Even before proposals have been made, the District Dynamos, an off-shoot of Ralph Nader’s Library Renaissance Project, says they’ll oppose any attempt to modernize, renovate or substantially change the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown DC with a private partner.

Rendering of library with new floors on top. Image from DC Public Library.

Discussions about the the library’s future began in 2006. The building, which is the only work by architect Mies van der Rohe in DC, is overdue for an upgrade. It’s too big for the library’s current needs and ill-equipped to handle new programming or emerging technologies, like print-on-demand books.

In 2011, the library commissioned a study by the Urban Land Institute to figure out how to modernize the building and how to pay for it. ULI offered 3 options: move the library and give up the building, share the building with private interests, or simply renovate it, which would cost more than $200 million. If the library were able to lease part of the building or create a public-private partnership, it could recoup the cost and remain in the building.

However, the District Dynamos say they’re concerned about private companies taking over a public building and losing parking, even if it preserves a historic building and gives the District needed funds. They insist the library remain in its current space and are only open to a space-sharing agreement if the partner is a public entity, like the National DC Archives. This is the same argument they used when they opposed replacing the West End Library with a new library, housing and a fire station.

The Dynamos recently posted alerts on their website opposing changes which involve private companies or making the MLK Public Library smaller. However, it is important to note that none of the proposals involve closing or reducing the library’s functions. Rather, they position the library for the future. By monetizing space it no longer needs, it can invest in the technology required to remain relevant.

Public libraries are changing. They need less physical space, but require ongoing investment in new technologies. The ULI study recognizes this reality and proposes a trade-off between the two to build a stronger library. The District Dynamos’ blanket distrust of private interests may earn the sympathies of some in DC, but it may be counterproductive in the long run.

The Dynamos cite parking as a major concern, even though the location is a transit hub between Metro Center and Gallery Place. Every Metro line, several Metrobus routes and Capital Bikeshare all serve the surrounding neighborhood. Parking garages and on-street parking are located nearby. Furthermore, the library hasn’t had dedicated parking since 2010. Does it makes sense to deny District residents a new library because there’s no parking on-site, even when there are so many alternatives available?

If done correctly, public-private partnerships can give the District more flexibility and fund more and better projects. This is a chance for DC’s central library to become a real gathering place with meeting space, 21st century technology, the capacity to serve all District residents, and make better use of some very valuable space.