A recent decision by D.C. Public Library officials to revamp designs for rebuilding four libraries means those facilities will be closed longer than anticipated, possibly until the end of 2008, city and library officials said.
In the meantime, library officials are scrambling to find sites in the four neighborhoods to open smaller "storefront" libraries as interim replacements for the closed facilities: Tenley-Friendship in Ward 3, Watha T. Daniel in Ward 2 and Benning and Anacostia in Ward 7. The D.C. Council allocated $2.8 million for those temporary facilities in July.
Residents say the Dec. 31 library closings have been a huge hardship on the communities, which depend on the facilities for many services, including reading rooms for senior citizens, computers for students doing homework and storytelling programs for children.
"We have a lot of seniors out in this area, and a lot like to go out to the library and read, and they had computer classes there. It's just an essential building to this community, and we really need it," said Juanita Montague, president of Friends of Benning Library in Northeast. "I'm afraid if we keep prolonging [the reconstruction], we'll just be out of a library altogether."
On Oct. 18, the D.C. Public Library's board of trustees decided to terminate a $20 million contract with the Gaithersburg-based Hess Construction Co., the firm hired to rebuild the libraries.
That decision was made for two reasons, said Francis J. Buckley Jr., interim director of the Public Library. First, officials concluded that the design for the four facilities was not up to national standards and would have resulted in outdated libraries from the start, he said.
"The design of the branches, we felt, was not congruent with expectations coming from the mayor's blue ribbon task force," Buckley said, referring to the committee taking a look at the city's library system.
And Hess had asked in May for an additional $6.5 million to complete the project, saying the extra money was needed to cover rising costs for materials and labor, as well as changes to the original design requested by city officials, according to Buckley and city officials.
The city has paid out $3 million for design work to Hess, Buckley said. The final cost to the city for terminating the contract is not known because Hess has not submitted its last payment request, he added.
"We were never advised on what the final design would be," said Charles Hess, executive vice president of the construction company. The contract awarded to his company in 2004 was based on plans to renovate two libraries and rebuild two, he said. But city officials then asked for all four to be rebuilt, which would have increased costs, he added.
"We have had a great relationship with DCPL, and we agree that if they are changing the entire library program, they should reevaluate before proceeding with construction," Hess said.
Now, Buckley said, library officials must go back to the drawing board, hire architects and hold meetings to get community input. On the plus side, he said, "the design will be better for all of them" because there will be more computers, audiovisual materials and wireless communications equipment and larger spaces for teens and children.
The old designs called for each new library to be 14,000 to 15,000 square feet. The aim now is for facilities of 16,000 to 20,000 square feet, Buckley said.
Alexander Prado, president of the Friends of Watha T. Daniel Library in Shaw, called the decision to start over "a mixed blessing" because residents had been concerned that their new library was going to be 30 percent smaller than the old one. But now, "some trustees said they would explore putting the basement back into the building," which would make the new facility bigger, he added.
Prado called the library essential, particularly because "a lot of families are of more modest means and don't have computers at home."
Martha Saccocio, president of the Friends of Tenley-Friendship Library, said residents served by that branch are also missing their facility. Yet, Saccocio said, she had "actually agreed with the decision. I'm frustrated that the process took so long, but we were really unhappy with the community input. . . . We felt that the architect and the construction company didn't really listen to the community on what we wanted as to the scope of the project."
Council members Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) were at a Nov. 10 town hall meeting on the libraries attended by about 75 members of the four communities.
Patterson said she would host a follow-up meeting early next year to get updates from library officials and others on progress on the interim library facilities and plans for the new branch libraries, according to a statement from her office.
"I will continue monitoring this process on a daily basis to see that residents have interim service as soon as possible and that the public is included in the planning to design new, state-of-the-art libraries," she said, "and that means ample space for children's areas, meeting space, 'Homework Help' labs, and computer banks that will serve the community well for decades to come."
Gray said he had mixed feelings about the decision to terminate the contract and start over.
"On the one hand, it's very disappointing that the delays we're seeing will add probably at least a year" to the reopening of the four libraries, he said in an interview.
He estimated that would happen in early to mid-2008, though Buckley suggested the re-openings would be at the end of 2008. "It's important to move expeditiously to get those storefront libraries opened," Gray said.
Considering the cost increases and "the product we would have had at the end of the day" under the original designs, Gray said, changing the plans was "a prudent decision to make."
The mayor's library task force, whose "mandate was to look at a vision for the library system for the 21st century," is set to issue its findings in a report at the end of this month, Buckley said.