It’s been a surprising and energizing spring for the Washington, DC, library community as Mayor Vincent Gray publicly endorsed two of its top wish-list items during his March 27 budget introduction: a proposed $103 million overhaul of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the city’s landmark central branch, and a 25 percent bump in total system funding earmarked for keeping every facility open seven days a week.
A Renovation Overdue
Designed in 1968 by the renowned Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, the glass-and-steel MLK Library opened in 1972. Some 40 years on, the 440,000-square foot library is feeling its age. “This building works in spite of itself,” said Ginnie Cooper, the DCPL’s chief librarian, who works in a fourth-floor office there. “Every part of it needs overhauling.”
There are a host of obvious problems, Cooper said, which have long since gone beyond any Band-Aid approach to fixing. There is asbestos that needs removal. The heating-and-cooling system is the original from 1972, and the outdated equipment is particularly costly to repair. It’s impossible to maintain the correct temperature in large parts of the structure, Cooper added, because its telltale glass shell fails to keep the cold or heat from leaking in. That, in turn, keeps energy bills high.
Yet, the patrons keep on coming. Usage for 2012 increased a staggering 40 percent from the previous year, Cooper said. “We are amazed by that number,” she told LJ. Part of that success stems from Cooper’s efforts to revamp the MLK Library with the resources she had available. The first floor, for example, has been renovated to feature a new digital commons technology space with room for 70 computers.
“We’ve made it much easier to use,” Cooper said of the central branch. “We’ve also beefed up out programming.”
Library patrons seemed to have noticed. Circulation at MLK rose from 578,735 in 2011 to 786,532 in 2012, according to figures provided by DCPL. Since 2007, circulation has more than doubled.
The programs may have improved, but it remained obvious to all that the MLK branch building was not going to be adequate for much longer.
In 2011, Cooper commissioned a $120,000 study by the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit urban planning agency based in Washington, to recommend ways to better realize the central library building’s untapped revenue potential. The results were unveiled last September.
A Public-Private Partnership
A top-to-bottom renovation of the 40-year-old MLK Library has been talked about for years—and by other mayors—only to be tabled because of budget woes and political inertia. So what’s changed? Rental income. Gray introduced in his budget announcement plans for the project to be paid for almost entirely with income from a private tenant. The central library’s G Street Northwest location places it at the heart of Washington’s thriving downtown region on some of its most valuable real estate. No one doubts an addition of commercial office space would lure a host of potential tenants.
“The longer we wait, the harder it will be to move forward with a project of this scope,” Gray wrote in an email to LJ. “Bringing in a private partner is the most cost-effective way to bring this wonderful Mies van der Rohe-designed building into the 21st century and provide district residents with the library they deserve. The district has completed or is the process of building 17 new library buildings, so the momentum is there.”
Added Cooper, “The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library should be one of the best in the nation. This puts us on a pathway to do that.”
Public hearings on Gray’s $12.1 billion FY13 budget proposal start this week. A mere $3 million of that has been earmarked to kick off the MLK Library project; the money would be spent to hire an architect and a business consultant. Income from a tenant, occupying yet-to-be built upper floors, would account for the remaining $100 million, and 2019 has been set as a target date for completion.
“It’s a really wonderful time,” Cooper said. “I’m plenty excited and thrilled. … It’s a wonderful affirmation of the importance of libraries in the District of Columbia.”
“I was certainly very surprised by the announcement,” added LaToya Thomas, president of MLK Library Friends. “I think it’s a good commitment from the mayor.” She called the plan to generate needed revenue from a tenant “a creative strategy.”
So far, in fact, the plan is that rarity in politics: something everyone likes. Even as the budget process in Washington moves forward—a series of public hearings will be held over the next two months—there has been no public criticism of either of Gray’s library initiatives.
“I’m a proponent,” Councilman Jack Evans told LJ in a telephone interview. “I think they’re both great ideas. One of them was mine.”
Just two years ago, Gray and the City Council scrambled against a deadline to come up with enough money to save the MLK Library’s Sunday hours; so far, it’s still the only one of 26 District of Columbia Public Library branches that can stay open that day.
However Evans, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue, spearheaded passage of legislation in 2012 calling for every library to stay open seven days a week, with increased evening hours, provided there was sufficient funding.
The Mayor now says that money is available. Gray, in his budget, called for $52.1 million for the library system’s FY14 operating budget, up from $42 million for FY13.
If the 25 percent funding increase goes through, Cooper said, “We may have better hours than any of the other urban libraries in the country.”
In a Washington Post article earlier this month, Cooper said 150 new library employees would be needed to create Sunday hours across the library system and increase evening hours for each branch.