The DC Public Library in Washington D.C. owns a very valuable piece of real estate in the heart of downtown, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and the library is looking to leverage that asset.
In an unusual move, Ginnie Cooper, the library’s director, last month paid $120,000 to the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a D.C.-based nonprofit urban planning group, to recommend how best to unlock the central library building’s revenue potential, which is substantial. According to a preliminary presentation that was made November 18 to a crowd of about 250 people, remodeling and leasing the building to a co-tenant could raise $4.1 million to $5.5 million annually and selling the building could fetch anywhere from $58.8 million to $70.5 million, possibly more.
“This building is probably the most valuable piece of land in downtown that is not completely developed at this point,” Cooper said.
The library, a federal landmark building designed in 1968 by Mies van der Rohe, is too big for its needs and only requires about 225,000 of the 440,000 square feet it occupies, Cooper said. By capitalizing on its excess space, the library can use the revenue to help rehabilitate and redevelop the facility.
“It is a huge building and it is pretty poorly planned as a library,” Cooper said. “Part of that is it’s 40 years old, but it is very difficult to run efficiently and all the systems — elevators, HVAC, windows — are ready for replacement,” she said. Such changes can be very costly. For example, after the August earthquake that shook the East Coast the library had to replace four window panes at a cost of about $15,000 a piece.
“It’s a very expensive building and very difficult to radically transform in the way we need,” Cooper said.
The institute organized a panel of eight experts in architecture, urban planning, commercial and residential development, finance and library sciences.— including Susan Kent, the former city librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library — who from November 13-18 met with about 60 civic leaders and examined the sale and co-tenant options. The Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) partnered with the library as a sponsor of the panel.
Thomas Eitler, vice president of ULI’s advisory services panel program, could not be reached for comment, but he had said previously in a press release that the panel provides an outside view that is key to “productive results.”
“We seek possibilities and opportunities that might have been overlooked,” Eitler said. “The advisory services panel program is all about seeing things a different way. Our goal is to provide practical, feasible solutions to enhance the economic and social fabric of a community,” he said in the release.
The panel’s final report, its first on a stand-alone public library, is not expected until January, but they are leaning toward the leasing option: Reprogramming to office space “represents the most beneficial financial outcome to the library to support the optimal number of physical improvements,” the panel’s preliminary assessment states.
The ULI panel noted that a downside to co-tenancy is that a mixed use could dilute the building’s focus on the library and also create redundancies, such as two entrances. Also, the administrative offices in the central library would have to be relocated. Selling the building and moving to a new location offer obvious benefits in terms of upgrading the facilities, but there are also concerns about leaving a historic building with a high degree of public identification as well as the difficulties of finding a new site.
Regardless of whatever obstacles may arise, Cooper said it was important to start a conversation about the future of the central library, a conversation that has been dormant since 2006 even as about half of the system’s 25 locations were either being rebuilt or remodeled.
“We thought this was an opportune time to bring this building to the public’s attention and ask what’s possible for us,” Cooper said. “It was really wonderful to hear people talk about the library, whether they agreed or disagreed,” she said.
Cooper is hopeful that Mayor Vincent C. Gray will agree that this is the right direction.
“We are hopeful that the mayor in his capital budget will decide that this is something he wants to have on his agenda,” Cooper said. “There is still lots to do, but I think we are on our way,” she said.