By Georgine Wallace
Despite the chilly weather and intermittent drizzle, the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Southwest Library on Feb. 5 was historic and joyous. Southwest residents, neighbors, ANC6D Commissioners, D.C. Public Library staff, Ward 6 CM Charles Allen, and Mayor Muriel Bowser all celebrated the occasion. Ambassadors from the SWBID were present to greet and direct participants to the site.
Gregory McCarthy, President of the Board of Trustees of the D.C. Public Library, kicked off the ceremony, commending the hard work of numerous Southwest civic groups, the SWBID, and ANC6D. He noted that Southwest is one of the final neighborhood libraries to be fully renovated or completely rebuilt. The Lamond Riggs branch in Ward 5 is expected to begin construction later this year, andCapitol Hill’s Southeast Library is in the design process. McCarthy also noted that the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the central library, is expected to complete its full renovation and open later this year.
Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Executive Director of the D.C. Public Library, next addressed the assembled crowd. He thanked the Friends of the Southwest Library and its President for their work in the community and library advocacy. Reyes-Gavilan highlighted how the ANC6D Commissioners and the residents of Southwest advocated for building a new library on the present site versus moving of the library. He also noted that construction would hopefully be completed in late 2020, and perhaps ready to open in 2021. The concrete slab will be put in place by the end of February, with the building taking shape soon after.
Third to address the crowd, Councilmember Allen reminded Reyes-Gavilan that the Southwest Library project was how they met. In the summer of 2014, when Allen was the Democratic candidate for the Ward 6 Council seat and Reyes-Gavilan the Executive Director, they met at a community meeting in the basement of the Southwest Library.
At the meeting, Reyes-Gavilan described a plan in which the City would sell the land where the library stood and rebuild it at 1000 4th St. The new library would be part of a mixed use development, and the proposed building would be two floors, with most of the items on the second floor. The city would have a 99 year lease to the building. A majority of residents in the room vociferously rejected the plan, however. Reyes-Gavilan met Allen after the meeting and advised him to “get the funding” for a new building if the library were to remain on the current site. It was a very Hamiltonesque, “Room Where it Happened,” start for both men and for the community members present.
The city shelved the plan within days after the 2014 meeting. The fate of a new library for Southwest hung in limbo until April 2015 when DCPL added Southwest to the list of libraries to be rebuilt with public funding. It was listed as unfunded for two months until Councilmember Allen secured the $18 Million for the new building. In early 2015, then Mayor-elect Bowser asked the new Councilmember about his priorities for his Ward. Allen noted funding for a new Southwest Library as one of his most important.
He waxed anecdotally that he announced the submission of his Books from Birth bill in front of the Southwest Library in January 2015 to emphasize the level of importance of the new library project to him.
Allen then introduced the author of this piece, Georgine Wallace (President of the Friends of the Southwest Library). The author described the process the Friends and community partners followed in 2015 after hearing the library was fully funded. In partnership with the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA), Friends of the SW Library formed a task force that studied the features of other libraries in the system and developed a list of potential sites for the interim library. That list was sent to DCPL and the 425 M St. lot, then owned by Forest City, was selected by the DCPL administration for the interim library. [Wallace] commended Steve Moore and Lexie Albe of the Southwest BID for introducing DCPL to the Forest City management team and helping DCPL obtain permission to use the 425 M lot as an interim library.
Additional recognitions were given to Susan Haight, President of the Federation of Friends of the D.C. Public Library, who provided guidance to the task force as it started, and to the officers of MPD’s First District for their help on programs and advice on making the new library safer.
[Wallace] faltered a bit mentioning Councilmember Allen, noting that it was difficult to put into words the extent of his contributions. “In this day and age it is rare that you can honestly say to a public official that it is an honor to be your constituent.”
Mayor Bowser spoke last, acknowledging Councilmember Allen for his constant support of the project, and commended the people of Southwest for their involvement in the project. The Mayor noted that the adjacent park was scheduled to be redesigned, referring to it as an “educational park.”
A $960,000 grant from the D.C. Department of the Environment and Energy under Director Tommy Wells will fund solar panels and battery storage on the library’s green roof. The Library is seeking Gold LEED Certification for the building.
Members of the Design/Build team of Perkins Will and Turner Construction joined the Mayor, Councilmember Allen, Commissioner Ron Collins, and the speakers in the official shovel toss of dirt. It was, as Councilmember Allen said, shovel in hand, “a great day for Southwest.”