Press Release: ULI’s Tentative Recommendation to Keep MLK a Library

November 20, 2011
Contact Robin Diener
202 431-9254

ULI’s Tentative Recommendation to Keep MLK a Library

Washington, DC — It has taken 12 years, but library advocates appear to have scored a partial victory in the struggle to restore and improve the long-degraded Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library building and to keep it as the location of the city’s central library.

Over a decade ago, in 2000, award-wining local architect Kent Cooper and the Urban Design Committee of the American Institute of Architects released their pro bono study of how to correct the MLK library’s long acknowledged design flaws.  Though cited often in the years since, the AIA/Cooper study was ignored by then-Mayor Williams, who wanted a new library on the old convention center site.

Earlier this year, DC Public Library (DCPL) hired the Urban Land Institute (ULI), at a cost of $120,000, to do another MLK study – this time exploring ways to “leverage” the value of the building in order to afford to build a new central library or find ways to pay for renovation to the 40-year-old landmark, which was designed by Mies van der Rohe.

The ULI’s preliminary report, presented on Friday, favors co-tenancy, either residential or office, over sale.  

Ironically, their design suggestions relied heavily on the AIA/Cooper 2000 report solutions, including what appears to be uncredited use of the drawings.  

That the central library is likely to remain in the MLK building comes as a relief to library activists. But they’re disappointed that the ULI panel proposed shrinking the city’s central library from its current 440,000 sq ft to about 225,000 sq ft. to accommodate a co-tenant. Smaller central libraries are supposedly a “trend,” but most of the acclaimed new central libraries, built in recent years in cities comparable to DC, are substantially larger than 225,000 sq ft.

Moreover, the report by the panel’s financial expert, Mike Reynolds of the Concord Group, depicted the District’s financial health as excellent. This undercut the central premise of the panel’s work: that the District must find ways to “leverage” the value of MLK building.

In his brief presentation, Reynolds did not even mention the city’s AAA bond rating, the $180 million taxpayer investment in beautiful transformations of 14 neighborhood libraries across the city over the past five years, or the announcement by Library Trustees President John Hill on Wednesday that another $100-million-plus is expected from the FY 2013 round of capital budget planning to rebuild the remaining 10 branches.

Residents may wonder why a city doing so well can’t afford to renovate its historic central library. They might address that question to the DC officials listed below — and perhaps cc ULI Chair Wayne Ratkovich, who might include that query in the ULI’s final report to be issued in 60 days.

Library Committee Chair Tommy Wells (Ward 6), [email protected]

Finance and Revenue Committee Chair Jack Evans (Ward 2) [email protected]

Library Trustees President John Hill, [email protected]

Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper [email protected]

Mayor Vincent Gray  [email protected]

Wayne Ratkovich, Chair, ULI Panel  [email protected]