Greater Greater Washington

Posts about MLK Library


Put affordable housing for seniors in the new MLK Library

The District of Columbia is about to start an ambitious project to renovate the Martin Luther King Jr. Library downtown. Affordable housing, primarily for seniors, should be a primary element of that vision.

Concept rendering of the library. Image from DC Public Libraries.

One key feature of the MLK Library renovation plan is that it will add up to three floors to the building, a historic landmark designed by Mies van der Rohe that is the downtown mainstay of the DC Public Library system. This provides a rare opportunity to consider how we can best use a public asset to benefit the downtown community and the District as a whole.

DC is confronting an affordable housing crisis that not only threatens the quality of life and stability of the people facing skyrocketing housing costs and diminished supply, but also undermines the diversity of our community. When seniors are priced out of the city, we lose the very people who created the fabric of our communities across generations. Protecting elder citizens' ability to remain in the District is an essential public value.

All public projects involving DC government-owned real estate should make new affordable housing a priority, but none more than the MLK Library. First, it is an ideal location for seniors to live. Residents there would have access to a hub of cultural activity below as well as a broad public transportation network in a vibrant downtown neighborhood. There is no affordable housing within ten blocks of the library site, and certainly no other opportunity for elder citizens on fixed incomes to live in that area.

Equally as important, the infusion of seniors into this community will bring their knowledge, experience, and the timeafforded by their retirementto the activities and culture of the library itself and the entire neighborhood. These residents will be able to participate formally as docents, tutors, and volunteers in the library and nearby historic and cultural sites. Informally, they will contribute as community members who have chosen their homes for proximity to programs, events, and the everyday amenities we all want and need: goods, services and transportation.

The architecture team of Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson, which won the competition to renovate the library, has stressed the need to "celebrate MLK's renowned Miesian architecture while embracing Washington, DC's contemporary culture and changing needs." Our seniors are central to our culture, and their housing is central to our changing needs.

By taking a creative and fresh look at the District's assets, we can meet our commercial, financial, and cultural goals while also achieving the diversity that creates interesting, lively, and diverse communities. Real estate accounts for about one third of the cost of housing development. By leveraging the city's unique real estate assetslike new floors atop the MLK Librarywe can replenish some of the affordable housing we are rapidly losing amid high demand and rising costs.

The library's renovation will cost up to $250 million, with the DC government contributing at least $100 million. We will never have a better chance to create affordable housing downtown at a cost our city can afford. Let's make sure we seize this opportunity to continue building a vibrant city for our long-term residents who have given our community so much, and who have so much more to offer.


Events roundup: Forums, freight, and financing

This week, learn about infrastructure and support smart growth advocacy. Next week, weigh in on projects that will make communities better in DC, Arlington, and Alexandria. And enjoy the nice weather, get outdoors, and explore the Washington region with more walking tours.

Photo by Loco Steve on Flickr.

CSG Livable Communities Leadership Award: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's annual awards ceremony is an important way for all of us to support smart growth advocacy and honor people who have made a difference.

This year, CSG will be honoring Arlington County Board Chairman Walter Tejada for his work supporting transit, revitalization, and affordable housing on Columbia Pike, and upper Northwest's Ward 3 Vision which pushes to make Ward 3's neighborhoods more walkable and sustainable.

Tickets are $125 and go toward furthering the goals many of us share on this blog. The reception is Thursday, May 15, 6:30-8:30 at Epic Studio, 1323 Connecticut Avenue, NW. Buy your tickets here.

Infrastructure Week, 2014 is this week, May 12-16. Join the US Council on Competitiveness, US Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO, and the Brookings Institution for a week-long discussion of our nation's infrastructure. Topics will include transportation, freight movement, and water management. Below are several highlights of the 20 events happening this week:

  • Funding and financing America's infrastructure, Tuesday, May 13 from 9-11 am.
  • Bridging the financing gap panel discussion, Wednesday, May 14, from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm.
  • Forum on high speed train technology, Wednesday, May 14, from 2:30-4 pm.
  • Economic impact of transit investment, Thursday, May 15, from 12:30-2 pm.
Check out the Infrastructure Week website for the full calendar and for registration infofmration. Plus, Young Professionals in Transportation is having an Infrastructure Week happy hour on Wednesday, May 14, 6-8 pm at the Brixton, 901 U Street NW.

Great spaces: What makes a great space? Listen to experts from the Urban Land Institute, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Arlington County Center for Urban Design and Research, and the Coalition for Smarter Growth talk about the benefits of "great spaces" at the 2014 State of Affordable Housing talk. The talk is Wednesday, May 14 from 4:30-7:30 pm at the Walter Reed Community Center (2909 16th St South) in Arlington. Go here to RSVP.

CSG walking tours: The Coalition for Smarter Growth is leading three more Saturday walking tours over the next month. Next up: Twinbrook, on May 17, Pentagon City, on May 31, and H Street NE, on June 7. Come hear about the past and future of these changing neighborhoods while enjoying some spring sunshine.

  • Saturday, May 17: Visit the Twinbrook Metro station and see how a community is taking shape on an area that used to be an expanse of parking lots.
  • Saturday, May 31: Come hear about how recent development projects are transforming Pentagon City into a community that is more than a mall.
  • Saturday, June 7: Explore H Street NE and learn about one of DC's most rapidly changing neighborhoods. Plus, get the scoop on the latest addition to the community: the DC Streetcar.
All of the CSG walking tours run from 10-noon. These events fill up quickly, so RSVP to secure a spot!

MLK library renovation forum: The DC Public Library is exploring renovation options for its central facility, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and is looking to the community for input. The architect team of Martinez & Johnson and Mecanoo will host a public forum to present preliminary design ideas on Monday, May 19 from 6-7 pm at the MLK library (901 G Street NW).

Arlington Transit forum: Give Arlington's government your input on transit service at a public meeting from 7-9 pm on Monday, May 19 at the Arlington Mill Community Center, 909 South Dinwiddie Street. If you can't make it, you can take an online survey to give your feedback.

Monroe Avenue, a complete street: Alexandria wants to redesign Monroe Avenue in Del Ray to calm traffic and better accommodate bicyclists. Officials will present options and hear from residents on Tuesday, May 20, 6-8 pm at Commonwealth Academy on Leslie Avenue.

Have an event for the Greater Greater Washington calendar? Email it to


Events roundup: It's the final countdown

This week brings your last chance to testify on DC's proposed zoning update, your first to learn about parking meters on the National Mall, and your second to discuss north-south streetcar implementation.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Speak up or be left out: Hearings this week will be your last chance to speak out on the proposed changes to DC's zoning code. The final code will have important implications for parking minimums, corner stores, accessory dwelling units, and more. Residents who wish to testify in person must do so at the meeting for the ward where they live. If you have not already signed up, visit the Coalition for Smarter Growth's sign-up center for assistance. The times, dates, and locations for this week's meetings are below the jump.

Also after the jump: proposed redesigns for MLK Jr. Memorial Library and Franklin Park, an update on stopping M-83 in Montgomery County, and the second series of public meetings on the North-South DC Streetcar study.

Here's when the final DC zoning update meetings will be held. (The meeting for wards 5 and 6 already took place last Saturday.)

  • Wards 1 & 2: Thursday, February 13 at 6:00 pm, DC Housing Finance Authority building, 815 Florida Avenue NW.
  • Wards 3 & 4: Tuesday, February 11 at 6:00 pm, Woodrow Wilson High School Auditorium, 3950 Chesapeake Street NW.
  • Wards 7 & 8: Wednesday February 12th at 6:00 pm, Department of Employment Services, 4058 Minnesota Avenue NE.
Paid parking for a Circulator?: The National Park Service has plans to install multi-space parking meters on the National Mall, which could make more spaces available and discourage commuter parking, encourage public transit use, and fund affordable transportation options, including a Circulator. To learn more, join park staff tomorrow, Tuesday, February 11 at the NPS Capital Region Headquarters, 1100 Ohio Drive SW. The meeting begins at 6 pm in the cafeteria.

Stopping M-83: Montgomery County residents who oppose the M-83 highway can learn more about efforts to stop it this Tuesday, February 11. Join the Action Committee for Transit as they host Margaret Schoap, of the Coalition for Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended, at 7:30 pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.

MLK revamp: The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is slated for renovation. The architects of the renovation proposals will present their proposals this Saturday, February 15 at 10 am in the library's Great Hall, 901 G Street NW. You can also stream the presentations live on YouTube or in a Google Hangout.

Dedicated lanes for North-South streetcar?: DDOT is hosting a series of public meetings next week to discuss the planned route for a north-south streetcar line. One big question is whether the planned route will include dedicated lanes. The meetings are:

  • Tuesday, February 18 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 1100 4th Street SW.
  • Wednesday, February 19 from 10 am-12 pm, MLK Library, 901 G Street NW.
  • Wednesday, February 19 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Banneker Recreation Center, 2500 Georgia Avenue NW.
  • Thursday, February 20 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Emery Recreation Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW.
A friendlier Franklin Park: The National Park Service will present concept design alternatives for the restoration and transformation of Franklin Park next Wednesday, February 19. The concept design alternatives were developed based on desired park uses and programs prioritized from both public comments submitted to NPS and feedback received at a meeting last fall. The public meeting will be held from 6 to 8 pm at the Hilton Garden Inn, 815 14th Street, NW. To learn more about the Franklin Park project, visit its website here.


One of these three visions could be the MLK library's future

Last week, the District of Columbia Public Library unveiled the six visions for the Martin Luther King Memorial Library. While the designs aren't final, each option offers a very different approach to preserving the historic library while accommodating new uses.

Team Two's "community mixer" atrium. All images from DCPL unless noted.

Three teams of architects produced two designs each, one where the library renovates the historic building by the office of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and another that also adds two or three stories of apartments to the building. For all teams, the mixed-use scheme and standalone version share a common design up until the fifth floor. The residential additions do not affect the public spaces below.

The three teams approached preservation with a few common elements. All projects leave the exterior alone. All schemes preserve the horizontal character of the ground floor, except in key locations. The changes they make stand apart from the original building, and all projects treat the Mies building as an artifact of a different time.

While libraries used to be a place where users only interacted with staff, now they're about users interacting with each other. To respond to this new purpose, the teams had to consider what kinds of spaces suited the new program. Do the existing deep floors still make sense? How do you fit new spaces, such as a lecture hall into the building? Importantly, the teams had to find a way to better connect the floors of a building that, despite having lots of glass, has very little natural light.

Because each scheme proposes major changes in the activities of the building and how visitors will move around, it's worth reading the design presentations, which we have embedded.

Team One: Mecanoo + Martinez and Johnson

Dutch firm Mecanoo and local partner Martinez and Johnson propose alterations that maintain the horizontal character of the building, even going further than Mies. Starting from the modernist's fixation on open-plan spaces, they envision removing all of the opaque barriers from the three library floors. The architects grouped programs floor by floor, so youth collections are on one floor, quiet specialty collections on another, and the noisiest, least library-like uses activate the "market" ground floor.

Team One's mixed-use design seen from 9th & G.

Library offices occupy the north side of the building up to the 5th floor, a blob-shaped mechanical penthouse surrounded by gardens. In the "development" scheme, a block-long bar of apartments sits on the penthouse, clearly distinct from the original building. The bar slants in plan from from north to south, which emphasizes the horizontal character of the original building and picks up the angles of the 10th & G building to the west and the Pepco building to the east.

To connect the public floors, Team One proposes replacing the yellow brick elevator and stair area just inside the entrance with a large atrium clad in glass panels enameled with the pattern of marble that Mies frequently used. This makes the vertical circulation one of the most visible parts of the building.

Section drawing through Team One's standalone design, showing stair cores.

Team One mostly respects the ceiling and ground planes of the first floor, but they also cut a light shaft around the rear to bring natural light to the basement. They also eliminate the low brick walls around the north side of the building, hopefully enlivening the dark arcade. This scheme would also leave the original exterior walls in place, but adds insulated glass walls to prevent heat loss, saving on energy costs.

Team Two: Patkau Architects + Ayers Saint Gross

The collaboration between Patkau Architects and local architects Ayers Saint Gross produced the most conservative scheme. The design centers on a courtyard extending from the second floor to a fabric sunshade embedded with communications technology on the third. Called the cloud, the exuberant shape framed by the courtyard reflects the team's approach of making alterations within Mies's order.

Section drawing through Team Two's mixed-use design, showing central courtyard.

Team Two's key alteration is a circulation core directly opposite the main entrance. Escalators take visitors up to a fifth-floor garden and down to the basement, which contains the technological aspects of the program, an auditorium, and the teen collection. A double-height lobby visually connects the entry with the upstairs courtyard, where all of the library's different users would mix. The design of most reading rooms remains relatively unchanged.

The residential component changes the building more dramatically. The standalone building has a small pavilion and a green roof on the fifth floor. The mixed-use variant continues the courtyard up, with a public colonnade around the skylight. Mies imagined the building with a fifth floor, so Team Two extends the original facade without windows as a kind of screen, with floors 5-8 rising behind it in a gray, transparent skin.

Team Two's mixed-use design seen from 9th & G.

In addition to the cloud, Team two proposes some unconventional changes. Most radically, they replace the parking ramps with car lifts and valet-only parking. I don't know of any buildings in DC that use this approach, although it is definitely used in other cities.

Team Three: STUDIOS Architecture + Freelon Group

Team Three proposes the most radical alterations to the Mies building, invoking the zeitgeist argument Mies himself was fond of. Their concept aspires to create a new urban space at 9th & G, inside and outside of the building. The design would gut the upper three stories of the southeastern corner and replace it with a floating, golden zig-zag block containing expanded functions of the library. A continuous stair from the basement to the fifth floor cuts an atrium into the space.

Section drawing through Team Three's mixed-use design, showing stair and atrium.

The design would open the great hall to a three-story atrium. This change is probably the most controversial feature of any of the three teams' designs. Otherwise, the first floor remains largely unchanged. Team Three does propose constructing a cafe underneath the G Street colonnade, as well as one inside the main hall.

If the library chooses to develop the mixed-use scheme, the added block would snake out of the building in a U-shape around the courtyard skylight, ending in a cantilever over the 9th Street sidewalk. The stair slope would pause at the 9th & G corner before climbing atop the residential bar to become an intensive green roof with community gardens. The way Team Three's bending bar sits atop the building leaves the 9th & G corner undisturbed and framed as a public space.

Team Three's mixed-usee design from 9th & G. Courtesy DCPL.

Team Three calls for the residential volume to use a curtain-wall system that uses mathematic equations to generate the shape of each component, some of which are more transparent than others. The floors within are conventional slabs. The patterns are carried through to flooring in the entrance that echoes the main staircase as well as the existing lights in the ceiling.

They're not done yet!

DCPL insists that nothing is final about these designs. That is certain. The library needs to decide whether to develop the mixed-use option, and what kind of legal structure it would have. Then, library officials will work with citizens and the architects to further evolve the design. Then, the evolved scheme will undergo at least two design review processes. By the time this process is complete and DCPL solicits contractor bids, the design could change quite dramatically.

The architect teams will present their projects this Saturday, February 15th at 10 am in the MLK library. If you can't attend, the library is livestreaming the event. The designs are also available at each branch library, and DCPL has a website where you can submit your thoughts.

The needs of the library are complex. A single image can't capture the particular experiences of different users, and each of the options involves trade-offs.

Personally, I prefer Team One's overall plan, especially if the library goes ahead with a mixed-use program. Although I appreciate Team Two's sensitive alterations, Team One's solutions for the program, environment, and circulation embrace the strengths of Miesian architecture, but reimagine them in a way that suits the new expectations of urban libraries. It reminds me of two groundbreaking examples of libraries for a digital society, the Sendai Mediatheque and the Idea Store, Whitechapel.

If Team One's design is the beginning of a public building of that caliber, DC will be in good shape.


Here are the three teams who could redesign MLK Library

Designed by Mies van der Rohe, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown DC is an architectural landmark, but the 1973 building doesn't meet the library's needs. Can it be brought back to life?

Photo by Christine on Flickr.

From a shortlist of ten qualified applicants, DC Public Library (DCPL) has chosen three teams: Mecanoo Architects with Martinez + Johnson, Patkau Architects with Krueck+Sexton and Ayers Saint Gross, and STUDIOS Architecture with the Freelon Group. All three teams have experience with libraries, historic preservation, or the DC area.

By next month, each team will produce two schemes: one for the library alone and another that adds a few floors and other tenants. The library will pick one scheme, although interim Chief Librarian Joi Mecks cautions that the design will not be final. But asking the architects to design for both options, rather than picking one now, pushes the most contentious aspect of renovation into public debate.

Since its landmarking in 2007, plans to upgrade the library have proposed adding office space somewhere on the site. Although a public agency might occupy the space, several groups have denounced what they see as privatization of a fundamental public space. But the potential revenue has proven tempting, because unlike other big-city library systems, DCPL has no endowment.

As recently as 2006, the widespread assumption was that the building was unsalvageable. Mayor Anthony Williams proposed moving the library somewhere else. This time, however, a strong contingent has pushed to restore the current building.

A pro bono team proposed dramatic alterations in 2000, but it was never taken seriously. More recently, the Urban Land Institute called for office floors above, while an exploratory scheme by Freelon proposed an aggressive renovation. All three visions concurred that the library's current configuration is unsuited to DCPL's actual needs.

Less is more…problems

There are a few challenges in renovating MLK Library. One is that the function of a library has shifted dramatically in the past 20 years. Another is the building's flawed design. But the most pressing is the building's deterioration.

Designed to mid-century construction standards, the library is expensive to heat and light. It has required ad hoc upgrades as technology changed. Decades of deferred maintenance have exacerbated flaws in the original design, from the windows to the bathrooms.

The details and finishes are not what Mies envisioned for a grand central library, comparing poorly even to buildings designed by his office at the same time. The colonnade and expansive glass walls on the library's first floor were supposed to make the interior feel like part of the same public ground as the street. But hemmed in by parking ramps in the middle of the block, the setback has instead become a dim, unsafe space.

Inside, confusing stairways and frequently broken elevators lead to dim hallways, claustrophobic reading rooms, and a windowless central space. On top of that, only two of the collections at the MLK Library are unique to the DCPL system; most of its materials can be found in neighborhood branches.

Each of the selected firms will have to reposition the library for a digital culture. Libraries aren't going away: the card catalogs may be gone, but they remain public places for learning and collaboration. The new Digital Commons, with meeting rooms, an on-demand book printer, and an extrusion 3D printer, shows that the tools have changed but libraries remain relevant.

Teams have international and local expertise

In choosing the three design teams, DCPL looked for experience first. Rather than stage an open competition, where eye-grabbing visuals and one-liner buildings often overshadow pragmatic concerns or proven experience, the library chose from 10 teams that responded to a Request for Proposals in November, who themselves came from a group of almost 30 firms that submitted their qualifications back in September.

So what qualifies these firms to compete? How can we understand their approaches when it comes time to judge the results?

Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson

Mecanoo is a major architecture firm in the Netherlands with experience designing libraries. Their TU Delft library pioneered the idea of a library as a public resource, not just book storage. Patrons at their recently-completed Library of Birmingham move up from a public first floor through a series of dramatic atriums.

Section drawing of the Library of Birmingham, courtesy Mecanoo.

Historic preservation is a specialty of local firm Martinez + Johnson. In the DC area, they restored the Takoma Park and Georgetown libraries. The restorations brought the buildings up to code while removing unsympathetic alterations.

Patkau Architects/Krueck + Sexton/Ayers Saint Gross

Patkau Architects are a well-regarded small firm based in Vancouver. They have worked on several high-profile libraries, including the Grande Bibliothéque de Québec and a renovation of the Winnipeg Millennium Library, opened up an introverted Brutalist building with a staircase that doubles as a reading room. (Full disclosure: one of the firm's partners, John Patkau, taught me in graduate school.)

Winnipeg Millennium Library reading room, courtesy Patkau Architects.

Krueck + Sexton are a longstanding Chicago firm with significant connections to Mies. The firm renovated Mies' landmarks S.E. Crown Hall and the Lake Shore Drive apartments, restoring original details while adding updates like insulated glass. They have two projects in the area, a new building in NoMa and a renovation in Foggy Bottom.

860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, renovated by Krueck + Sexton.

Ayers Saint Gross are locally-based and specialize in master plans such as the one for St. Elizabeths. They've worked on a number of libraries, mostly for Baltimore.

Studios Architecture/The Freelon Group

Studios Architecture is an international firm that's best known in DC for the pavilions at Canal Park, done with landscape architects Olin, as well as a mountain-shaped residential building in White Flint. The firm has also done some historical preservation work, notably the restoration of an early wrought-iron building in Paris.

Canal Park pavilions (with Olin), courtesy Studios Architecture.

In addition to the 2012 study, Freelon Group has already completed a minor renovation of MLK Library and designed new libraries in Anacostia and Tenleytown.

Citizen engagement necessary

DCPL's leadership deserves praise for finding a future in a library that was all but abandoned. Miesian architecture has produced incredible spaces, and a renovation could bring the brilliance to light by restoring, adapting, and contrasting the new with the old. Mies sought to produce buildings that were adaptable and extendable, and these renovations will be a test of that ambition.

It's unclear whether MLK Library can work with another occupant, particularly a commercial one. But when the architects reveal their designs on February 15th, the building's ability to evolve won't be an abstract question. We will see six possibilities representing different ideas of what a 21st-century library should be.

Even before the designs are finished, the public can have an impact. The library has set up a brief survey and crowdsourcing page to gauge interest in particular uses. You can also volunteer for a focus group by contacting Martha Saccocio at


Nader-backed group opposes creative reuse of MLK Library

Even before proposals have been made, the District Dynamos, an off-shoot of Ralph Nader's Library Renaissance Project, says they'll oppose any attempt to modernize, renovate or substantially change the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown DC with a private partner.

Rendering of library with new floors on top. Image from DC Public Library.

Discussions about the the library's future began in 2006. The building, which is the only work by architect Mies van der Rohe in DC, is overdue for an upgrade. It's too big for the library's current needs and ill-equipped to handle new programming or emerging technologies, like print-on-demand books.

In 2011, the library commissioned a study by the Urban Land Institute to figure out how to modernize the building and how to pay for it. ULI offered 3 options: move the library and give up the building, share the building with private interests, or simply renovate it, which would cost more than $200 million. If the library were able to lease part of the building or create a public-private partnership, it could recoup the cost and remain in the building.

However, the District Dynamos say they're concerned about private companies taking over a public building and losing parking, even if it preserves a historic building and gives the District needed funds. They insist the library remain in its current space and are only open to a space-sharing agreement if the partner is a public entity, like the National DC Archives. This is the same argument they used when they opposed replacing the West End Library with a new library, housing and a fire station.

The Dynamos recently posted alerts on their website opposing changes which involve private companies or making the MLK Public Library smaller. However, it is important to note that none of the proposals involve closing or reducing the library's functions. Rather, they position the library for the future. By monetizing space it no longer needs, it can invest in the technology required to remain relevant.

Public libraries are changing. They need less physical space, but require ongoing investment in new technologies. The ULI study recognizes this reality and proposes a trade-off between the two to build a stronger library. The District Dynamos' blanket distrust of private interests may earn the sympathies of some in DC, but it may be counterproductive in the long run.

The Dynamos cite parking as a major concern, even though the location is a transit hub between Metro Center and Gallery Place. Every Metro line, several Metrobus routes and Capital Bikeshare all serve the surrounding neighborhood. Parking garages and on-street parking are located nearby. Furthermore, the library hasn't had dedicated parking since 2010. Does it makes sense to deny District residents a new library because there's no parking on-site, even when there are so many alternatives available?

If done correctly, public-private partnerships can give the District more flexibility and fund more and better projects. This is a chance for DC's central library to become a real gathering place with meeting space, 21st century technology, the capacity to serve all District residents, and make better use of some very valuable space.

Public Spaces

Then & now: Welcome to MLK Jr. Memorial Library

"Please empty your pockets and put all of your electronic devices on the bin," DC Library Police officers used to tell every patron entering the revolving doors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The days of passing through a metal detector at the city's central library are long gone.

Photos by the author.

Under the tenure of Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, the library has modernized the 1st floor's Great Hall (originally Peterson Hall) and is creating a "Digital Commons Technology Space."

The library police also have a new perch that resembles a judge's bench. The desk follows the same 1970's style as the original circulation desk, just around the corner.

"Welcome to MLK Library. May I help you?" is now the refrain greeting patrons at the library.

How time flies.


MLK Library can help itself by helping the homeless

The days of metal detectors and risky bathrooms seem a thing of the past at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, but one thing has not changed. The library remains a destination for the homeless and lost souls of Washington.

Man at MLK Library with his possessions in a trash bag. Photo by the author.

In a city brimming with specialized research libraries, university libraries, and governmental libraries, the DC Public library is the people's library. 24 branches, many newly built or renovated, serve residents in neighborhoods throughout the city's quadrants, while the flagship MLK Library serves the whole.

With the Board of Library Trustees meeting on Wednesday to discuss the future of the MLK Library, now is the time to also think broadly about the building's immediate needs. One key issue is that the library must acknowledge and reach out to its most loyal but underserved patrons: the homeless.

Library has little recourse against problem patrons

"There was some man outside of the children's section talking loudly about killing children," an unsettled mother with a young child in tow told a library police officer one Sunday earlier this year, as she hastened to make her exit. "There he is," she said, pointing out a diminutive bearded and disheveled man simultaneously making his way out of the building.

While the woman and her child exited the library, the officer quickly stopped and questioned the man. As with incidents of lewd sexual acts, drunkenness, drug use, threats against staff and even occurrences of patrons destroying and defacing books, the library police have but two options: 1) call the Metropolitan Police Department and 2) issue a subsequent ban on that patron from re-entering the library for a certain period of time.

A staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, looking out over a room with no less than a half dozen patrons sleeping, "There is literally nothing we can do. Don't get me wrong, we have people who have been coming here for years. They read, don't bother anyone. Some copy passages out of books. They might use the bathroom to clean up and that's it. Every day is the same. But then we have some people who really need help. This is not where they should be."

Other cities have social workers to help the homeless

DC is not unlike other cities whose downtown libraries serve homeless populations, but unlike other cities, the DC Public Library does nearly nothing to address the constant concerns of staff and patrons. According to administrative sources, the DC Library has a roving case manager on staff but he or she is rarely, if ever, seen at MLK, where there's a large homeless concentration.

The DC Library administration could follow the lead of the San Francisco Public Library system, which has "turned the page" on dealing with the homeless who patronize their main library. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in late January 2009 the San Francisco system became the first in the country to address its longstanding problems (no different than what goes on at MLK) with homeless patrons by bringing on a full-time psychiatric social worker.

Through an inter-governmental partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the library hired the social worker to be "on hand five days a week handling complaints from staff and patrons about people's behavior, and calling in security only if things get really ugly."

Along with helping homeless patrons to find other services in the city, including housing and food assistance, job training, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and literacy tutoring, library workers received training in responding to unpleasant behavior.

Not stopping there, the San Francisco system instituted a 12-week "vocational rehabilitation" program for the library's homeless and formerly homeless population. Upon completion, graduates are hired to work in the system. The DC Library already has a similar program in place, Teens of Distinction, which trains city youth to work in low-level administrative support positions, often the teenagers' first job experience.

UPO van on its daily pick-up outside the MLK Library. Photo by the author.
San Francisco's approach could be easily replicated in DC. Like clockwork vans from the United Planning Organization (UPO) come every evening to return the homeless to their respective shelter. UPO, the city's official Community Action Agency is already well aware of MLK Library's homeless population and their needs. Through a partnership with other city agencies case management and direct services could begin to be tracked and better delivered.

Without an organized city effort local universities, non-profits and church groups regularly perform service outreach projects at the library. For example, on many evenings hot meals and backpacks stuffed with personal hygiene products and new socks are distributed at the corner of 9th & G Street underneath the shelter of the library's Mies Van Der Rohe designed arcade.

While the American Library Association has released information on how to serve homeless patrons, the DC library administration appears uninterested. By not addressing this need, the current library administration enables a culture of dependency among its homeless instead of a culture of self-improvement, and turns away other potential patrons who are intimidated by the homeless presence.


MLK library may be on the move

The often maligned Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library may move to a new building at a different location. A panel of developers and planners associated with the Urban Land Institute could make that recommendation later this month.

Photo by the author.

"It's important to note that the panel will not address the need for a central library," Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper said. She continued, "the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library will continue to exist and be located downtown." Instead, the five-day advisory panel will discuss the ideal location for a downtown central library.

According to the DC Public Library (DCPL), "national research suggests that a central library should be about 225,000 - 250,000 square feet." At 400,000 square feet there is a desire to either downsize MLK, the only city library open on Sundays, or construct a smaller future central library. The panel will discuss "potential uses of and development around" the MLK library, and conduct interviews with library users and community leaders.

An anchor of downtown since its opening in August 1972, the library was the city's first public memorial to the slain civil rights leader. Momentum to build a new central library began during the second mayoral administration of Anthony Williams. Released in November 2006, a report by the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Task Force recommended an overhaul of the neighborhood branches and the replacement of "the current functionally obsolete central library."

With a price tag of nearly $300 million, President Bush proposed $30 million in federal funds for a new downtown library. The current site of CenterCity DC was discussed as the most logic location. However, Williams' administration was unable to push a proposal through the DC Council.

Backed by a new administration, the building, designed by pioneering architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, became a historic landmark in late June 2007, preventing its demolition.

The DCPL Board of Trustees first mentioned the ULI panel at their meeting last month. When a smattering of questions arose about the intent of the panel, and whether the library's name honoring MLK was safe, it was clarified that no matter where the central library is located, it will retain Martin Luther King Jr.'s name, and continue to be a memorial to him.

Photo by the author.

Problems at the library

Since Cooper arrived in August 2006, MLK Library has undergone important functional and cosmetic upgrades making the building more inviting. The public bathrooms are no longer dungeons, the Black Studies and Children's Divisions have been refurbished, and a metal detector no longer greets visitors upon entry. The Adaptive Services Division, helping the deaf community, visually impaired, older adults, veterans and injured service people, received updated technology, the light plane of the ceiling of the Great Hall was revamped to better illuminate the cavernous lobby, and in 2009 a new room opened for teens.

However, MLK Library is still perceived as a homeless shelter and nicknamed "MLK Mission." The pervasiveness of the homeless and those with mental health issues obscure the library's vast collections and resources, according to members of the library staff.

The homeless are supported by a network of social service agencies such as the United Planning Organization. In the morning and evening, buses to and from homeless shelters use the front entrance of the library as a drop-off and pick-up point. G Place NW, behind the library, was the location point until the Secret Service objected.

Photo by the author.
Basic neglect continues unabated as evidenced in a recent list of safety violations issued to the library by the DC Office of Risk Management. According to library staff, a federal employee visiting the second floor's Literature Division saw numerous ceiling lights out. The outage left stacks in the rear of the division eerily dark, a safety concern for both staff and patrons. A DCPL officer said men are often found sleeping in between the stacks. If processed by police it is not unusual to find they have an arrest warrant. Though the staff has been raising the issue for many years, only recently were the lights fixed, under threat of fine.

Future of MLK Library

"The design of the building, while iconic as architecture, has failed to create the type of loved, dynamic and heavily used central library that would best serve the city," says Terry Lynch, a community activist who served on Mayor Williams' Blue Ribbon Task Force on libraries. "It is past time for a state of the art, new central library and conversion of this building to a more appropriate, adaptive reuse."

Over the next year MLK's first floor will be undergoing significant changes. A solicitation for proposals to "complete the interior improvements to the Business Science and Technology Reading Room and the Great Hall" closed two months ago. Construction is planned to be completed by August 2012.

Robin Diener with the Library Renaissance Project says citizens have advocated for a Citizens Task Force on the Future of MLK since the Williams Administration. Diener says, "In our view, the information gathered by a ULI panel could be a very useful contribution to the complete picture, but it should be presented to a task force of library users from around the city that Mayor Vincent Gray should appoint."

The ULI panel will present their finding and recommendations November 18th, 9 am to 11 am at MLK Library. The public is invited and encouraged to participate.

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