The renovation of the Southeast Neighborhood Library (403 Seventh St. SE) will not be completed until at least Spring of 2024, DC Public Library (DCPL) Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan said Tuesday. The modernization is one of the longer and more complex projects undertaken by DCPL, he said, noting that there have been more than 20 library improvement projects in the District over the last 11 years.
Reyes-Gavilan made the remarks at the March 3rd community meeting held in the North Hall of Eastern Market to discuss the Southeast Library project, solicit feedback and introduce members of the design/build team that will transform the historic library. That team is made up of Quinn Evans, the architecture firm that worked on the restoration of Eastern Market after the 2007 fire and Whiting Turner, the construction firm that worked on the renovation of the Hill Center in 2007 and the Northeast Library in 2013.
The re-opening of a renovated Southeast Library had previously been targeted for 2022, the centennial of the branch opening. Reyes-Gavilan said that the longer timeline for the Southeast Library renovation is partially due to multiple approvals necessary through the regulatory process. Construction will begin after approvals are received, likely sometime in 2022. The likelihood of complicated below-grade construction on the project also adds to the timeline, Reyes-Gavilan added.
The library is not expected to close for years, said Reyes-Gavilan, and so discussions about interim services will be taken up later in the design process.
An Iterative Process
Quinn Evans Architects Principal-in-Charge Chuck Wray said that the two-floor, 9,000 square-foot building is unique not only because the building is on the National Register of Historic places, making the approval process longer and more complicated than in a new build, but also because of the small, oddly-shaped 6,431-square-foot lot on which it is located, which limits the direction of expansion.
Wray said that the team was working with both the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and the Board of Zoning to get some sense of those parameters. Once a sense of the possibilities and a possible size is established, he said, prioritization and compromise will be necessary to determine the identity and appearance of the new library.
The process of finding a design solution for the Southeast Library will go through many iterations, Wray added. He said one challenge will be to address all of the ideal goals for the library on the small site. Ideals such as preservation and transformation or current and future needs will have to be balanced amid pressures such as the cost implication of design elements and the logistics of the site.
The architecture firm is conducting research to inform the design process. A historical structure report will assess the history and characteristics of the building, including when elements were added and what must be preserved, which Wray said is very likely to include the primary façade.
Boring tests have already been conducted on the site, and residents asked if these indicated that the library could expand down, below grade. Wray said that analysis of samples would take place over the next week, adding that initial impressions were that the soil did not differ greatly from that in the surrounding area. He said that the major expected barrier to downward expansion is cost, and the community would have to decide if the quality of space would be worth the expenditure.
Push and Pull to a Vision
Much of the discussion centered on what kind of vision the community has for the library, and what kind of spaces would facilitate that vision, be they study or meeting rooms, children’s spaces, technology nodes or library shelves.
At the meeting, attendees were asked to offer feedback. In one exercise, they were presented with floor plans of the Southeast Library and asked to take uniquely colored pens and draw their usual paths in and out of the building, noting the reasons they stopped where they did and providing demographic information and notes on the page. Most drawings revealed that few people spent time in the stacks or in the southwest corner of the main floor, but that there was regular use of the basement meeting space, children’s facilities, washrooms and librarian desks.
Meeting attendees pointed to a need for greater air and light in the library, a separation of spaces for quiet work versus those for conversation or meeting, and the role of the library as a place for people who need a safe space to go during the day.
Some findings appeared to point in the direction of the library as a center for information and experiences, rather than merely a place to find books. Reyes-Gavilan said that more and more people are using libraries for information services such as meetings and programs in addition to books. The number of people using the library is steadily increasing.
The DCPL Director said it was thought the demand for technology in branches would decrease as more and more people had devices at home or on their person, but this is not the case, and internet connections are also increasing. The attendance at public meetings at the library has skyrocketed in the last two years as well. Meanwhile, while circulation has reached nearly 180,000 a year, more than 65 percent of materials are acquired through the holds system rather than the stacks.
A presentation of initial responses to the Southeast Library Renovation Survey pointed to some of the ways in which the library is currently used, and by whom. More than 70 percent of respondents spent less than an hour in the library and a little less than half said they come to the library twice or more in a month.
Out of the more than 500 responses, 70 percent of respondents were between the ages of 30 and 70 and more than 80 percent did not have school-aged kids at home. Team members said that the information from the survey and the conversations would be cross-referenced with census data as well as information from the larger DCPL Facilities Masters Plan, which is currently being formulated.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D) participated in the meeting. Referencing the Southwest Library, which broke ground last month, he said that community involvement was critical to the success of the renovation. “I can tell you every single time, these projects get better with your input,” he said. Allen asked attendees to think through what draws community members to the library and to see the building as a civic center working in concert with the Eastern Market Metro Plaza, shortly to be renovated across the street. “We are going to be setting something up that’s going to be great for the generations that come after us, and that’s going to be really great for the growth of Capitol Hill,” he said.
Community feedback is part of the first phase of construction, expected to last until mid-April, said Wray. Work on the design, which includes discussion about what elements will be included in addition to how they will look, will begin shortly afterward in concert with discussions with HPRB and the Board of Zoning. The conversation with the community will continue throughout the process, the team said, with another (yet unscheduled) community meeting coming soon.
You can complete the survey online and in person at the Southeast Library until Wednesday, March 10. You can offer comments during the library’s monthly Coffee and Conversation session on Monday, March 23 from 2 to 3 p.m. See full presentations, see scheduled meeting dates and learn more about the project by visiting https://www.dclibrary.org/southeastlibraryrenovation