Let’s Not Make the Same Mistake as NYC

The DC Library Trustees should heed the controversy over changes to New York City’s flagship Fifth Avenue Library.  Plans there to dismantle the iron and steel stacks, which both house books and provide structural support for the building’s beautiful, iconic Rose Reading Room, have already led to two lawsuits. The plans address much needed upgrades but, if they fail to value what the library-going public finds important, they are the wrong plans and should be redrawn.

Read more here:  http://blogs.wsj.com/metropolis/2013/07/12/library-delays-controversial-renovation-plan/

To be sure, the situation regarding renewal of our central facility, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, has not yet progressed to that of New York City, but the disconnect between what library users value and what library decision makers are pursuing will deepen in DC if Trustees do not move to prioritize citizen input to planning for the long-awaited and much-desired overhaul of MLK.

Despite hundreds of letters, DC Council refused to prioritize planning for MLK in the reporting requirements of the Budget Support Act, listing public input last after design, financing and construction timelines. The Act also called for an examination of public/private partnerships but did not require assessment of the needs of public facilities such as the DC City Archives or other public uses that could be co-located with  MLK.  By prioritizing private partnerships, Council tacitly approved downsizing the library to a portion of the current building. In an era of digitization, this may seem right intuitively, but in fact library use in DC and around the county continues to rise by every measure.  We are also experiencing significant population increases, keeping DC on a secure financial footing that far outpaces any other US city, according to the Urban Land Institute.

Libraries are the ultimate institution of public access to information.  Public input to planning for such an institution is fundamental and must come first. It is worrisome that the DC Council does not understand this.

Further distressing news is their confirmation of Neil Albert to the Board of Trustees last week. This means plans are already being made to privatize at least parts of the MLK central library building without public consent.  Albert helped put together the West End Parcels deal (which cheated the city of a potential $100 million in land value) and oversaw the Tenley Library debacle (which engendered years of divisive community backlash).  After leaving city government, Albert went to work at Holland and Knight, the city’s leading land use firm, the same one that originally represented the West End developer EastBanc in the Parcels deal.

With so many examples of what not to do, it is unfortunate that we can’t learn from them.  How easy it would be just to involve everyone from the beginning, especially with the $3.8 million planning appropriation that the Council has given the Library.

Council Should Deny the Mayor’s Nomination of Neil Albert to the Library Trustees

The DC Library Renaissance Project opposes the nomination of Neil Albert to the Board of Library Trustees. Among other things, Mr. Albert’s focus is on real estate development, which is not a priority of the board. Moreover, the details of some of Mr. Albert’s very controversial actions in his previous role as a DC Government official on two library development projects indicate that he is not suited for this particular board service.

Martin Luther King Library: On behalf of the administration of former Mayor Anthony Williams, Mr. Albert spearheaded an inexplicable attempt to divest DC of its central library (and only local memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). That plan—covertly introduced through a mention buried in the 2004 Budget Support Act—was notable in retrospect for its total disenfranchisement of the public. Eventually uncoupled from the BSA, the plan to sell Martin Luther King, Jr. Library became the subject of multiple hearings demanded by the outraged public and was subsequently dropped.

West End Library and Fire Station: In his position as Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development during the Fenty Administration, Mr. Albert supported and advanced July 2007 sole-source emergency legislation (a no-bid arrangement) for a large real estate development effort in the West End. The project involved the giveaway of multiple public parcels, including the West End Library. The private beneficiary of DMPED’s largesse in this case was real estate developer EastBanc. Sustained public outcry compelled City Council to investigate, and in the course of one hearing, Mr. Albert was summoned to testify about his ownership—a clear conflict of interest to which he admitted—of an investment apartment in the condominium building located directly across from the proposed development. City Council rescinded the emergency legislation in October 2007.

In a related issue, subsequent legislation was brought to Council by citizen groups working with the American Civil Liberties Union to require public inclusion in the “surplus and disposition” of public land, a “best practice” already used by other jurisdictions that testified during these hearings. After these improved public inclusion processes were mandated, a new and purportedly competitive Request for Proposals (RFP) on the West End project was issued in late 2008 by DMPED.

The parameters of the RFP were strikingly similar to the original no-bid proposal, and, despite much initial developer interest, there was no response to the initial RFP. Mr. Albert’s office adjusted and re-issued the RFP, which resulted in only two responses, EastBanc’s and another developer’s (that proposal did not include the fire station property). Predictably, EastBanc’s bid—which had been shopped around the neighborhood since 2004—was chosen by DMPED and the community was supportive, primarily because it had no idea that its extremely valuable assets were being traded away for a pittance…

We ask City Council to consider Mr. Albert’s history of poor judgment and stewardship while a public employee. Moreover, it was announced in February 2011 that Mr. Albert, who left with the outgoing Fenty administration, is now working as a senior policy advisor in the Public Policy & Regulation Practice Group of Holland & Knight, the Zoning and Land Use firm for EastBanc’s real estate development projects. Surely, there must be more suitable candidates—with a record of advancing the public’s interest through libraries—than Mr. Albert and we ask that his nomination be denied so that person or person(s) can step forward.