Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

MLK Library redesign process: presentations this week

On Friday and Saturday there are presentations by the three firms that have been picked to offer archtectural concepts for a rehabilitation and possible expansion of the DC's Central Library, the Martin Luther King Jr. Library at 9th and G Streets NW.

-- The Friday presentation at the National Building Museum is sold out.
-- Details on the Saturday presentation

New central libraries have been key elements of Downtown revitalization initiatives in North America and Europe.  See "Why public libraries are glamming up" from the Guardian and "Who Says Libraries Are Going Extinct?" from Pacific Standard Magazine.  Among others, Birmingham England and San Diego opened new central libraries last September.

I will be out of town and miss the presentations.  But information is online and scale models are on display in the Library.

I have written about the broad issue over the years:

-- Planning process failures generally (and the upcoming DC Central Library planning process)
-- The Central Library planning process in DC as another example of gaming the capital improvements planning and budgeting process
-- The DC Central Library, the Civic identity and the public realm
-- Public buildings as vehicles for community improvement
-- The Salt Lake City Central Library is absolutely incredible

The current process is architect-driven without a plan already in place.  The fundamental question is how can the Central Library best serve multiple goals ranging from its role as the key local knowledge and cultural facility in the city to being an anchor of Downtown's civic life and the Downtown Arts District.  To figure that out you need a plan, not a bunch of architectural models.

The Library system doesn't have a Masters Facilities Plan nor a specific plan for the Central Library.  Architects can't be relied on to produce a great facility without a robust and thorough public planning process.

-- A follow up point about "local" library planning and "access to knowledge"
-- Central Library Planning efforts and the City Museum, how about some learning from Augusta, Maine ... and Baltimore? (2005)

A planning process for the library should proceed the design of the rehabilitated and expanded library.   Haste--retaining architects before having a plan--can make waste.

We have a once in a two generation opportunity to do this right.  Lacking a plan may not fatally doom the effort, but it will ensure that the opportunities present in the facility and the site are unlikely to be fully realized. 

Unrelated mixed use is a bad idea.  While I agree we need a new library, I don't see the value in mixing unrelated space such as housing on the site, instead of expanding the library to serve as the city's premiere civic asset serving a multiplicity of cultural-library-media-knowledge objectives or other public purposes.

No major city library in North America mixes unrelated uses in the library building.  (Some smaller libraries have rented space out for events firms.)  Some museums (Whitney, Institute of Contemporary Art Denver, Museum Tower Dallas Arts District, the Newseum in DC) have developed separate upscale housing buildings but with the exception of a proposed building at MoMA NYC, space in the building is not mixed between the museum and the condominium building.

-- "Architecture review: Museum Tower is 'classic mean girl: privileged, superficial, manipulative'," Dallas Morning News 
-- "Museum Residences" (Denver), Architectural Record
-- "Rooms with great view: Museums boost condo projects," New York Daily News

Related mixed use is a good idea.  I have no problem with mixing commercial and noncommercial use on the site, so long as the commercial uses strengthen the cultural-library-media-knowledge elements of the facility.

Note that public purpose non-cultural space can be mixed into a library project.  The Vancouver library rents a couple floors to the Province of British Columbia.  Montgomery County has office space in the Rockville Library complex and will in the Silver Spring Library too, I believe. The San Diego Library includes two floors rented to the local school district for a public charter high school.

These are still related public uses, not non-public uses in a public-civic building.

A public-private partnership is unnecessary.  I don't see why a "public-private partnership" is necessary to do an expansion project.  DC has plenty of money--$1 billion in budget surpluses over the past three fiscal years--it's a matter of will.

From the Toronto Globe & Mail article, "The hidden price of public-private partnership":
A P3 works essentially like leasing a car or TV, rather than paying cash up front. At the end of the day, governments pay substantially more, but if something goes wrong, someone else is responsible.

There are various P3 models. But in most cases, teams – typically made up of a contractor, an architect, a lender and sometimes an operator – bid on a project. The winning group puts up the money, takes on the construction risks and then gets repaid when the project is done. Sometimes, the consortium also operates a facility under a long-term contract, getting repaid in instalments over several years.

These deals are politically seductive. Governments like them because they push spending down the road, pointed out business professor Aidan Vining of Simon Fraser University, who argued in a recent study with University of British Columbia business professor Anthony Boardman that taxpayers are too often getting a raw deal. ... 
Governments are essentially “renting money” they could borrow more cheaply on their own because it’s politically expedient to defer expenses and avoid debt, Prof. Boardman added. P3 has become a “slogan” with often dubious benefits, he said. ...

Based on a new study of 28 Ontario P3 projects worth more than $7-billion, University of Toronto assistant professor Matti Siemiatycki and researcher Naeem Farooqi found that public-private partnerships cost an average of 16 per cent more than conventional tendered contracts. That’s mainly because private borrowers typically pay higher interest rates than governments. Transaction costs for lawyers and consultants also add about 3 per cent to the final bill.

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