark Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library next year, Williams said he is uncertain that the incoming D.C. Council would approve the $275 million project. Some returning council members have criticized the cost, and two of three incoming members have said they would prefer to focus on branch libraries in their own wards.

The mayor said he will still try to push an emergency library bill at the final council meeting next Tuesday, but that measure requires approval by nine of 13 members.

"It's a slim chance," Williams said, discussing prospects for passage next week. "I think the council is a little reluctant to make such a big investment at this late stage in this administration."

Williams is working with John W. Hill Jr., president of the Board of Library Trustees, to fight for the new building, and he said the project has won public support.

"We spent more than two years studying the library issue, and we've come too far to let this legislation simply die for lack of action," Williams said. "All the issues have been ventilated. It's good for the city."

But a number of community advocates are opposed to Williams's plan to abandon and lease the 36-year-old main library, built by the noted German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and said it should be designated a historic landmark.

Hill said the city stands to lose up to $30 million in federal funding earmarked for libraries if the proposal for a new building is not approved soon.

Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), chairman of the committee that oversees libraries, has all but abandoned the attempt to pass the library plan. She failed to move the bill from her committee at a council meeting this month and settled for placing a 44-page "special report" on the legislative record.

"We've answered all the questions," said Patterson, whose term ends this month. "I think it's a real shame that the public interest has not been served. Using a valuable piece of land in the center of the city to benefit the residents of the city makes sense to me."

Even council members who oppose the legislation for a new central library acknowledge that the city must do something about the deteriorating condition of the current library.

"It's falling down," said Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). "It's not conducive to learning. [But] it's still a lot of unanswered questions about usage."

Barry questioned why the District's proposed library would cost more than 10 times the $26 million state-of-the-art Montgomery County regional library in Rockville, which opened last month. The proposed District library covers 365,000 square feet, and the Montgomery library is less than a third that size.

Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi recently addressed concerns about the cost of the project in a letter to the council. He said that the District building proposal has significant differences from the Montgomery County library. In particular, he said, building costs have increased since construction on the Montgomery project began two years ago, and the D.C. building would include a basement level and a parking garage.

Ginnie Cooper, the new director of the city's library system, said she is confident that a new library will be built.

"It's a matter of when, not if," she said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company