“People who use the Southeast library are very committed to it. They have a sense of ownership,” declared Richard Reyes-Gavilan, director of the DC Public Library (DCPL), as he discussed the future renovations to Capitol Hill’s historic branch. “They say, this is my library. Who are you and what are you doing? But this will be an iterative journey, and everyone will get a say.”
The renovations to the Southeast Neighborhood Library (403 Seventh St. SE) will be one of the more challenging projects undertaken by the DC Public Library, said Reyes-Gavilan. That’s because of the relatively small footprint available for expansion of the building, and also because the library is a contributing structure to the Capitol Hill Historic District, with modification governed by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), which reviews exterior changes to public buildings in the District.
“The goal is to make it more in alignment with our library needs,” said Reyes-Gavilan. “We want to expand it and we want to facilitate the desired programming.”
A request for proposals (RFP) will be issued this year and a builder, partnered with an architect, will be selected soon thereafter. Architectural designs will be developed during 2020, and the $23.5 million renovation is slated to begin in early 2021. The grand reopening, slated for 2022, will coincide with the library’s centennial.
The Southeast Neighborhood Library opened in December 1922, the third Carnegie library and the second branch library to be constructed in the District. Designed by Edward L. Tilton, part of the team that designed the Boston Public Library, it is one of the most-used libraries in the DCPL system, serving 168,121 visitors in the 2018 fiscal year.
The Southeast library renovation will be a long, complex process. Reyes-Gavilan said that the challenges affect the way DCPL will approach the project. With other renovations, such as at Cleveland Park and Capitol View libraries, DCPL first determined the programming needs and the community’s desires for the library. Because the Capitol Hill building is a historic structure and because of the unique triangular lot shape, research about what is possible is more central to this project than to the creation of a new building or the renovation of a newer library.
“There is so much work to be done before we talk about making plans,” explained Reyes-Gavilan. “Our first course of action will be to see what ideas the architects can come up with – and we have some really creative architects in this city – and then use those ideas to meet programming needs.”
The challenges will entail a longer selection process. The selection of the design-build team is underway and expected to be complete by summer. In April, DCPL issued a request for qualifications to identify firms with experience modernizing and renovating historic urban libraries or similar facilities. After reviewing the responses, shortlisted teams will receive an RFP. Based on the proposals received, a team will be selected and the architectural design will begin.
The design process that follows will include an assessment of the library site’s existing conditions as well as engagement with the community and with regulatory entities. That’s when the team can start talking to the community about specific items they would like to see, and about particulars such as the location of rooms and if stairs should be relocated.
The library takes up much of the 6,431-square-foot site, making expansion a challenge. Last year, DCPL announced that, despite earlier hopes, the library footprint will not extend underground to join with the Eastern Market Metro station, as had been floated in an earlier proposal commissioned by Barracks Row Main Street. Reyes-Gavilan said that DCPL was in communication with the team working on the Eastern Market Plaza Project (EMMP) and that the park is being designed to work together with library needs.
Walking around the building, Reyes-Gavilan discussed the potential to improve the library without detracting from its historical character, emphasizing that the project is in the initial stage. “It is possible to do something out here that respects the significance of this historic landmark,” he said, musing on the possibility of putting small study rooms on the limited footprint on the South Carolina Avenue side of the grounds.
On the D Street side, Reyes-Gavilan emphasized accessibility as he discussed potential ways to create a universal entry experience for all users. Referencing a similar goal at Mount Pleasant Library, he speculated on several ideas including creating a main entrance to D Street, providing a universal experience for all while preserving the building’s appearance and front doors and facade.
The most obvious opportunity for expansion is the driveway located between the library’s west side and the neighboring townhouse. Currently used for employee parking on the D Street side and landscaped on the south side, the space could accommodate an annex or addition of several thousand square feet.
While the library has an attic, Reyes-Gavilan thought it was unlikely to play a part in the renovation. However, work on the basement rooms is important to the project, especially in regard to the well-used meeting room. It might be possible to excavate to raise the ceilings in the subterranean spaces, in order to add light and air as well as to improve the user experience. “We want to create more space, to make it more delightful and uplifting,” said Reyes.
Space as a Luxury
Branch Manager Julia Strusienski said that the programming needs of the library have long exceeded the space, necessitating tight scheduling and forcing staff to usher guests out after each event. “It’s a real luxury at other branches to be able to run adults and children’s programming at the same time,” she said. “That’s the biggest challenge, in addition to the size.” The tremendously popular children’s story hours are held in the only programming room, which has a capacity of 50. “At some point a program gets to be more about crowd control than content.”
On her wish list as well are study spaces for small groups or individuals wishing to work undisturbed, and better sightlines in the main reading room.
She said that library users are both dismayed and confused by the prospect of renovations, unsure when they will take place and how it will impact them. “We had people coming in at the beginning of the fiscal year to return books, saying, ‘I guess I better get these in before you close,’” she said. “I just want people to know, this is not happening tomorrow. This is part of a long process, and there will be significant, well-publicized opportunities for community input.”
Reyes-Gavilan admitted that his desire to get out and speak with the community about the project as soon as possible might have led to that perception. “I wanted to get out early and give information,” he said, “but in getting out, people wanted more and more answers very early in the project, and we haven’t really started yet.”
Patrons have expressed concern for access to library resources during construction, asking DCPL to open a temporary library in the area. While the executive director won’t rule it out, he emphasized that such costs come out of the $23.5 million project budget. “We heard loud and clear that people do want continuity of service, and we will figure out what that looks like.”
DCPL issued its request for qualifications for renovation on April 1, with a closing date of May 1. Teams selected by that process will be able to respond to the RFP. Once a proposal is selected, the chosen team will conduct due diligence on the site to determine suitability regarding subterranean conditions and existing underground infrastructure. After that is determined and a plan developed on how much space will be available, further meetings regarding what the community wants in the renovation will be announced.
Members of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) have nominated the library to the National Register of Historic Places. CHRS representative Nancy Metzger said such a designation would have no effect on planned renovations, as the building is protected by HPRB. Rather, Metzger said, the accession to the national register would recognize the significance of the building. The nomination process also generates knowledge about the building’s history, use and significance that can be a shared reference point for the community as it moves forward.
DCPL is also in the process of formulating a library facilities master plan for the next decade. Data collected will help inform programming decisions made in concert with the community for the future Southeast Neighborhood Library. “The facilities master plan was never meant to replace on-the-ground community input regarding renovations, but it will give contextual information about the services people want from their library,” said Reyes-Gavilan.
The Southeast library is perfectly situated, according to Reyes-Gavilan. “We talk about dream spaces for libraries. For me, it’s ideal to be near mass transit and retail, on the way to or from travel elsewhere. That typically results in a well-used, well-loved library, like the Southeast branch is today.” He added, “I can’t wait to start thinking about ways to modernize it cleverly.”
Follow information about the DCPL renovation at https://www.dclibrary.org/southeastlibraryrenovation.
Learn more about the DCPL facilities master plan by visiting https://www.dclibrary.org/dclibraryfuture.