- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

Mayor Anthony A. Williams campaigned at a public forum yesterday for a new central library at the site of the old Washington Convention Center, a plan that drew a mixed reaction from those in attendance.

Building a new library at the now vacant lot off 11th Street Northwest was a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” Mr. Williams, a Democrat, said at the forum at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Northwest.

“Do we want shopping malls with offices for all the people with money to enjoy … or do we want to carve out of this important space, essential of our city, a space for everyone?” Mr. Williams asked.

The King building, the city’s central library, in the 900 block of G Street Northwest, opened in 1972 to replace the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square, which had been the central library since 1903. Library patrons have said the King building and the materials inside are run-down, they felt uneasy going there because the neighborhood is unsafe and that parking is a problem.

Though most residents at the forum agreed with the mayor’s plan, some were concerned about what would happen to the historic building, designed by modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

“I was ashamed before, when the city abandoned the Carnegie building, and I don’t want to be ashamed again,” said Richard L. Huffine of Northwest. “We need to find a way to make use of this building.”

Beyond discussing a new central library, residents complained about the system’s limited hours, understaffed branches, poorly maintained buildings and outdated, limited resources.

The forum yesterday was the third of 10 planned, said Monica Lewis, D.C. Public Library’s director of marketing and communications.

After the forums, the library system’s board of trustees will receive a final report in 180 days. The report then will go to the D.C. Council for approval, said John W. Hill, the library board’s president.

In May 2002, Mr. Williams submitted proposals to the D.C. Council to redevelop the Convention Center site, including a 50,000 square-foot central library. He established the task force in September 2004 to assess the state of the library system, make recommendations and implement a District-wide plan.

Mr. Williams, who is not seeking re-election, has said revamping the system is one of his main priorities for the remainder of his term. Critics often have said the mayor has done much to improve the city but has valued commercial development over such public projects.

“You can certainly argue that we should have paid time and attention and invested in libraries earlier, and it’s true,” he said, “but we’re paying attention to [the library system] now, because it is important. The city has the resources now … . We’re in a position to make these investments where we weren’t before.”

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