All Fired Up

Once attention was finally focused on DCPL, it was inevitable that someone would clean house. In the last week, five top-level employees have been let go, ostensibly as a result of restructuring to facilitate the transition for new Library Director Ginnie Cooper, expected to start work on Monday (July 24). Interviews leading to the firings have been conducted by recently hired “transition” manager Larry King – a former DC Control Board associate of Library Trustee President John Hill, with unknown expertise in library arts and sciences. King’s recent round of head-chopping represents a further application of the corporate model favored by the Williams administration.

DC Library Renaissance Project has long held there is a high level of incompetence at DCPL. Therefore, we welcome changes in management. Before endorsing the shakeups, however, we want to acknowledge that a major reason behind DCPL’s poor performance goes beyond personnel to the Board of Library Trustees.

The Trustees, all mayoral appointees, have left DCPL adrift for more than three years. Since the departure of Library Director Molly Raphael in 2003, the Trustees have hired only “interim” directors, thus ensuring there would be no real day-to-day leadership for the large, complex institution that is the DC Public Library. Without a permanent director backed by the Trustees, it is difficult to maintain order, let alone improve a situation. Three years of interim directors is a failure by the Board of Library Trustees to carry out one of its most basic charges.

The decision to terminate employees may have been “authorized” by recently designated Acting Director Ellen Flaherty, as Hill stated to the Washington Post (7/20/06, Metro, page 2), but it came only after King had completed his interviews. Flaherty, temporarily elevated from Director of Human Resources for DCPL, at the same time King came on board, must have had her hands tied before, because the termin-ees were all employees of long standing.

For her sake, we hope Flaherty doesn’t get the axe from the Trustees as most recent interim director Francis Buckley did – by email, no less – after he dutifully represented the Trustees to the public and to City Council on the subject of the abandonment of MLK, the granting to DCPL of independent procurement authority, and other aspects of the Trustees’ transformation plan.

And in fact, we understand that there are no routine personnel reviews conducted, no standard operating procedures in place, and no program plan for DCPL. The development and implementation of such should have mandated by the Trustees in performance of their oversight duties. Direct intervention in the basic running of an institution should not be the purview of its Board of Trustees, but in this case, since they had failed to provide an executive for so many years, the Trustees had little choice but to take on the executive role and order the shake-ups.

After three years, the sudden switch to an action-oriented agenda further traumatizes staff who have been kept in the dark, along with the public, about the future of their library. Staff was not included in the research and writing of the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Libraries draft report. And a 40-point program plan for DCPL is secret to everyone except architect James Polshek, who has been speaking on behalf of the Mayor’s iconic new central library, and who revealed the existence of the plan but none of its content at the June 15 City Council hearing about the Mayor’s legislation to lease the MLK building.

No one would deny that changes needed to be made at DCPL staff-wise, but the Mayor and Trustees should bear in mind that the public holds them responsible for DCPL having devolved to the present deleterious state. The public confidence is not easy to restore. And leaving the public out of all planning, as the Trustees have assiduously and successfully endeavored so far, in spite of repeated criticism, is not the way to earn it back.

Carrying out these firings now leaves the new director without blood on her hands. That is probably a good thing for her and for the future of DCPL. Only time will tell if Cooper is the professional DCPL needs to retrieve it from the wretched state into which it has fallen, and over which the trustees have presided. Incoming Library Director Cooper has a gargantuan job to right this ship, but the cleaning of the Augean stables has been begun by the Trustees.

That Which we call Renovation, by any Other Name…

… would smell sweeter, actually.

Having gone to great lengths to resuscitate the AIA/Cooper study for renovation of MLK, swept under the rug by Mayor Williams for six years, advocates now find that the word “renovation” is clouding discussion of the plan’s merits. The AIA/Cooper plan was properly called “a feasibility study of possibilities for the renovation of MLK.” However, if people equate renovation with half measures taken on the cheap, then renovation is the wrong word.

What the AIA/Cooper study proposes is transformation.

Cost is further confusing matters. In fact, the transformation of MLK will cost less than building the Mayor’s new smaller library on the old convention center site, because the major construction work – foundation, footings, and superstructure – are already in place and in good condition. The resulting lower price tag – usually considered a plus – seems to be causing people to think of a patch job, instead of the total transformation outlined in the AIA/Cooper study.

The transformation proposed by Cooper and his team is radical surgery that would cut MLK back to the bone, and will include: taking down most walls, building a central staircase from the ground level to a new main reading room on the second floor, removing central portions of three floors in order to carve out an atrium and allow all floors to look out onto the new main reading room, adding a fifth floor and roof terrace, reconfiguring the basement level for a new centrally located auditorium, installing the marble facing called for in the architect’s original plan, and the replacement of all systems.

These are hardly half measures and should receive full consideration.

Renovation of the “architecturally significant” Mies van der Rohe building we already have is possible, less costly, and potentially far more thrilling than anything the Mayor has shown us.

Renovation is Trump

Evidence just keeps mounting about the value of renovation over building new, in terms of cost. The July/August issue of Preservation featured the capitalist-of-all-capitalists Donald Trump in the monthly column The Short Answer. Asked if it’s cheaper to build anew than to adapt an existing structure, Trump responded, “I’ve always found that it’s much cheaper to use an existing structure.”

He continued with what may well be the rub for DC, “Doing so is more complicated, and you actually have to be a better builder to do that kind of work, but if you know what you’re doing, it costs you less money.” Are there developers ready to take up Trump’s challenge of being “a better builder” by taking on the renovation of MLK? We’ll see if any builders start lobbying the Mayor or City Council for the opportunity. Read more about Trump’s thinking on the subject of preservation at