At the June 15 hearing on Mayor Tony Williams’ plan to build a new central library, proponents of abandoning the existing Martin Luther King Jr. Library argued (among other things) that renovating the existing structure would be more expensive than building a new one. Specifically, D.C. Public Library Office of Capital Construction Acting Director Jeff Bonvechio testified that the cost of a new building would be $206 million, while restoring MLK would cost $246 million.
Those figures shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The $206 million price tag is for a building that hasn’t even been designed yet, and $246 million is only a guesstimate. But even Bonvechio concedes that remaking MLK is not pricier because of construction costs but due to the expense of leasing and operating an interim main library during the period—perhaps as much as four years—while MLK is being redone.
Local architect Kent Cooper, who headed a team that in 2000 did a feasibility study for revamping MLK, rejects the new-library proponents’ premise. He testified that the current library could be redone in sections, without ever closing the whole facility. He estimates that the process would take two to two-and-half years.
That may be, but there’s another approach that’s even cheaper: Just shut MLK for a full overhaul, and don’t replace it in the interim. The building has been allowed to deteriorate so badly, and its collections have dwindled so dramatically, that simply closing it wouldn’t affect that many people. As the advocates of a new library stress, there’s little left at MLK to draw people there.
Of course, closing MLK would not be cost-free. The library system would have to lease temporary office space for the staff members who now work on the building’s fourth floor. It would also need to rent storage space for some of MLK’s contents.
But not for all of them. There’s unused space at several of the branch libraries, both for storage and for temporary library services. The West End library, for example, has an entire floor that’s empty. The collections that are unique to MLK—like Washingtoniana and musical scores—could be made available temporarily in one of the branches, while popular novels and the like could just be boxed up for a year or two.
Of course, some people would be inconvenienced. But there will be nuisances regardless of what option is chosen. And closing, readapting, and reopening MLK could be done much faster than renovating the building while it’s in operation or building a whole new library whose design currently consists entirely of buzzphrases like “world-class” and “21st-century.” The mayor’s proposal calls for a new main library by 2011; by then, a refreshed MLK could have been serving 21st-century patrons for several years.