October 24, 2013

Historic D.C. Public Library to be redeveloped for mixed-use amid some opposition


A possible look for the new D.C. Public Library.

As the last building designed by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and one of the only examples of modern architecture in Washington D.C., the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library was declared a historic landmark in 2007. This status has protected it from proposals to renovate—or completely redesign—the entire building.

But plans are underway to make some changes to the building, which requires significant repairs to windows and lighting in order to keep functioning. As an article in the Washington Post last year noted, the future of the library and how to best maintain it has been a source of controversy.

The Martin Luther King building is widely respected among architecture enthusiasts, and the city designated it a historic landmark in 2007. But despite new enthusiasm for the mid-century modern look, and concerted efforts at more consistent maintenance in past years, it isn’t universally loved. As Freelon [the library’s architect of record] acknowledged, if the library site at Ninth and G streets NW were bare ground, he could build a new bells-and-whistles library much more cheaply than remaking the old one.

Last week, the library announced that it had chosen ten architecture firms to submit technical plans for possible renovations, which are due on November 18th and will be judged by a “team of library, urban planning, architecture, and preservation experts.”

No decisions have been made on the type or the extent of the renovations or additions to the library. The selected firm will aid library staff and consultants in exploring the options outlined in an assessment done by the Urban Land Institute in fall 2011. These options include renovating the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library as a stand-alone library or as a mixed-use with additional floors.

In addition, the library has launched a website, dclibrary.ideascale.com, as a way to collect information about what the public would like to be incorporated into the library. One possible idea is to create a cafe within the library. There were also inquiries as to how services for teens, children, people with disabilities, and spaces meetings should function.

But not everyone agrees that the library should allow private use in order to defray the cost of development. A group called the Library Renaissance Project, which has ties to Ralph Nader, has protested the project in library meetings. The group is expected to become more vocal as plans for the future of the library get underway.


Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.