March 16, 2018

DC Library Advocates Butt Heads over Redevelopment

Proposed West End Library

Proposed new West End Library; image by EastBanc Inc.

A plan to replace an aging library in Washington, DC’s West End as part of a massive private development has opened a rift between some unlikely foes: the D.C. Library Renaissance Project (DCLRP), a library advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, which has gone to court seeking to halt the project, and several neighborhood groups, led by West End Library Friends, who want ground broken as soon as possible.

On the surface, the DCLRP and West End Library Friends would seem to have mostly common goals. But the plan has divided them into opposite camps, as well as putting DCLRP at odds with the DC library system itself. Ginnie Cooper, the district’s chief librarian, told LJ, “We do support the development, and look forward to the larger, better West End Library.”

For now, both sides await a DC Court of Appeals ruling that should go a long way toward determining whether the two apartment buildings—and a new library—will ever be built.

The D.C. Zoning Commission signed off on the plan last April, seemingly the final hurdle before ground could be broken. (Cooper told LJ that the D.C. city council reviewed and approved the development agreement as well.) But Nader’s group, against the plan from the start, challenged the Zoning Commission’s decision in court. Arguments from both sides were heard on Feb. 14 by a three-judge appeals panel. Although the court has placed the matter on an expedited schedule, no one knows when a decision will be handed down.

The Washington DC attorney general’s office, which is representing the district in the Court of Appeals hearing, declined to comment for this article through a spokesman, citing the ongoing litigation.

What’s At Stake

The controversy took shape about three years ago, when the district chose real estate development firm EastBanc as its partner for a West End redevelopment project. EastBanc submitted plans for a 300,000-square-foot project. In return for building a new 20,000-square-foot library at 23rd and L streets NW, EastBanc could build two upscale apartment buildings on separate tracts of public land, acquired at no cost. The district would also get a new modern firehouse out of the deal, to be located (like the library) on the ground floor of one building. The value of the two plots together has been estimated at $30 million by the city.

EastBanc applied for, and was granted, a waiver from the Zoning Commission’s inclusionary zoning law, meaning the developer will not have create a certain amount of “affordable housing” units as part of its project. That decision contributed to the DCLRP’s anger over the transaction and was part of the organization’s appeal in court, though in December, the Washington Business Journal reported that the city will, in fact, contribute $7 million to the project in order to create 52 affordable housing units.

A Sweetheart Deal?

Renaissance Project officials insist the developer successfully hoodwinked city officials into approving a sweetheart deal that gives them control of extremely valuable public land (the group estimates its worth at far more than $30 million) in an upscale neighborhood for the bargain-basement price of a library and a firehouse. Nader, in comments to the Washington Post, said, “It’s a giveaway by the District government.”

Deborah Baum, the attorney representing EastBanc in the appeals court proceeding, disputed such claims. “There was a formal public RFP (in 2007),” she said. “EastBanc was the only developer to respond with a proposal. That included building the desperately needed public library and fire station. They were the only one to respond. So obviously no one else saw this as a sweetheart deal.”

“It’s an unbelievably convoluted deal,” Robin Diener, DCLRP’s executive director, told LJ in a phone conversation. “It’s a closed deal; a very complex deal. No one is looking out for the baseline public interest.” Diener continued. “We’re not against a new library. … The question is, what are we giving up?”

“There is an appearance of corruption arising from the case,” Oliver Hall, attorney for the DCLRP, told LJ, although he declined to elaborate. Said Hall, “The idea that this deal is the only way the district can acquire a new library is just not believable.”

The Friends Are For It

“The logic of saying a new library is going to hurt a community astounds me,” said Susan Haight, president of West End Library Friends and the public face of opposition to the DCLRP’s actions.

West End Library Friends says the transaction is wholly aboveboard. They view the DCLRP’s actions as needlessly obstructionist and counter to the neighborhood’s wishes.

“We very much oppose their position,” said Haight, whose group numbers about 80 members. “They are not from the neighborhood. They are funded and have paid staff.”

In September, West End neighborhood groups authored a letter to Nader, asking him to withdraw its appeal of the Zoning Commission’s ruling.

“To us it makes little sense for the District to have to use tax dollars to litigate in favor of a project that has the support of the tax-paying residents of West End and Foggy Bottom,” the letter stated.

Five neighborhood groups signed the letter: West End Library Friends, West End Citizens Association, Foggy Bottom Association, West End Friends, and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A.

“This project was very thoroughly vetted by these groups over a period of three to four years,” Haight told LJ. “The mayor, the city council, our [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] have supported this.”

Asked why she thinks the DCLRP came out against the EastBanc plan, Haight said, “They just don’t like public-private partnerships. Mr. Nader doesn’t.” Added Haight, “They’re under a lot of misconceptions. They think that EastBanc will own the new library, which is not true.”

Could the two sides ever find enough common ground to work out a compromise? “No,” Haight insisted. “That has been tried repeatedly.”

Haight said the current West End Library is 40 years old with about 20,000 square feet of space spread over two levels. She described the site as “very old and very dated” and in need of replacement. “If you said to me, is it falling down? I would say no,” Haight added, but she noted the neighborhood has long sought a more modern facility, one that can handle rising usage trends.