- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2006

Residents in Northeast rallied yesterday to protest a developer’s plan to build housing over the Benning Branch Library. The community says the city council’s Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation promised a new or revamped branch after it was closed in December 2004.

The branch was one of several scheduled for renovation in 2002 as part of a $225 million, 10-year overhaul of city libraries. But the library remains closed nearly two years later, and residents say the city is purposely dragging its feet in order to give Marshall Heights Community Development Organization a chance to build housing units atop the library.

Passing vehicles honked in support as demonstrators passed out fliers, carried handmade signs and circulated petitions.

“We do not want housing or retail on this location,” said Eddie Rhodes, the ANC commissioner 7A06. “We just want a library, just like everybody else in the country has, and we want it opened immediately.”

Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, a nonprofit community-based group, has operated in Ward 7 since 1979, according to its Web site. The group’s mixed-use proposal includes about 40 apartment units and a new library facility. However, no community comment was sought until the proposal process was near completion, said Dorothy Douglas, the commissioner for ANC 7D03.

“And the same goes for the library’s closing,” she said. Ward 3 council member “Kathy Patterson — who chairs the library committee — came out to our community meetings in the spring and promised she would work with us so we can be in accord. That never happened. We’ve been told lie after lie, and things get done behind the community’s back.”

Robin Diener, spokeswoman for the DC Library Renaissance Project, said more than 1,000 signatures have been collected in opposition to building housing units atop the library.

Mr. Rhodes said residents are not against affordable housing in the neighborhood.

“If the developer’s interested in building affordable housing, then the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization — whose building is right next door to and about the same size as the library — could donate the air rights to their building, and we would not object to that.”

Many who frequent the library are children or elderly, so many residents are concerned about how safe it would be to have housing units in the same complex, Mr. Rhodes said.

Harold Hunter, a teacher who formerly taught at Fletcher Johnson Educational Center in Southeast, said the void left by the closed library amounts to “abuse” of the neighborhood’s children.

“Where are the corporate dollars that are going to support the educational vehicle for Ward 7?” he asked. “It’s gentrification. … They’re safeguarding the property for corporate greed, and that’s the bottom line.”

Ward 7 resident Julie Rones said she joined the protest because of the disparity in quality between Benning and other branches, such as the Francis A. Gregory Regional Library, near her home.

“Francis Gregory says they serve between 800 and 1,200 kids a month,” Miss Rones said. “Just think how the kids over here are missing out. You can’t have education and meet the needs of kids if you have a closed library. Libraries and schools are key, as is development, but it has to be the appropriate to the needs and wishes of the community.”

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