Mayor Williams Plays the Palace

Mayor Anthony Williams published an op ed in the Washington Post on June 13 arguing that the District needs a new Library at the Downtown Convention Center site.

The Mayor’s op ed is full of half truths and outright misrepresentations. He says, for example, that the Mies van der Rohe building has “little architectural significance.” Tell that to the Committee of 100 on the Federal City that recently testified that “MLK is a great example of austere but elegant ‘International School’ architecture in a city largely filled with neo-classical and baroque buildings.”

The Mayor complains about the “awful conditions of the current Martin Luther King Jr. Library” when he produced those very conditions by failing to maintain the building. Indeed, in 2003, the Mayor actually recommended a cut of one million dollars to the Library’s operating budget, when he had already pared it to the bone in previous years.

We thought then, and still think, that the Mayor had cooked up a real estate deal involving this very well-situated and valuable property, and was simply trying to evict the present tenants with time honored slumlord tactics – hasten the decay of the building by refusing maintenance, and evict the tenants to protect them from unsafe conditions.

The Mayor also cites the Blue Ribbon Task Force as though it is a fount of authority on the issue, when the Task was flatly told (before their work even started) that the decision to build a new Library had already been made. Subsequently, the Mayor permitted no one to investigate or assess any alternatives, and extended that policy to the so-called “listenings” in which any citizen who raised the possibility of rehabbing MLK was silenced.

Thus, the decision to build a new Library has very little to do with producing a warm, welcoming, educationally useful Library, and is very much more a real estate deal packaged and planned at least two years ago. That there has been no needs assessment done- ever – points to the bankrupt rationale for building an entirely new Library.

The Mayor claims that he wants a “sunny and airy” new Library “filled with the latest technology,” and we agree that this is indeed desirable. However, the plan to rehabilitate the MLK that we have recently unearthed (following this entry) made by architect Kent Cooper, fulfills all of the requirements for an “airy” library “filled with the latest technology” and at a cost that would come at thirty percent less than that of building an entirely new Library.

This would represent a savings amounting to at least 60 million dollars (depending on the true costs of building new), and could be applied to eliminating the extraordinarily high adult illiteracy rate in the District, that, if we add teens and children, engulfs 62 percent of the District’s population. The costs to the District of this high rate of illiteracy are incalculable, but surely the mayor would want that 60 million dollar savings to be applied to eliminating this shocking social problem, rather than building a new Downtown Library for the few who would need or use it.

A new Library Downtown, however, will not provide resources to people who have these needs, most of whom go to their neighborhood libraries for help.

Meanwhile, the DC Library Renaissance Project has been pressing the Library Trustees for two years to provide such programs, but has been ignored by Trustees more interested in an expensive and needless Library Palace, rather than serving those whose voices have been muted or stilled for lack of local Library service, and who are denied the literacy that would enable them to speak for themselves.