The Williams administration is reviewing proposals to redevelop the current Washington Convention Center. But all the proposals are flawed because, at the instructions of the District, they include plans for a new, 200,000-square-foot central public library.
Washington already has a central public library one block away from the proposed site of the new building: the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
The District's central library, which celebrated its 30th anniversary a few months ago, is an outstanding example of the work of one of the most important architects of the 20th century, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. As the only building in Washington designed by this architect, it was added to the D.C. Preservation League's list of 10 most endangered places last year. The league is preparing a landmark application to protect the MLK Library from a tragic fate.
When the MLK Library opened in 1972, it was praised by Wolf von Eckardt, The Post's architecture critic, who declared, "For once in a public building in Washington, there is excellence throughout."
Decades of neglect as a result of inadequate budgets and poor maintenance and management, however, have allowed this building to take on the air of a relic, with obsolete pneumatic tubes, dumbwaiters and card catalogues left in place. Elevators, air conditioning and water fountains regularly fail or are inoperable. Much of the library's valuable Mies-designed furniture has been discarded.
In 2000 the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects, supported by the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, prepared a plan for renovating the MLK Library. It featured an atrium with a massive skylight, a theater-style auditorium and a new fifth floor with space for public events. The $75 million plan was presented to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, and funding for studying the renovation was added to the fiscal 2002 capital budget.
But the money was never spent. Instead, the D.C. Office of Planning decided that the District should abandon the MLK Library and build a smaller, less-distinguished library a block away at a cost of $150 million. And even though the city's library system has no history of major fundraising, planners posited that most of the cost of a new building could be borne by the private sector.
The D.C. public library system is so underfunded that hours are being cut at all branches, and employee furloughs or branch closings are likely if more cuts occur. The District spends barely a third of the national average on library maintenance, and its budget for new books is a tiny fraction of what cities of comparable size spend per person.
Suggesting the construction of a new central library at twice the cost of a dramatic renovation of the existing building is irresponsible. That the District's monument to King -- and an important building in its own right -- will be discarded is insulting.
If the administration moves forward with redevelopment of the convention center site as proposed, one of four scenarios is likely.
* The new library is built, and the MLK Library is left to rot -- as the District has done with so many of its historic schools -- or is underutilized -- as is the case with the General Services Administration's Old Post Office at Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street NW.
* The library is sold and so altered by developers that the modernist landmark is unrecognizable.
* The library is demolished by the city, as was done with several historic landmark buildings on the D.C. General Hospital campus.
* The lot reserved for a new library remains undeveloped for decades because of a lack of funding. This has happened with dozens of Redevelopment Land Agency parcels throughout the city. The result would be a fenced-off empty lot in the middle of downtown, with a deteriorating but still open MLK Library a block to the south.
If the city's goal is to have the current convention center site support downtown revitalization, a parking garage with ground-level retail could be built there instead. The garage would serve not only the new convention center, which has no on-site public parking, but downtown tourists and shoppers as well. A hotel or other commercial enterprise also could be considered. In exchange for the right to develop the 50,000-square-foot lot, developers could be required to make a significant contribution to the MLK Library renovations.
Will the MLK Library be renovated and continue to serve as the city's main public library and as a tribute to both King and Mies? The people of the District await an answer from their mayor and city council.
-- Alexander M. Padro
is a member of the D.C. Board
of Library Trustees.