The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) and the Office of Planning are pushing for a plan to include a new Southwest Branch Library as a component of a mixed-use building on a 4th Street parcel the city owns at Waterfront Station. As a part of the agreement made with Waterfront Associates when the former Waterside Mall at 4th and M streets was demolished and redeveloped, the city (formerly the National Capital Revitalization Corporation) would retain the NE parcel for future development as a mixed-use building with ground floor retail and residential units above, a percentage set aside as affordable housing. Marc Bleyer from DMPED is now the point man for disposition of the District-owned NE parcel and is looking to release a Request for Proposals (RFP) soon; however, he needs to determine first whether space for a new library should be included in the planned mixed-use building.
DMPED has engaged CORE Architects to come up with some concepts for what is possible for a library that is contained within a mixed-use building, as well as how a standalone library at Wesley Place would look. These concepts will be developed over the next six weeks and presented to the community to gauge support for either option. The city has been building several new or substantially renovated libraries recently – mostly as standalone buildings; however, a library in a mixed-use building is planned in the West End and there are plans to put a non-library addition in the flagship Martin Luther King, Jr. library downtown. Some of the new, standalone library branches built in the city recent years include those in Bellevue, Anacostia, and Deanwood, while other branches that are architecturally significant have been substantially renovated, such as those in Petworth, Georgetown, and Northeast.
At a recent meeting with community leaders, most of the attendees expressed their preference for a standalone library for several reasons. A concern shared by many was that a library on 4th Street would take away street-level retail space from potential retailers. Melissa Bird from the Office of Planning pointed out that the 4th Street retail corridor has struggled to sign tenants and a library would enliven the street, potentially attracting more tenants. Also, the library could be placed on the second floor, reducing the space it would take away on the ground level. Some were concerned that children would not feel welcome if the library was on 4th Street because of how some businesses along the street have become inhospitable to minors in their efforts to curb shoplifting. It was felt that children need a place to let off some steam after an altercation in the library and the library park serves that purpose – no such space would exist on 4th Street. Related to the library park, another concern was there would be lost synergy between the planned playground at the park and the library if it moved to 4th Street.
Others were concerned that a standalone library at the current site would be overwhelmed by high-rise buildings surrounding it on three sides – the NE parcel at Waterfront Station to the west, a new building planned at Town Center East to the south, and the redevelopment of Greenleaf to the east. Along that line of reasoning, officials from the District Public Library system prefer to move to 4th Street in order to increase visibility and usage of the library. Meanwhile, a majority of respondents to a recent SWTLQTC unscientific poll preferred a mixed-use library on 4th Street. Fifty-two percent of respondents preferred a library on 4th Street, SW, compared to 35% of those who preferred a standalone library. The remaining 12% were unsure.
Currently, funding for a new Southwest branch library is tied to the sale of city-owned land. That does not necessarily mean that the land to be sold must be the current library site, but it is implied. There are other city-owned sites around the community that could be sold to fund a new Southwest branch library, including the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) inspection station, DMV office, and the fire truck repair facility at Half and M streets. Ward 6 Council Member Tommy Wells has stated that the DC Council could find a way to fund the new library in future budgets without the need to sell District land.
If the current library site is sold, under current zoning, a building up to six stories tall could be built in its place if the owner goes through the Planned Unit Development (PUD) process. Proposed changes to the zoning code would allow for a similar amount of density on the site by-right. The library park to the north would remain whether the library is retained at its current site or moved to 4th Street, so the planned playground is not in danger of being scrapped. In fact, a design-build contract was recently awarded by the Department of General Services for phase one of the park, which includes infrastructure improvements and play equipment in the center berm area.
A community meeting will be planned sometime this summer to discuss the concepts that CORE Architects has developed, then a RFP could be released sometime in the fall, with or without the library component. In the meantime, the vacant NE parcel will receive some upgrades in the coming months. The diagonal gravel pathway will be replaced with concrete or interlocking concrete pavers and semi-circular pathways will also be constructed using compressed stone. These improvements will accommodate a temporary art installation for 5 x 5, A Project of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. 5 x 5 is the largest, temporary public art project in the District. Designed by Lance Fung, the Waterfront Station installation will feature the work of five artists in a piece called Nonuments, described as “a temporary sculpture park featuring ‘monuments’ devoted not to the great but to ordinary people, to the ideals of democracy, and to the common struggles of humanity.” Nonuments will be on display from September 1 to December 6.