Mayor Tony Williams and his business-establishment allies want to build a new main library at New York Avenue and 10th Street NW on the old Convention Center site, and abandon the Martin Luther King Jr. Library at 901 G Street NW to an uncertain fate. They may very well get their way, but not because they’ve made a case for their scheme. Yesterday, in the second public hearing on the notion—it’s not sufficiently concrete to be called a “plan”—the mayor and company once again fumbled.

The first forum, on April 26 22 at MLK itself, was technically a “town meeting.” At that presentation, Williams and his supporters presented a conceptual plan for a new library that was little more than a napkin sketch. They argued that MLK is in deplorable condition, which no one denies, and that it can’t be retrofitted with computer technology to become a “21st century library.” Supporters of renovating MLK noted that the political elite that now claims to be shocked at the library’s deterioration is directly responsible for 35 years of neglect. They also shredded the 21st-century-library argument, noting that many structures that are substantially older than MLK—including the main building of the Library of Congress—have been adapted successfully to the Internet era.

A few things have changed since April 26. Williams originally hoped to slip his new library through as part of the general budget. Given the hostile reaction to that idea, however, he moved it to a separate bill, “The Library Transformation Act of 2006.” Also, a 2000 feasibility study for revamping MLK, little discussed in recent years, has returned to the spotlight. That plan, done by a team headed by architect Kent Cooper for the American Institute for Architects’ D.C. chapter, answers many of the new-library partisans’ purported objections to MLK—which is why they spent so much of the hearing attacking it.

Chaired by Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, the hearing turned against Williams before it even started. On Monday, the mayor published a characteristically petulant op-ed in the Washington Post, in which he called MLK, designed by Bauhaus master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a building of “little architectural significance.” On Thursday, Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey responded with a piece defending MLK, and calling the Williams plan to dispose of the library “shameful.” Thus at the hearing, the mayor and his cronies spent roughly as much time rebutting Forgey’s critique as they did the AIA study.

The hearing lasted a full eight hours, so it’s impossible to summarize the event fully here. But a few major weaknesses in the new-library argument were illuminated:

  • There is no architectural design for the new library, which was repeatedly described as “iconic,” “world-class,” and so on. These are the same sort of terms used when Williams was selling an non-existent blueprint for a new baseball stadium to the compliant D.C. Council. Only after that deal was made were the drawings for the stadium revealed, to near-universal disappointment. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, architecture critic Catesby Leigh called the stadium design “lackluster” and “suitable for a garden-variety airport terminal.”
  • The finances of the new-library ploy are suspect. John Ross, senior advisor for economic development in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, testified that the new library will cost $180, and $100 million of that cost has been “identified”—leaving $80 million to be paid by the feds (fat chance) or philanthropists. But the very next witness, library Office of Capital Construction acting director John Bonvechio, said that the cost had already risen to $206 million. And several subsequent witnesses questioned the numbers. Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, testified that the project’s “creative financing”—using such dodges as Tax Increment Financing—would actually result in higher costs than simply funding a new library through the capital budget.
  • Advocates of ditching MLK repeatedly called it a “sick building,” teeming with asbestos, lead, and PCBs. Yet a new library couldn’t be ready before 2011, leaving supposedly poisonous MLK in place for at least another five years. When Patterson asked what could be done to protect people who work in the building in the interim, Bonvechio replied that MLK’s air quality is monitored regularly and is “fine.”
  • The new-library advocates claim that building a new structure would be cheaper than redoing MLK, but no study has been made to support that argument, and venerable local architect Arthur Cotton Moore strongly disagrees. Advance word was that Jim Polshek, a New York architect hired by the city, would testify that renovation would be more expensive, but he didn’t. In fact, he rejected one of the Williams camp’s central contentions, conceding that MLK is flexible enough to accommodate “the program” anticipated for a new library.
  • One line of attack on the AIA study is that its proposed changes—which include a large skylight, an additional floor, a four-story atrium, and possibly changing from the exterior from black to silvery white—would be affronts to historic-preservation principles. Yet Williams wants to lease the building to a private entity, and that lessor will surely want to make changes. When Patterson asked city representatives if they would object to a future tenant’s alterations as they do to the AIA plan, she got no substantive response.

Along with the lack of an actual design for a new library, the proposal to lease MLK is the gaping hole in the concept. The proposal is for a 99-year, $60 million lease, which works out to less than about $600,000 a year. That’s a sweetheart deal for a 400,000-square-foot building in downtown Washington. So the question is, does Williams have a sweetheart in mind for the deal? That’s one of the many queries Williams and his pro-development drones can’t or won’t answer.

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