- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2012

D.C. officials are turning to the community for ideas to transform the historic Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library building into a showpiece of modern design and environmental sustainability.

Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper said the 40-year-old library building needs a face-lift. The once-cutting edge building, designed by 20th-century modern architect Mies van der Rohe and designated a historic landmark in 2007, has become dated in some respects. Officials have been working with North Carolina-based The Freelon Group to redesign the building, focusing on the internal experience and efficiency of the structure while preserving its unique initial design.

On Thursday morning at the John A. Wilson Building, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, and the library will host a community meeting to hear ideas from the public for the building’s redesign.

“We want to make this a place where people to come to create,” Ms. Cooper said. “I look forward to this as another opportunity for the public to comment on what it is they would like to see.”

The building faces several functional challenges, including accessibility, climate-control and lighting issues, Ms. Cooper said. No matter what, she said the building needs extensive work.

The library has had previous community meetings about the building.

“The building is developed on the principle of flexibility and it just hasn’t been flexed,” said Derek Jones, project manager from The Freelon Group.

There are currently two variations of the same design on the table. One is to build stairs and walkways connecting people from one area of the library to another. The other involves a vertical design “through a single, more iconic, element,” that would serve as an information core “visually carrying you up,” Mr. Jones said. There would be digital information on display and staff members around the base.

Concerns have been raised that these renovations would create less library space, though he argues otherwise. Even though digital technology would be emphasized, the focus would remain “on people and human experience. It really has to do with visual and real connectivity.”

Library and preservation groups have stressed the need to preserve elements of the initial building, such as its symmetry and transparency. Mr. Jones said that is one of his goals.

“It is about honoring the forward-looking aesthetic and idea of the original architect,” Mr. Jones said.

Bringing the library up to modern standards and updating the design will be costly. Preliminary costs for the project are between $175 million and $250 million, Ms. Cooper said.

The District has already committed some money to the project, but not enough for the entire renovation. To raise the rest of the money, she said bonds could be sold, corporate sponsors could be solicited, or space in the building could be leased to private organizations or government agencies.

After Thursday’s meeting, Mr. Jones‘ firm will incorporate the suggestions into the plans. The project ideas will then be presented to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

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