On Tuesday, Nov. 21, the D.C. Council’s Education, Library and Recreation Committee voted to table legislation authorizing the construction of a new central library. Prominent supporters of the new-library proposal were clearly shocked by the 3-2 vote but were quick to suggest that the bill still might move forward, perhaps as emergency legislation.
A week later, on Nov. 28, the committee eliminated that possibility by a 4-1 margin. The second vote guarantees that the library proposal is comatose until after Mayor Tony Williams, the most powerful elected official to advocate the scheme, leaves office at the beginning of 2007.
At issue was a proposal to build a new central library, at an estimated cost of $275 million, on the old Convention Center site, which is due for major mixed-use redevelopment. Under the plan, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at 9th and G Streets NW would be leased to an as-yet-undisclosed entity. Opponents of the scheme argued that MLK is a significant building that should be preserved for its original use and that it could be renovated for far less than the cost of a new structure.
After they voted to stop the legislation, Councilmembers Marion Barry, Carol Schwartz, and Vincent Gray were left with a procedural anomaly. The committee report, produced by the staff of Committee Chairperson Kathy Patterson, strongly endorses the legislation that failed to pass. The 113-page study raises nine questions and answers them all in favor of the plan for a new library put forth by the Board of Library Trustees and the Federal City Council, both of which are headed by John W. Hill. (The report was written by Patterson staffer Jason Juffras, who is a friend of Hill’s.)
The committee’s solution was to reclassify the document as a “special” report rather than a committee one. Since it was not adopted as a committee report, it cannot be the basis for legislative action. Even that was not enough for Schwartz, who voted against accepting the report at all.
The library scheme will no doubt be back on the council’s agenda next year, but on Tuesday both Gray (who in the next term will be council chairman) and Schwartz expressed doubts about the expense. Schwartz noted that Montgomery County’s brand-new central library cost less than one-tenth the estimated price of the proposed D.C. facility.