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.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Central Library planning process in DC as another example of gaming the capital improvements planning and budgeting process

I wrote recently ("DC wastes $122 million on new high school: evidence of failures in capital improvements planning and budgeting") about the construction of a new Dunbar High School, even though almost every one of DC's public high schools that are part of the DCPS system are severely under-enrolled, stating it is fallout from the fact that DC doesn't have a public and consolidated capital improvements planning and budgeting process. (Dunbar, given its history, raises special issues, which I admit make it hard for many people in the city to look at the issue objectively.
Pedestrian mall, Martin Luther King Library, DC
Pedestrian mall, Martin Luther King Library, DC, back in better days. By the late 1990s, the pedestrian mall was seen as a significant harbor for loitering, and was removed.

The drumbeat, I mean planning, for "fixing" the DC central public library, the Martin Luther King Junior Central Library, located at 9th and G Streets NW, in Downtown DC's "cultural quarter" is yet another example of this problem.

The DC Library Renaissance Project has been keeping on top of this issue, and calls our attention to the fact that while the Library owes a report, due October 1st, to the city on fixing the library, they are already soliciting for architects.

From the press release "Library Board President John Hill’s Public Assurances Contradicted in New Request for Architects for MLK":

In response to recent questions about plans for the renovation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, John W. Hill, the President of the Library Trustees said, “No decisions have been made. Everything is on the table.”

His comments came on July 27, 2013 at the regular bi-monthly meeting of the Board of Library Trustees, where Hill also noted that the Library is due to issue a report on DC's central public library by October 1, as requested by the DC Council in the Budget Support Act.

On August 21, however, the Library issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for architects , the terms of which seem to indicate that the option for a fully public building has already been eliminated, “in anticipation of a future public private partnership," according to "Section 4.0 Services Requested" of the RFQ .

“It concerns us that the RFQ was issued prior to the Council-mandated report and any public discussion of it,” said Robin Diener, Director of the DC Library Renaissance Project. “The RFQ language leads us to believe that the report will focus on private partnerships only for financing, and won't meaningfully consider public-public options and the financial benefits they might confer.”

“I asked him [Mies van der Rohe],” said [architect Dirk] Lohan, “what he felt should be done with his buildings as time goes on. Because even then there were people who were so enamored that, if you touch a Mies building, they go to the barricades. I don't feel that way, because he said, ‘this is not for me to decide, whether you and the future generations feel these buildings are worthy of preservation. Some of them are and others are not.’ And I think he's absolutely right. I feel that same way.”

-- "Mies Goes Soft: At the IBM Building, The Langham Chicago Pushes Against the Envelope," Architecture Chicago Plus blog

The "planning" process for fixing DC's Central Library has been going on for more than 10 years (same with the streetcar...)

The DCPL system has gamed the process for "fixing" the Central library, a process that has been going on for a long time, by declaring that the library in its present form is "too big, that other cities don't have comparably sized libraries

Interestingly, THIS IS A TOTAL LIE, at least compared to other major cities such as Nashville, Seattle, Salt Lake City, New York City, Chicago, Vancouver, and Los Angeles, which have built or expanded their libraries in the past 15 years or so.  (More than one dozen new or refurbished central libraries have opened in large UK cities over this time period as well.)

It also fails to acknowledge the role of a city's Central Library as a center for culture, which often means adding auditorium, exhibit, and gallery spaces beyond the more typical book and digital media-related functions that we think of being the foundation of a library.  (See the 2005 blog entry, "Central Library Planning efforts and the City Museum, how about some learning from Augusta, Maine ... and Baltimore?")

This is done to justify possibly expanding the library (the original Van der Rohe design was for a bigger building) and leasing the space to for profit concerns, ostensibly to raise money for fixing the library.

Neoliberals and other pro market young libertarian types seem to think that's a great idea, judging by this entry, "Nader-backed group opposes creative reuse of MLK Library," and the mostly supportive comments, in Greater Greater Washington.

But this raises fundamental questions about libraries as cornerstones of democracy and the democratization of information, as civic assets that define communities, etc.  I wrote about this in  Fall 2011, "The DC Central Library, the Civic identity and the public realm" and "Planning process failures generally (and the upcoming DC Central Library planning process)."

For a city that pats itself on the back so much about how great it is, especially with planning, it is incredible that the city's capital improvements planning process is so incredibly flawed, and people in authority do virtually nothing to change and improve and open the process.

Library renaissance in North America and the Europe

Ken Worpole, author of Contemporary Library Architecture, published by Routledge, has a piece in the Guardian article, "Why public libraries are glamming up," about how central library rebuilding efforts have become key to community rebuilding efforts, because the library is actually used by citizens, unlike a museum, which tends to not have the same central role in day to day life.  From the article:

Why are libraries back on the urban agenda? Increasing numbers of people are now engaged in some form of further or higher education, and need study space and access to the internet, which many cannot find at home. The rise of single-person households in city centres – in some European capitals now approaching 50% of households – means that libraries increasingly act as a meeting place or home from home, as they do for migrants, refugees and even tourists. The idea of the library as "the living room in the city" was first promulgated in 1970s Scandinavian library design, as architects responded to users' wishes to stay longer, have a coffee, and enjoy storytelling sessions, lunchtime concerts or attend book-reading groups. Visiting Örnsköldsvik library in northern Sweden, close to the Arctic Circle, I noticed users brought their slippers and a packed lunch. ...

The revived global enthusiasm for libraries – of which Seattle is perhaps the most ambitious – originated in north America in the 1990s. Having overseen the costly failure of iconic museum and gallery projects – ostensibly built to put cities on the map – politicians realised they got more bang for their buck if they spent the money on a state-of-the-art library. When the Nashville library opened in 2001, inscribed above the door was the maxim: "A city with a great library is a great city."   ...

It is almost impossible for public libraries to fail in this way. They are free to use, and, after a century and a half of experience, have woven themselves into the fabric of everyday life. ... Most importantly, libraries are seen as belonging to everybody by right, compared with publicly funded theatres, art galleries, museums or concert halls.

DC's Central Library as a library versus an architectural object

There is no question that the Central Library sucks as a library.   This isn't news to anyone.  In fact, in 1999, the City Paper suggested DC needed a new library.  See "A novel proposal."  From the article:

... Now that they've demolished the pedestrian mall, they should take the wrecking ball to the library itself. From its Darth Vader face mask to an elementary-school-style central mural that looks as if it were painted by Cool "Disco" Dan, the District's central library is a blocklong advertisement for illiteracy. Whereas library buildings in other big cities use architecture to show that books are a passage to beauty and adventure, MLK's decaying steel and glass suggest that reading is a one-way ticket to a lifetime in middle management at some declining corporation.

The library's 1971 inception was yet another example of a world-famous architect taking a dump on D.C. And its upkeep since then has been a protracted case of our municipal government doing the very same thing. Inside, torn orange carpet wears stripes of duct tape. Toxic-looking water drips from every possible ceiling. Elevators designed for the Jetsons creak and moan, if they work at all.
The back side of a postcard for the DC Central Library, the Martin LUther King Jr. memorial Library
The back side of a postcard for the DC Central Library, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library calls attention to the prominance of the architect.

It has the "misfortune" of being designed by a now dead starchitect, Mies van der Rohe, so this mucks up the discussion.  The discussion gets mucked up because there are at least five different conflicting threads in the discussion:

• the Mies building as historic, a building that has been given landmark protection under relevant DC laws (this doesn't mean that the building can't be demolished, but makes it harder)

• whether or not the building is worth preserving as a library or anything else, irrespective of the landmark designation

• the library building serves as a memorial, because of its name, to Martin Luther King Junior, although Dr. King had no association with this site and is now memorialized elsewhere in the city

• irrespective of the poor maintenance of the building over the years, the fact is that the building as a library is severely dysfunctional, and allied functions such as auditorium and exhibit space are very very outdated (and even at the opening of the library, weren't particularly well designed or functional)

• Can the city/the Library system even be trusted to build a new, better library?, given all the various stratagems and dissembling starting with the Master Planning process in the early part of the last decade (see the 2006 blog entry "John Hill, DC's new 'reading teacher'") which continues with the latest "planning" efforts that enthusiastically propose to sell off, in effect, part of the site.

What to do?  How about a public planning process that isn't gamed?

To me, the answer is obvious.

Conduct a real, true, public planning process for the creation of a new central library.

Not a relatively private process, one that is severely gamed from the outset by constraining the definition of what the Central Library could be and ignoring its role as a key civic building and the library's place in setting the stage for local democracy and participation in civic life.

(Although despite my initial enthusiasms, it's not like the planning processes underway for the master transportation plan and a master plan for the parks and recreation department are particularly robust either.)

I haven't read The New Downtown Library: Designing with Communities.  I am guessing it offers a better way for shaping the process than just calling up the Urban Land Institute.

Then again, a copy of the book isn't in the DC Public Library collection.

The DC Public Library Branch library renewal program.  I could give the DC Public Library system encomiums for its revitalization program for branch libraries.  Many libraries have been reconstructed or renovated.  And they should be commended for that.

But even that program missed the opportunity, for the most part, to do something more than just build straight up libraries, rather than consider the library more broadly in terms of its role as the primary civic asset in neighborhoods, as the library is most often the only public building in a community that is open to all.

Library starchitecture is still a problem.  And there is the issue of library building architecture "on the outside" designed to be flashy and sculptural versus the design and program inside.

I would argue that many of the flashy buildings don't work particularly well, especially in terms of the way that they don't usually try to connect to the city center beyond the building, but there is no question that they can work, as Moshe Safdie has demonstrated with the Salt Lake City Library (see the blog entry "The Salt Lake City Central Library is absolutely incredible"), which was modeled after his much larger version in Vancouver, BC.

The Library of Birmingham's exterior, ‘though a bit Vegas, stays this side of trashiness’. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The Library of Birmingham opens today in the UK.  See the BBC story "City ready for £189m library opening," "Library of Birmingham – review" from the Observer, and "Birmingham's new library is a modern behemoth that encases the past" from the Guardian.

That library, which may be the largest cultural space and community public library in Europe, is about 225,000 square feet, with an additional 68,000 square feet for the Birmingham Repertory Theater.

They expect 10,000 visitors daily.  (Note that the Seattle Public Library is one of the city's biggest attractions in terms of visitation from non-residents.)

Other library projects can also be controversial.  The proposal to merge the "local" library serving Midtown Manhattan into the 42nd Street Library, while simultaneously closing the Science and Industry Library and moving some of the research collection offsite has drawn a great deal of opposition.

The NY Public Library system says they need to do this to save money and the research collection won't seriously be impacted.  But many disagree.

And in the mid-1990s, writer Nicholson Baker was very critical of the then new San Francisco Public Library main library, which had less space to store books than its previous incarnation, so they trashed hundreds of thousands of books.

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