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DC Public Library Gives Up on Multi-Story Addition to Flagship MLK Library

Congratulations, historic preservationists. You win again.

The vision to remake the District’s flagship Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library with a multi-story addition potentially featuring commercial and retail space met its end Wednesday night when the DC Public Library’s board of trustees adopted a resolution endorsing a plan to keep the building only as a library with a one-floor addition.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1972 building is a landmark of modernist design, but it is in shoddy condition after 43 years, needing extensive renovations to both its public spaces and its infrastructural systems. In 2014, the library selected a design by Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo and DC-based Martinez + Johnson, that proposed fixing up the original structure and adding up to four new stories that could have been used as leasable office space, plus ground-floor retail where the library’s expansive lobby now occupies.

Historic preservationists, often egged on by Ralph Nader, revolted, while the District’s chief historic preservation review officer wrote in a December letter that the four-level addition “would have an adverse effect on the building due to loss of historic fabric.” The complaints apparently took hold: at a meeting last week of DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board, DCPL submitted two revised proposals, both featuring just a one-story addition.

“After months of listening and learning, the Board had several goals,” Gregory M. McCarthy, the library board’s president, said in a press release. “First and foremost, it was essential to make possible additional space for programming in a spectacular central library. We also wanted to create a hub for educational, cultural and civic expression for the whole city and we wanted contribute to the social and economic activation around MLK in downtown. The concept we’re advancing does all of that.”

The revised renovation plan will involve remaking all 400,000 square feet of the original structure—including classrooms, reading rooms, experimental learning spaces, and a DC history center—while the new fifth floor will be used for reading programs, library events, and a rooftop terrace. More importantly for the city’s bean-counters is that adding an additional three or four levels to the MLK Library was projected to generate 10 to 15 percent less revenue than what it would have cost.

The District government is scheduled to commit $208 million toward the library’s capital budget over the next five fiscal years.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.