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In 2003, the Williams administration made some noises about replacing the Tenleytown library with a mixed-use structure that would include a new library as well as residential and possibly commercial space. The neighborhood reacted skeptically, and the trial balloon was deflated.
It now turns out, however, that the concept wasn’t abandoned; it was just quietly moved across town. The city has been sketching plans to replace the Benning Library—which, like Tenleytown and two others, has been closed since the end of 2004—with a mixed-use building that would pair a new library with artists’ work/live apartments.
At an evening meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 4, dozens of community members reacted strongly against the plan, and the scheme’s exponents were clearly on the defensive. But they were also prepared. After a reportedly stormy meeting just a few days before, on Sept. 30, the planners introduced a structure devised to minimize critics’ opportunities to speak.
The meeting took place in the board room of the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, the partially city-funded nonprofit that is the developer of record for the remake of the Benning Library as a mixed-use building. The group, whose office borders the shuttered library, is technically independent of the city but has clearly worked closely with D.C. officials on the Benning plan.
The meeting was moderated by Connie Spinner, who was director of the D.C. State Office of Education until 2004, when she resigned after city auditors found improper travel expenses and misuse of federal grant money. (She was promptly rehired to run the Mayor’s Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning Initiative.) Identifying herself as a “facilitator,” Spinner set “ground rules” that were part kindergarten, part psychobabble. She then used these guidelines in an attempt to limit questioning of the principal presenters: D.C. Public Library Capital Construction Director Jeff Bonvechio; Derrick Woody, coordinator of the Great Streets Initiative for the Office of Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development; and Jair Lynch, the developer hired by the Marshall Heights CDO (on what he called “a fee-for-service” basis) to get the structure planned and possibly built.
Carrie Thornhill, president of the Marshall Heights CDO, also spoke briefly, apologizing if she misjudged the community’s level of interest in the project. This misjudgment was a major part of the controversy, since the Oct. 4 event had been billed as the last public meeting on a proposal that many in the neighborhood had just discovered. Speaking for Thornhill, Spinner promised that “this is a continuing dialogue.”
It became clear, however, that the dialogue had begun long before local residents were allowed to have their say. The most revealing presentation came from Woody, who disclosed that mixed-use redevelopment plans are in consideration for several library sites, and that “the policy direction we were given is to look at a mix of uses.” He argued that the Shaw community is “coming around” to a plan to redevelop the closed Watha T. Daniel Library as a multi-use structure, and revealed that Tenleytown “will probably come up again as well.”
The library redevelopment process can apparently sustain itself for some time without ever coming into the glare of D.C.’s sunshine laws. Woody said that the R.L. Christian library kiosk on H Street N.E.—a tiny facility without a professional librarian—is well on the way to being replaced by a mixed-use building. But in response to a question, Bonvechio that the D.C. Library Board of Trustees has yet to hear a formal presentation on the R.L. Christian plan.
Later, Lynch claimed that “at no point has the library done more than just listen” and that the Marshall Heights CDO’s “process is running in parallel with the library’s.”
Several local artists extolled the Benning Library multi-use proposal, but most of the audience seemed dubious. After the official presentations, Spinner reluctantly allowed Eddie Rhodes, the local advisory neighborhood commissioner, to speak. Neighborhood residents “just don’t want housing on top of their library,” he said. “I’ve polled over 1,000 people, and only about five people approved.”
That may not be a scientific poll, but it’s clear that there’s a lot of neighborhood distrust of the city’s plan. Ironically, some of that doubt probably would have been dispelled if the city and its allies had started with the sort of open dialogue that Thornhill contends will now ensue.