With the Southeast Branch DC Public Library closing for renovations in summer 2023, many Hill residents are concerned that no plans have been announced for interim services near the library site. The $23 million project, which will nearly double the size of the existing library, will not be completed until spring of 2025.
Residents have been asking for interim services since the first community meeting about the project. At that meeting, held in January 2018, DCPL Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan told residents that there was no plan for an interim library location. In response, one resident said a lack of interim services “would be damaging to the community.”
Five years later and with the library now a few months away from a nearly two-year closure, plans for an interim site remain up in the air. DCPL has used a variety of approaches in the past, and DCPL spokesperson George Williams said the details for Southeast interim services haven’t yet been determined. “What I can say is that we are continuing to explore what our options are [and] what opportunities exist in the community,” he told the Hill Rag via telephone.
But Williams also noted that in the case of the Southeast Library, “the Northeast Library (330 Seventh St. NE) will be appointed to provide interim services as well as maybe doing some satellite services at other locations in the neighborhood.” Those services might include book clubs or story time, Williams said.
When the Northeast Library closed in fall 2012 and reopened in February 2014, the Southeast Library served as the interim location. However, when the Southwest Library closed from June 2019 to May 2021, an interim location was provided in a nearby trailer at 425 M St. SE.
According to Williams, there were two reasons that the trailer was provided to serve patrons of the Southwest Library during its closure. First is distance; the closest DCPL branch is Southeast, 1.4 miles away. The second reason is hardship. Library users had to cross several neighborhoods to get to Southeast, negotiating intense traffic, such as South Capitol Street and the I-695 overpass.
In the case of the Southeast renovation, the Northeast library is a .8 mile journey directly north through the generally more walkable Capitol Hill neighborhood.
But residents such as Marci Hilt say the lack of interim services is problematic for seniors and children. “So, in my opinion, you’re cutting out two sections of society.”
Those who cannot walk the 1.6 mile return journey will try to drive, Hilt allowed, but parking is very scarce around the Northeast Library. She’d like to see an interim library for Southeast similar to what was provided in the Southwest Library renovation, suggesting the Eastern Market Metro Plaza as a site.
Interim Services Would Come From Project Budget
According to the Interim Library Service Guidelines, approved by the Library’s Board of Trustees in January 2019, “DCPL will work with the community and other local stakeholders to identify priorities for services throughout the period of construction.” It stipulates that project budgets must cover all costs of construction including interim libraries.
So, providing a trailer and staffing would cut into the budget for the long-term library improvements. DCPL would prefer to spend the majority of funds on improvements to the permanent library structures, William said
However, the project duration is also a relevant factor. According to guidelines, DCPL will “look to provide an interim facility when a library will be closed for longer than one year.” The Southeast Library is expected to remain closed for around 21 months.
But Hilt pushes back against the idea that elements of the renovation should be traded for interim services. “I don’t see why we have to give anything up [in the project],” Hilt said. “They should have considered this in the budget. They need to figure out how to do it.”
According to the DCPL guidelines, if the library determines that an interim facility is warranted but not funded, it can notify the city government that additional money is required prior to moving forward with the project, potentially delaying the start of the project until series are funded.
ANC 6B Pushes for Interim Services
David Sobelsohn (6B03) is the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) for the area around the Southeast Library. He echoed Hilt in saying that for many people, especially those with reduced mobility, seniors and small children, the distance to interim services at Northeast Library would be a hardship.
He wants DCPL to offer interim services near the Southeast Library building at a single or multiple sites. These should include not only programming such as story time, but also book holds and returns, computer terminals, printers and librarian services.
“What concerns me is I’m getting no traction [with DCPL] on anything remotely resembling that in Southeast,” Sobelsohn said. “This is the only library in this quadrant of DC north of the Anacostia River.”
To that end, in January, ANC 6B unanimously supported Sobelsohn’s motion to establish a Southeast Library Task Force. The group will look at remaining design considerations and help address resident concerns with construction over the next two years.
But the task force’s immediate focus is securing interim services in the area, Sobelsohn said. Members will determine which library services are essential over the next two years and then research ways and sites at which they could be provided.
However, that task force won’t meet until after the committee chair and members are elected at the Feb.15 meeting of ANC 6B (see anc6b.org for details). “We can’t wait that long,” said Sobelsohn, who has been meeting with library staff and community members to evaluate the existing possibilities in the area. “I hope we don’t have to have a sit-in,” he added, “but if we have to have a sit-in, we’ll have a sit-in.”
Williams said that DCPL understands the community desire. “Part of what we’re saying is that because we use a variety of interim service models, we’re still exploring [possibilities],” Williams noted. “So we can’t say for certain that the services that people want will only be at the Northeast Library.”
Summer is the best approximation for the closure, said Williams, because some of the steps prior to the start of construction are out of the direct hands of DCPL, such as permitting. Details of any interim services are generally announced together with the official date of closure, usually with at least a month’s notice.
“The library has engaged with ANC 6B throughout our modernization project, going back to when we started,” Williams said, acknowledging the commission’s support. “What I can say is that the library will continue to engage with community stakeholders, including ANC 6B, throughout our modernization planning.”