Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Tenley Library: Lost Opportunity

The Coalition for Smarter Growth released a report entitled "Public Land for Public Good". The report (PDF) chronicles many of the achievements afforded out of good use of public resources. Of course, in Ward 3, there is a different tale. From the report:

Tenley Library/Janney Elementary School and Benning Library

Though situated on opposite ends of the District, the Tenley/Friendship and Benning Road libraries both went through contentious redevelopment processes that failed to result in mixed-use libraries or affordable housing. Under the best of circumstances, a mixed-use approach faces many hurdles, but the initial conditions in these cases were even more challenging. In 2004, DCPL closed these branch libraries. It cancelled the construction contracts, and then entertained mixed-use proposals. In addition to the original mistake by DCPL of prematurely closing the libraries, the failure of city agencies to work together, to have a well-structured public process, or to methodically evaluate the alternatives doomed opportunities for mixed-use projects and additional community benefits.

Both neighborhood libraries, along with the Shaw and Anacostia branches, were closed at the end of 2004 in preparation for reconstruction. In 2004, DCPL awarded a $20 million contract to Hess Construction Company to rebuild all four libraries. However, anticipating recommendations from a mayoral task force on D.C. libraries and determining that Hess’s designs would not meet national or task force’s standards, DCPL terminated the contract, having already spent $3 million.79 This was the first complication in what became a protracted redevelopment process for these facilities.

At various times and to varying degrees, city officials considered the concept of redeveloping the Benning and Tenley libraries as mixed-use facilities, pairing the new libraries with residential units, including affordable housing and possibly retail. Because various individuals and groups in both communities expressed strong resistance to these proposals, in the end only single-use libraries were built on the sites, missing opportunities to include new mixed-income housing near a Metro station and save the city millions of dollars.

For Tenleytown, local developer Roadside Development offered an unsolicited proposal in 2005 for a mixed-use library combined with school renovations for the adjacent Janney Elementary School.80 A local community group, Ward 3 Vision, picked up the idea and urged DCPL and DMPED to solicit bids for a mixed-use library combined with accelerated school improvements rather than simply replacing the single-use library. The high value site faces the Tenleytown Metro station and a commercial hub on Wisconsin Avenue. The site was a rare opportunity for affordable housing in this affluent part of the District of Columbia.

Initially, parents representing the school through the Janney School Improvement Team (SIT) supported a public-private partnership that would simultaneously redevelop the library site while expediting renewal of Janney’s outdated facilities. 81 The joint library-school renovation proposal would free-up playground space by removing portable classrooms and a parking lot, through building shared underground parking.82 After releasing an RFP in October 2007, DMPED modified the original RFP in early 2008. The revised request specified that residential units could not be built directly over the library. To accommodate residential units under this restriction, the resulting designs would have decreased outdoor play space.83

This debilitating change appears to have been predicated on a desire to allow the library construction to proceed independent of other elements of the project and prompted the SIT to object to the loss of the play space. Frustration with the process grew with parents worried about the impact on the school and residents weary of waiting for a new, permanent library. Some residents expressed their frustration by protesting the July 2008 news conference announcing the city’s selection of LCOR as the site’s developer.84

The plan continued to lose support from the school community and city officials. Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Kwame Brown sent a letter in late October 2008 expressing their view that the library should be built as a single-use facility separate from any mixed-use plans on the site.85 Due to continued delays and mounting community pressure, the DCPL Board in late 2008 unilaterally declared that it would construct the originally planned single-use facility at the site.86 Deputy Mayor Neil Albert continued to push for dialogue between the city, LCOR, and community groups and indicated that LCOR would be open to amending its plans to respond to resident feedback. For example, in a letter to Councilmembers Cheh and Brown in January 2009, Albert indicated that LCOR was addressing the Janney SIT’s concerns regarding green space, modifying designs so that Janney would see “a net gain of 300 square feet of green space at the school.”87

Eventually, Albert and Mayor Fenty acquiesced to the DCPL’s decision to construct a single-use library. In March 2009, Mayor Fenty announced that the school and library construction would proceed without a housing component, though one could be added in the future.88 This change meant the city would forgo the five million dollars in savings on library construction that the mixed-use deal would have provided.

Despite cancellation of the mixed-use public-private project and the loss of the prepaid ground lease for the school improvements, the administration nonetheless moved capital funds from other schools to be able to do a full modernization and expansion for Janney. This put both construction projects ahead of schedule.

The accelerated pace was originally justified only because the funding stream from the public-private partnership would have freed up city funds for other schools. While Janney had severe crowding and building condition needs, other schools faced significant needs too. With the elimination of the benefits of the funding stream to the city from the joint-development, moving forward with an accelerated free-standing modernization of Janney represented a shift in public funding priorities. The high costs of the Janney modernization and expansion increased inequitable school expenditures and contributed to the disproportionate share of school modernization funds spent in Ward 3 public schools over the last decade.89 The public-private partnership model proposed for this renovation would have offered a more equitable way to meet the needs of the in-demand school while not shifting resources away from less affluent areas.

A new, stand-alone Tenley/Friendship library opened in 2011. DPMED paid for the incorporation of $1 million worth of structural supports to allow housing to be constructed next to and partially above the library in the future, but many doubt such an addition will be feasible or offer much affordability.

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