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D.C. library officials mull replacing MLK

(Published April 8, 2002)

Staff Writer

D.C. Public Library officials are seeking public comment on whether the 30-year-old main library building, dedicated to the memory of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., should be renovated or replaced.

The central library, at Ninth and G streets NW, has been plagued by lack of maintenance for years as the city's political leaders have continually budgeted significantly less money for the 27--library system's operating expenses than library officials say is needed.

Despite the lack of funding, library officials began a series of four public meetings April 6 to explore what D.C. residents want done to improve the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and its neighborhood branch libraries.

Additional community meetings are scheduled from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on April 9 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G St. NW; on April 22 at the Cleveland Park Branch Library, 3310 Connecticut Ave. NW; and on April 29 at the Lamond-Riggs Branch Library, 5401 South Dakota Ave. NE.

There is an enormous renaissance in rebuilding libraries across the country, said D.C. Library Director Molly E. Raphael. These libraries are cultural destination spaces for their metropolitan areas and technology centers for the community, she noted.

A symposium sponsored by the D.C. Public Library and the National Building Museum on March 26 considered how recent construction of new central libraries around the country has helped revitalize city centers and contributed to cultural programming. The symposium discussed how the restoration of the central library and branches could add to the District's cultural amenities and become more viable community centers.

"The Office of Planning has considered moving the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library to the current location of the convention center, and I'm absolutely opposed to that," said Alexander M. Padro, an outspoken member of the library's Board of Trustees. D.C. planners say the District needs a cultural anchor for the old convention center site - about a block away from the city's main library - to continue development, and they have also considered making the current convention center space into a national music museum, Padro said.

"That area ... needs more hotels, residential and commercial space instead," Padro said.

Drake M. Wilson, vice chairman of the library's board, disputes Padro's contention that city officials want to relocate the main library.

"There are no plans to tear down the existing Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library," Wilson said. "The plan is to restore and renovate the existing building. The public meetings will mainly cover the branches - the central library is not a focus."

Raphael acknowledges a debate among the trustees on whether to renovate or rebuild the central library. "We need to get feedback from our community to look at our options," she said.

Plans are underway to redesign four branch libraries - the Anacostia and Benning libraries located east of the Anacostia River, the Tenley-Friendship branch in Northwest and the Watha T. Daniel branch in Shaw.

"All 27 library branches will be restored from the largest library to the smallest kiosk," Padro said. "From the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library to the smallest branches, there will be extensive repairs and many branches will be torn down and rebuilt."

Raphael said library officials "are also working to add Francis A. Gregory and Woodridge [branch libraries] to the list, using some funding from the Elizabeth Holden bequests as well as D.C. Public Library capital funding." A decision is expected to be made later this year about whether the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library will be rebuilt or renovated.

The King Memorial Library, designed by architect Mies van der Rohe in 1972, will celebrate its 30-year anniversary this September. A group of seven volunteer architects associated with the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects studied van der Rohe's work and developed a set of design objectives last year for renovating the building.

"The library is a prominent building of modern architecture and a landmark," Wilson said.

Padro called the central library "the only example of major architecture in the District."

"We need to replace the heating and ventilation systems and install thermal windows and new lighting because the current lighting is not energy-efficient," Raphael said. "We will leave the superstructure intact, then rebuild the interior. We are building a new major - I want to emphasize major - renovation plan for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library."

Padro noted that the main library "has had little to no maintenance. The fourth floor faces Ninth Street with floor-to-ceiling windows - there's a great view, but it's used for back office space.

"There needs to be a dramatic increase in the number of computers, areas for children and proper climate control. Currently, photos of the Washington Star newspaper collection are melting in 80-degree temperatures," he said.

Padro was among members of the library's Board of Trustees who testified March 27 before the city council's library oversight committee and said that Mayor Anthony A. Williams' proposed fiscal 2003 budget will again "shortchange" their ability to provide adequate library services to the public. The trustees are appointed by the mayor.

"Taking inflation into account, our purchasing ability has actually been reduced by nearly half a million dollars over the past decade. Each year, our requests for enhancements to our budget to allow us to begin to address past under-funding have been rebuffed by the Williams administration," Padro said in his testimony before Councilman Kevin P. Chavous's committee.

Library Director Raphael told the committee that the proposed fiscal 2003 budget "presents some significant challenges for the public library as we try to stretch our funding even further."

Library Trustee Betsy Harvey Kraft testified that "no funds would be available for new or enhanced library services" under the fiscal 2003 budget Mayor Williams has proposed for the library.

"The book and materials fund - the lifeblood of any thriving library system - will continue its painful attrition of the last six years," she said.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator