Residents debate West End Library redevelopment

The city’s proposal to revitalize the D.C. public library system could lead to the redevelopment of the West End Branch Library on 24th and L streets, but local residents are wary about the potential changes.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’ task force on the library has come up with a roughly $450 million plan to do an overhaul of the existing system. The plan is to focus on expanding, rebuilding and updating the technology, facilities and services of the city’s libraries.

The West End Library is the largest branch library in the city and sits on a prime site of land, known as Square 37. One idea for the library, and for others around the city, is to sell the air rights. This would mean privately owned office buildings, retail or housing could be put on top of a newly developed library in order to help with funding.

At a “listening session” sponsored by the task force at the West End Library Wednesday, resident Deborah Akel stood up and explained her “leeriness” of private-public partnerships, and said the government has a tendency to make “empty promises.”

GW junior John Muller, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said residents in Foggy Bottom and the West End are older and more conservative when it comes to development in the area.

“The idea of putting private businesses on top of a library is unprecedented in D.C., and because of this, the residents are hesitant,” he said, adding that he takes a personal interest in the future of the library system because of his years of volunteer service at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, the city’s central library downtown.

Residents said that since there is already a luxury condominium building being constructed near the library, on the site of former Columbia Hospital for Women at 2425 L Street, and since GW is constantly developing properties in the area, they are worried that any extra development will only exacerbate the area’s overcrowding.

“We are concerned about the overwhelming development in the area, and GW is gobbling up any open land,” Foggy Bottom Association President Joy Howell said in an interview last week, adding that too much more development in the area will only increase traffic, air pollution and danger to pedestrians. “The area is already incredibly congested. We don’t need more gridlock.”

The task force has said it is depending on public input in deciding the future of the library system and has been holding a series of “listening sessions” run by a private consulting firm hired by the city.

At the listening sessions, the participants are broken up into groups and given a fixed amount of time to discuss a set of predetermined topics. Some residents said they are concerned that they don’t get a chance to say what they are feeling.

“The city may be using this process to get what they want,” Foggy Bottom Association board member Mike Malloy said in an interview last week. Howell said she feels that this process is a government attempt to “circumvent real public input.”

Most residents agreed that the individual branches and library system as a whole are in need of rejuvenation and modernization.

“We all want a vibrant library. The whole system needs improvement, including the West End branch,” Malloy said. “We don’t want them to tell us the best course. We want to tell them the best course.”

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