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Community Concerns Remain at Final Southeast Library Reno Meeting

On Thursday (Dec. 14), Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) and chair of the ANC’s Southeast Library Taskforce David Sobelsohn (6B03) hosted a press conference outside of the library (403 Seventh St. SE). The press conference drew attention to task force concerns about interim services expected to be provided during the expected two-year closure of the library. 

Sobelsohn, joined by Edward Ryder (ANC commissioner of 6B08), Frank D’Andrea (ANC commissioner of 6B04) and a couple of Southeast Library members, laid out a series of demands for the DC Public Library System (DCPL).

The conference preceded the final community meeting prior to the beginning of a $33 million renovation of the library, slated to begin Jan. 4, 2024. That re-opening will mark the end of more than 6 years of work and planning. Discussions around the modernization of the now 102 year-old library kicked off with a meeting at the Hill Center back in October 2018. Originally the plan was for construction to begin in early 2021, but since then the project has been pushed back several times. 

From the project’s first announcement, some residents have shown particular disappointment with plans for interim services. In early 2023, ANC 6B formed the Southeast Library Taskforce. Working alongside Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) the taskforce has successfully secured an additional $190,000 for interim services at the Arthur Capper Community Center (1000 Fifth St. SE). 

The Taskforce’s Objections

The current plan is to have Northeast Library (330 Seventh St. NE), located .8 miles North of Southeast Library, as the interim facility. The Arthur Capper Community Center will provide additional interim services. Those services will primarily include access to Wi-Fi, public computers, printers and copiers. At this point, it is expected that library users will also be able to pick-up holds at the Capper site. Children’s storytime will take place on Barracks Row at 700 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 

Key among concerns enumerated by the task force was the fact that the Arthur Capper facility will evidently only be open on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the exception of Thursdays, when the hours will be 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. One ask is to have the facility open “at least one weekend day and two evenings per week,” according the taskforce’s list of demands. The task force is also advocating for the interim facility to open the day after the library closes.

Delivered by Sobelsohn, the taskforce’s statement rejected the idea that Northeast Library would be an adequate interim facility. “That’s too far for parents with small children. It’s too far for senior citizens,” Sobelsohn said. “What will DCPL tell someone with limited mobility, ‘roll your wheelchair two miles to the Northeast branch’?” The statement also noted that DCPL hasn’t promised an expansion of services for the Northeast Library while it is serving an added number of users. 

Another issue is the lack of signage at the Southeast Library notifying patrons of the impending closure. The taskforce felt that there is a possibility that the Arthur Capper facility will be under-utilized because DCPL hasn’t given it enough publicity. Partially due to the lack of publicity on the closure, the taskforce urged DCPL to delay the project two weeks “to allow the community to react to what will come to most of us as a shock.”

Sobelsohn argued that other DCPL libraries had gotten higher quality interim services during their own renovation, citing in particular the renovation of Southwest Library, completed in 2021. During that renovation, neighborhood library users were served by a temporary site located in a trailer on District-controlled property at Fourth and M Streets SW. Additionally, Sobelsohn pointed out that a suite at the Watergate was provided as an interim facility during the West End library’s renovation. 

Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) speaks at the Dec. 14 meeting, the last community meeting on the renovation prior to the Southeast Library closure in January 2024. Photo: T. Weller

DCPL’s Community Meeting on the Modernization Project

Following the press conference, the community meeting began in the basement of the Southeast library. Along with the Sobelsohn and the Southeast Library task force, Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) attended the meeting, but the meeting was led by DCPL Executive Director (ED) Richard Reyes‐Gavilan along with representatives from Whiting-Turner, the construction company leading the modernization project. 

DCPL Director of Capital Planning and Construction Jaspreet Pahwa went over a timeline for the renovation. The expectation is that the Southeast Library will be reopened in early 2026. Pahwa confirmed she will give updates during the process regarding the timeline. The project has been moved back several times already, with summer 2023 reported as the start time earlier this very year. Reyes‐Gavilan attributed these delays to several factors including getting permission from neighbors, permitting and securing the required funding.

At the meeting, the modernization team also reviewed plans for the renovation. The 102-year old library is designated as a historic building, meaning that changes to the exterior must preserve the historic character of the original structure according to the judgement of the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB).

But the limitations are not only on any changes to the structure. The current library, which is under 9,000 square feet, occupies much of the 6,431-square-foot site. The modernization will expand the library space to nearly 19,000 square feet. This will be done by adding space to the library underneath the existing structure. It will also mean the excavation of the small hill the library currently sits on.  

Asked if Southeast Library users could receive interim services like the trailer Southwest Library patrons were given during its 2019-2021 renovation, Reyes‐Gavilan explained that interim services come out of the budget of the renovation project. Increased costs add to those challenges. The renovation project was originally only expected to cost $18 million, but the estimate is now well over $33 million. “We would like to keep as much money for the prize [the renovation] as humanly possible,” added Reyes‐Gavilan. 

Asked if the number of computers at Northeast Library would be expanded while it is used as an interim facility, Reyes-Gavilan expressed confidence that an expansion of services would not be necessary at Northeast. He supported this claim with the fact that neighborhood library patronage throughout the District has dropped since the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, annual computer sessions opened at Northeast Library dropped by over half from 2019-2023. Reyes-Gavilan also noted that when Southeast Library had a slightly delayed reopening coming out of pandemic closures, patrons went to different libraries instead with no issues.

Sobelsohn himself asked Reyes‐Gavilan a few questions referenced during the press conference, his intense tone conveying his passion for the project.

Reyes‐Gavilan assured Sobelsohn that once construction begins, the DCPL website and signs around the construction zone will alert patrons to the existence of the Arthur Capper facility. Reyes‐Gavilan gave Feb. 5 as the planned opening date of Arthur Capper. 

The DCPL ED said that this is actually a very fast turnaround time compared to past DCPL renovation projects. Reyes-Gavilan explained that time would be needed to transport materials from the Southeast Library to Capper. He justified the limited hours by noting that only two employees will be working at the Capper Facility, in large-part because of cuts to the budget for DCPL employees in the coming fiscal year.  The hours of the facility were chosen based on study of who uses the main service that will be provided at the facility,  computers, most frequently, he said. “Visits to libraries … plummet at about 6 p.m.,” Reyes-Gavilan explained. 

DCPL Executive Director Reyes‐Gavilan (left) and Commissioner Sobelsohn (right) talk after the community meeting. Photo: T. Weller

Reyes‐Gavilan also noted that a large portion of those who use library computers are people experiencing homelessness. Those users generally are in the library during the weekdays, he said. People experiencing homelessness “are often waiting outside of our libraries first thing in the morning because they want to get in, they want to get in out of the cold, they want to get online, they want to do things that you may do and I may do in our home,” said the DCPL ED. “They’re doing it at the library.” 

Through the meeting, Sobelsohn stood by his belief, stated at the taskforce’s press conference, that more interim services should be provided, he said the taskforce still supported the renovation project as a whole. The Southeast Library Task Force will continue to meet and DCPL representatives said they will continue to take input from the community regarding the project.

As Councilmember Allen put it, “I know you aren’t entirely satisfied with every element of it. . .but this is something that I’m very proud of, what we’re going to have as the final product.”

DCPL streamed the Dec. 14 meeting and you can watch it on Youtube. Learn more about the Southeast Library and the modernization project by visiting www.dclibrary.org/news/southeast-library-modernization-project.

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