Credit: D.C. Public Library

 
The D.C. Public Library (DCPL) system narrowed the list of competitors to renovate the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in the heart of the nation’s capital to three architecture teams. The selection of teams to proceed with preliminary plans for the much-needed renovation—as well as those firms that didn’t make the cut—gives some hint about the future for the only library designed by Mies van der Rohe. 

The shortlisted architecture teams are: Vancouver-based Patkau Architects, with Baltimore’s Ayers Saint Gross and Chicago’s Krueck + Sexton Architects; the Dutch firm Mecanoo, with D.C.–based Martinez and Johnson Architecture; and D.C.–based Studios Architecture, with the Durham, N.C.–based Freelon Group. DCPL picked three finalists from the 10 teams announced in October, elevating firms with library and renovation experience over higher-end firms.

The three teams will submit two preliminary design concepts to the review panel and the public next month: one for renovations to the library as a freestanding building, and the other for a mixed-used development that would add floors to the library to accommodate other elements, potentially office or residential space.

The proposals are intended as merely preliminary design ideas, as the contest was created to choose a firm with which the board will work to develop a redesign. “The design concepts are meant to judge the architect’s ability and will by no means be the final design of the library,” says DCPL director of capital projects and facility management Jeff Bonvechio.

Designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1966 and completed three years after his death in 1972, the MLK Library is the long-neglected central hub of a system of spokes that has been transformed in recent years. Under former chief librarian and executive director Ginnie Cooper, who retired at the end of 2013, the city has completed or is in the process of completing 17 renovations or major construction projects.

After a hotly contested campaign by former Mayor Anthony Williams to move the central library and potentially sell the building failed, DCPL reversed course, launching a Neighborhood Library Capital Improvement Program in 2007 and investing over $180 million in the transformation of D.C. libraries. Under former chief librarian and executive director Ginnie Cooper, who retired in 2013, the city has completed or is in the process of completing 17 renovations or major construction projects.
 
That investment bore immediate fruit in the form of new neighborhood libraries, including the Tenley-Friendship Library and the Anacostia Library, both designed by the Freelon Group. But a long-term plan for the MLK Library was also set in motion.
A "word cloud" summary of what the library means to its patrons, employees, and the community, as gathered in a panel interview process by the Urban Land Institute

A "word cloud" summary of what the library means to its patrons, employees, and the community, as gathered in a panel interview process by the Urban Land Institute

Credit: ULI


In Nov. 2011, DCPL asked the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to assess the building’s condition and to recommend options for renovating the building, which was designated as a historic national landmark in 2007. The ULI issued its findings in a report listing some of the building’s problems, including: neglected maintenance, insufficient lighting, limited handicapped access, potential environmental issues, and inadequate heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems. The report provided two suggestions: either renovate the building for the sole use of the library, or renovate the building while also adding a few floors for rent (and use the revenue to fund the project).

In Sept. 2012, with funding from Mayor Vincent Gray’s office, the library’s board asked the Freelon Group to conduct a feasibility study to test the options identified in the ULI report and present its research to the library board and community. The Freelon Group served as the library’s “general design consultant,” as Bonvechio puts it, “to create uniformity among our records.”
A conceptual design of the renovations included in the 2012 report by Freelon Group

A conceptual design of the renovations included in the 2012 report by Freelon Group

Credit: Freelon Group


“We were looking for ideas to generate excitement and dialogue,” Bonvechio says. “The Freelon Group went way further than we were expecting.” The firm created a gallery of conceptual images of “essentially [a] new library in Mies's building,” as referred to in the firm’s report.

The Freelon Group’s conceptual plan would cost an estimated $175–$250 million. The firm lists several finance options to offset costs. Given the building's landmark status, the project is eligible to receive up to $30 million in historic tax credits. It is also eligible to receive about the same amount in new market tax credits, which applies to low-income communities. Additional options include building extra office and residential space for lease to other occupants, leasing the parking facility to a private operator and—the most dramatic proposal of all—selling the building to purchase land for a new building.
A conceptual design of the renovations included in the 2012 report by Freelon Group

A conceptual design of the renovations included in the 2012 report by Freelon Group

Credit: Freelon Group


Although the Freelon Group presented a design proposal in 2012, Bonvechio says that the library board had planned from the very first talks about renovation to host a competition to “make sure we found the best architect for the project.”

Now competing to propose a design—despite submitting one before a year before the 2013 request for qualifications—the Freelon Group is “revisiting all ideas we previously had,” says Freelon principal Derek Jones. “The prior proposal focused on studying whether there was a potential to renovate with the building’s restrictions. We want to re-investigate that proposal.”
A conceptual design of the renovations included in the 2012 report by Freelon Group

A conceptual design of the renovations included in the 2012 report by Freelon Group

Credit: Freelon Group


The Freelon Group is collaborating with Studios Architecture, which has an office in D.C., to develop both proposals. Studios is primarily working on the mixed-use development plan, while Freelon Group is focusing on plans for renovation. “This is not a Jekyll-and-Hyde building though, and we’re working together to present great designs,” Jones says.

The three teams will present their proposals to the public in a meeting on February 15 and the designs will be on display at neighborhood libraries and online. The library is currently collecting community input through a website encouraging discussions about the building's renovation. The final firm will be chosen in the spring.