A Decades Old Request for a Library at McMillan Continues Unanswered

For many years, residents have asked that a library be included as part of the redevelopment of the McMillan Slow Sand Filtration Plant — aka McMillan Park, 26 acres of city-owned land, at North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue, across from Children’s Hospital and the Washington Hospital Center.

On Tuesday, the DC Council extended by five years the time to complete the land disposition transfer of ownership to developer Vision McMillan Partners (VMP).

The plans proposed by VMP do not include any library, even though a library was included in the Office of Planning 2002 report of recommendations from the McMillan community planning process. In  2011, a library was highlighted as part of the redevelopment by then-Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas, Jr.  And the location meets the DC Public Library criteria for siting of a new branch.

A library is a desirable amenity for any development, an economic generator and traffic builder that appeals to all generations and caters to residents from all walks of life. Libraries bridge the digital divide. They foster diversity with collections, programming, and activities for the least educated and the most. They provide safe space and space for civic engagement, as well as meeting rooms, classrooms, rooms with a view (the soon-to-open roof terrace at the new Woodridge Library).

The fact that something as positive (and publicly funded) as a library was omitted from the VMP plans, leads to the question,”What else is wrong?” LRP’s experience with the West End Library land sale makes us suspicious of the city’s land deals, which so often amount to giveaways.

It comes as no surprise to us then that DC Auditor Kathy Patterson recently identified the lack of a competitive bidding process in the selection of VMP as McMillan’s developer, contrary to best practices. Auditor Patterson laid this out in a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, wherein she also suggested that a rebid of the project was in order.

The five year extension just granted allows time to put funding for a library at McMillan into the capital budget of the DC Public Library system. However, granting the extension also indicates that the city does not think time is of the essence. Therefore, the Council could rescind the disposition deal – the land sale as yet unconsummated by developer VMP– and have it put out for rebid as the Auditor recommends.

A library would be a great thing for McMillan and should be required, but it will not solve the problems inherent in this deal.

Is there a better investment we can make in our city?


The Library that is. In particular, a renovation of MLK central library.

This is the rhetorical question with which the Library’s new Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan concludes a heartening op-ed “How a Public Library Set Me Free” about the importance of libraries to him as a son of Cuban immigrants growing up in Queens,

” The main public library on Merrick Boulevard was the first place I was allowed to visit on my own. I started going when I was 8. Everything I needed was located on what seemed to me an endless single floor. Wandering around that building aimlessly on a Saturday afternoon offered a sense of freedom I’d never experienced before.”

We agree! There is no better investment we can make in our city than the renovation of our central library.

Read Reyes-Gavilan’s full op ed







Meet & Greet

In spite of a messy day of sleet last Tuesday, about 60 people showed up to DCPL’s Meet and Greet for architects from Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson, who have been chosen to renovate MLK memorial library.

Lead architect Mecanoo’s Francine Houben at first appeared a bit bewildered by the apparent lack of a formal program. However, after a brief introduction by new Library Executive Director Richard Gavilon, she gamely and quickly went through the same slide presentation again from some weeks ago. When she was finished, one perplexed gentleman called out in dismay, “Where are the new plans?”

Considering that it had been a month since the architects were selected, it was not unreasonable for him to think that something additional would be presented. Alas, his question went unanswered as there would be no Q & A. We were assured that it was preferable to talk one-on-one with the architects instead.

As we were dispersed to “light refreshments” of cookies and water, there was grumbling at this well known tactic to keep information from being shared. One wonders, too, what these world class architects must have thought about the sheer inefficiency of answering the same questions over and over for each individual.

In the end, a degree of efficiency triumphed, as it will when a group of humans are left to their own devices. A small crowd gradually gathered around Francine over at the model display (across the Great Hall from the cookies), which she dismantled and put back together as needed to answer various questions. By then some had left in frustration, but those who stayed received a small measure of personal interaction with this charming Dutch genius.

This video highlights the public engagement process in Roxbury Boston, on an historic preservation and revitaliztion project there, headed by Ms. Houben.  Video from Boston Project

DC Mayoral Candidates on the Library

If you haven’t yet decided on your choice for mayor, perhaps a look at our brief four-question survey of candidates will help you choose.

Not all candidates responded: Jack Evans refused, and Tommy Wells’ office repeatedly said they would get right back with us, but after several weeks did not.

Mayor Vincent Gray also did not return a survey but his office said we did not give them enough time, so we apologize. Fortunately, we know where the Mayor stands regarding MLK since his 5-year capital budget proposed $100M for MLK renovation in 2017 & 18 based on the understanding that a public-private partnership would fill the funding gap, projected by the DCPL staff to be between $125M and $150M, for a total of $225-250M needed.

An October 2013 report to DC Council from DCPL, in response to the Budget Support Act, said:

“The budget approved by City Council for fiscal year 2014 includes capital funding for renovation and redevelopment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library: $3 million in FY14 and $50 million in FY17 and FY18 for a total of $103 million. This assumes multiple floors with at least an equal amount of financing from a private developer.”

Here’s what other candidates provided:






How Much Will It Cost?

At the Library Oversight Hearing on February 19, DC Council Education Committee Chair David Catania attempted to get a fix on how much it will cost to renovate the MLK Library. It wasn’t easy to get a straight answer.

Just four days earlier, at the first and only citywide public forum where three competing designs for the renovation of MLK were presented, DCPL’s  facilitator stressed that the design forum was “about choosing an architect, not a design.” Yet, at the oversight hearing, DCPL’s Director of Capital Projects Jeff Bonvechio explained that he couldn’t provide an answer to Catania’s question because DCPL is still “in the process of costing out the winning design.”  In spite of these  contradictory statements by DCPL representatives, the Committee Chair pursued his question.

DCPL’s Bonvechio said further that cost estimates from 2012 were $250 million, $103m of which has been allocated by the Mayor (in fiscal years 2017 and 18).

Noting the $150m shortfall, Catania asked how the additional money would be found. Bonvechio responded, “The way to bridge that gap is by bringing on a development partner.”

The Chair asked what the sale of air rights to a developer would raise. The number turns out to be $40m, only, leaving a gap of more than $100m.

Catania appeared impatient, “You seem to be pretty far down the track having selected an architect, having selected a plan. Yet, you don’t have the money in place.”

He asked how the gap would be filled. The options, according to Bonvechio, are “additional city funding or from a deep pocketed donor.” With that, Catania abandoned the line of questioning.


It is the pursuit of a mythical developer or deep pocketed donor that has kept DCPL from doing the planning needed to cultivate multiple donors, possible sponsors of naming rights, or other public/public partnerships such as the DC Archives (with $42m attached to it in the capital budget for a new building).

Moreover, the $40m projected sale of MLK air rights would have to be for all of the air rights over MLK (8 stories or more), not just the three additional stories of the newly selected library design. In the West End, more land and full air rights (minus a one story library and firehouse) were swapped for only $20m (to be paid for in construction). Why would a smaller amount over MLK bring in more?

Financial planning demands that we know exactly what is for sale over MLK. No one has defined it. If we don’t know that, how do we know how much can be raised from the proposed sale of air rights being contemplated?

However, what is most important to us, at Library Renaissance Project, is do the people of the District of Columbia want to sell the air rights over their central library? That is their call, and should be the first question answered before any financial planning or building design development.

DC LRP Files with Appeals Court for Rehearing “En Banc” in West End Decision

September 4, 2013
Contact Robin Diener
202 431-9254

DC Library Renaissance Project Seeks Rehearing “En Banc”of Court of Appeals Decision Affirming Zoning Commission’s Approval of West End Library and Fire Station Development

Case Will Decide Whether Taxpayers Lose Tens of Millions of Dollars in Property Value to Private Developer, and Whether District’s New Affordable Housing Legislation Will Be Gutted

WASHINGTON, DC – The District of Columbia Library Renaissance Project/ West End Library Advisory Group (“DCLRP”) has filed a Petition for Rehearing En Banc of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals’ August 8, 2013 opinion affirming a Zoning Commission order approving a Planned Unit Development (“PUD”) application submitted by EastBanc-W.D.C. Partners, LLC, for the redevelopment of public property currently housing the West End Public Library, West End Fire Station and a police station.

DCLRP filed its petition on August 22, 2013. The petition requests that the full Court of Appeals grant rehearing based on fundamental errors in the August 8, 2013 opinion entered by a three-judge panel. The immediate effect of the petition is to render the panel opinion non-final, until the full Court rules on the petition.

“We’re asking the full Court to decide this case because taxpayers are losing tens of millions of dollars in property value, which the Zoning Commission erroneously disregarded, and because the Zoning Commission violated the mandatory terms of the District’s new Inclusionary Zoning regulations, by waiving EastBanc’s obligation to include a small number of affordable housing units in its PUD,” said DCLRP attorney Oliver Hall.

“The panel failed to cite any legitimate authority for the Zoning Commission’s decision to waive EastBanc’s obligations under the Inclusionary Zoning regulations, but relied instead on vague language from a Zoning Commission order to override the express terms of the regulations,” Hall said. “If this decision is permitted to stand, it will gut the District’s new affordable housing legislation, before it ever has a chance to be enforced.”

Due to the nature of the issues raised, the decision rendered will impact the outcome of so-called “public-private partnerships” throughout the District. At stake is whether District taxpayers will receive adequate compensation for tens of millions of dollars in public property value conveyed to private developers in such deals. That value will be lost forever, unless the full Court of Appeals recognizes that the Zoning Commission erred by disregarding it.

The case is D.C. Library Renaissance Project/West End Library Advisory Group v. D.C. Zoning Commission, No. 12-AA-1183.

DLCRP’s Petition for Rehearing En Banc in the West End case is available here:  Petition for Rehearing En Banc-1

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.

MLK Library Friends Meeting

Tuesday June 18, 6:30 PM
MLK Library, Lower level – room A3

Agenda includes:

  • Booksale series launch
  • “Books & Brews” get-togethers
  • National Building Museum lecture by Freelon Group — MLK’s architect of record

Beware the Budget Support Act

The Budget Support Act is a little known legislative document that accompanies the Budget. It outlines actions to be taken with certain allocations. It becomes law.

Look Out!                                                                                                          Regarding the District’s central library Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, the proposed Act puts in place actions that have not received public discussion:

” that by October of 2013, DCPL is to report upon the following:
(1)  A detailed update on design plans;
(2) A description of the project’s financing including any and all public-private partnerships or use of financing other than District capital funds;
(3) A detailed timeline on the steps that will be taken leading up to the start of construction in FY17 and through to completion in FY18; and
(4) A description of the project’s community and stakeholder engagement plan with an explanation of how the project will reflect the needs and perspectives of District residents.”

See excerpt of Budget Support Act pdf

This is exactly backwards!!  If we haven’t established what is wanted for a transformed central library including, among other things, public-private or public-pubic partnerships, how can we design it or draw up a financial plan or construction timeline to achieve it? When will communities be consulted — over the summer when no one is around?

Library Renaissance Project has been asking for a Citizens Task Force on the Future of MLK since the central library debacle in 2006 (incidentally, also precipitated by a Budget Support Act which gave Mayor Anthony Williams authority to enter into negotiations to dispose of MLK. Library advocates caught it just in time and that action was deleted).

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B, in Dupont Circle, which does not have a neighborhood library but where MLK is in walking distance, has twice called for a Citizens Task Force:  in 2008 and in March of this year. The first time, the ANC was told a task force would be premature; the second request has simply been ignored.

Had the city conducted a task force in the interim since 2006, we could have had genuine citizen participation; perhaps even intellectual discussion, such as people who use libraries would welcome, and such as other communities provide their citizen stakeholders. We could have created anticipation about something good that government does.

Solution: Put Number 4 First: Move 1, 2 and 3 to the following year.   There is still plenty of time to convene a task force to conduct an inclusive and meaningful process, which would set the parameters for points 1, 2 and 3.  In fact, until 4 is done, 1,2 and 3 can’t be undertaken. The 2014 budget contains $4M in planning for MLK. The money for actual renovation  does not become available until 2017 and 18. The Budget Support Act  should be changed to put item 4 first, and items 1-3 should be pushed back until the next budget cycle.

The final vote on the Budget Support Act will take place June 18th. Between now and then, please call upon DC Council to use some of the $4M provided for Library planning in the FY 2014 capital budget to  convene a Citizens Task Force on MLK Library. 

And change the Budget Support Act of 2013 to read as follows:   

by October of 2013, DCPL is to report upon the following:
(1) A description of the project’s community and stakeholder engagement plan, including a Citizens Task Force on the Future of MLK central Library, to identify the needs and perspectives of District residents.

by October of 2014, DCPL is to report upon the following:
(1)  An update on design plans;
(2) A description of the project’s financing including any and all public-private, public-public partnerships or use of financing other than District capital funds;
(3) A detailed timeline on the steps that will be taken leading up to the start of construction in FY17 and through to completion in FY18;  and
(4) An explanation of how the project plans reflect the needs and perspectives of District residents.