University of the District of Columbia officials last night opened a restored $4.2-million library at Mount Vernon Square, an ornate white marble cornerstone for a downtown campus that might never be.
"The proposal (for the overall campus) is dead," said John Gnorski, a staff member on the Senate D.C. appropriations subcommittee that controlled the purse strings for the project. The subcommittee last August denied the university's bid to borrow $56 million to build the campus.
Such a downtown campus, bordered by 7th, M, 9th and K streets NW, was to be the university's answer to complaints from its predominantly inner-city student body that the school's main campus, located on upper Connecticut Avenue, several miles and three bus rides away from most of the neighborhoods where the students live, is inconvenient to attend.
According to the original plan, the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square was to be the gateway to the new campus. And, indeed, university officials decreed that the entrance of the library should be changed from the south side on K Street to look out instead onto Mount Vernon Place, on the north side, where the campus was to be built.
But the library entrance now looks out on a vacant lot strewn with trash, old tires, furniture and cars impounded by D.C. police.
The city's fiscal overseers in the Senate, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), at first questioned the need for the Mount Vernon campus because of the school's declining enrollment and later voiced the opinion that it would be better to have one large campus, the one that already exists at Van Ness Street and Connecticut Avenue NW, rather than two campuses.
"It's very frustrating, absolutely heart-breaking," said Marjorie Parker, president of UDC's board of trustees. She was one of the officials who gathered last night in the white-columned, marble-floored lobby of the Carnegie Library, set off by a graceful, swirling marble staircase.
Gnorski said university officials will have to "start from zero" to resurrect the Mt. Vernon campus proposal and again send it to the City Council and Mayor Marion Barry for their approval.
Standing in front of a three-tiered cake at the dedication ceremony last night, University President Lisle C. Carter Jr. said, "We have not in any way given up" the Mount Vernon campus. Asked why the university forged ahead with the library project when for the past two years construction of the campus has been in question, Carter said, "This library is worthwhile in itself. It will be a very important part of the university . . . it is a good thing for the District of Columbia."
"I would hope we have not given up hope," Parker said. She said she plans to hold a retreat for the board next month so it can draft a new proposal.
The Carnegie Library will hold 95,000 volumes, geared toward students who are in UDC's graduate schools and its undergraduate schools of education and business and public administration, according to Claude Ford, UDC's vice president for institutional advancement.
The 77-year-old library, a mixture of Romanesque arches and classical Greek architecture, stands like a turn-of-the-century mirage in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, an incongruous neighbor to rundown shops, pornography stores and a souvenir store. Ford said most of the students who already attend classes in UDC's 14 leased buildings downtown will be using the Carnegie Library, but any students coming from the Van Ness campus will find they have to go four miles -- an 18-minute nonrush-hour drive by car in the morning -- just to get to the Mount Vernon library. The Van Ness has a 90,000-volume library, which is scheduled for expansion next year, Ford said.
"Frankly, as a student leader, I don't know who is going to use that library," said Robert McNeil, student representive to UDC's Board of Trustees. McNeil suggested the library be used for some classes as well, since the downtown classes now are held in dilapidated, roach-infested buildings.
In the past, UDC students frequently demonstrated in the streets whenever funding for the Mount Vernon campus seemed in danger. At one point, a student group threatened to travel to Vermont and campaign against Leahy, the Democratic senator who as chairman of the Senate D.C. subcommittee was holding up the project.
Now many students have lost hope, said Kevin Avery, editor of the student newspaper, Flight Path, but their anger over the project's demise has not diminished.
"When the school [campus] is cut out and just the library is opened, well, that's like building an apartment without a kitchen, and saying you have to go to another building for the kitchen," said Ali Zamani, acting treasurer of the student government.
Plans for a Mount Vernon campus have been on the drawing boards since 1967, but those plans consistently were reduced ever since an initial $9.7 million was spent to purchase the four-square-block site and clear the homes of 183 families and 16 stores.
The biggest stumbling block was Leahy, who accused UDC officials of having an "edifice complex" for proposing to construct another campus at a time when the school's enrollment was declining. Students branded Leahy, who supported expansion of the Van Ness site, a racist for his stand. l
It also became an important issue for the city government, which supported the Mount Vernon expansion and felt the Senate subcommittee was usurping the District of Columbia's home rule prerogatives by vetoing the Mount Vernon project. In the end, when the final proposal for the Mount Vernon construction plan came to a vote last August, Leahy was in the minority of senators who voted for it.
Why did the university go ahead with the restoration of the library when Congress began questioning the need for the overall campus? Critics of the university say school officials thought it would give them leverage needed to get Congress to release the funds for the overall campus.
"I don't think there was any of that at all," said Ford. Noting that plans for the downtown campus were more than 10 years old, Ford said, "We were just proceeding in good faith" that Congress would appropriate the funds. w