A new report from the DC Public Library charts a course for future expansion of the library system, including a proposed new facility in the Edgewood/Eckington/Stronghold area. Here’s an early look at some potential locations for such a library, and how that might impact surrounding areas.
New decade, new vision
In the last decade, the DC Public Library system engaged in a half-billion dollar capital campaign to expand and modernize its facilities, a campaign that is being capped off by the reopening of the flagship Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library this year. Now, library system officials are looking ahead to the next decade for how they can build upon their success.
The new report, Next Libris, outlines priorities for continued renewal and refreshing of existing facilities, as well as priority areas for building additional libraries. Those locations were identified by evaluating both where residents face a geographical gap in service, as well as where existing libraries are too small to service the community. They were then divided into three tiers based on whether they address both an operational issue and service gap (Tier 1) or just one of those criteria (Tiers 2 and 3 respectively). The recommendation is to proceed with expansion sequentially, building the Tier 1 facilities in 1-3 years, Tier 2 in 4-6 and Tier 3 in 7-10.
As a crucial bonus, the report shares DCPL’s preference that, where possible, these new libraries be built as part of mixed-use developments which would include housing — including affordable housing — and potentially commercial space as well. This would replicate the successful model of the West End Library opened in 2017 as part of a multi-use building. Combining housing with libraries represents a real win-win, helping the city address two major needs with each project while giving the new facilities dedicated customer bases who are likely to be high-frequency users.
One of the Tier 1 gaps identified is the combined Ward 5 neighborhoods of Edgewood, Eckington and Stronghold. A significant distance from existing libraries, DCPL data confirms that there are a disproportionate number of residents in these communities who do not currently use the system at all. And many of those that do visit the crowded Shaw library, so officials see an additional benefit of relieving some of the pressure on that high-traffic location.
So far no specific locations are being proposed, but as a very excited Edgewood resident, here are some potential locations I think the city should look into. This list is hardly predictive; I have no particular insight into the likelihood of any of these locations at all; rather, it’s an initial overview of some places that might come into the conversation.
First, here are the factors I considered when evaluating these options:
- Size: As the library has made clear, bigger is better. Communal public space is increasingly hard to find. Combined with the increasing breadth of services and resources the library provides — and the unique needs of different age groups — a larger footprint can provide disproportionately large value.
- Capacity for housing: The library’s vision to combine housing with these locations is truly a game-changing move to help us make another dent in our housing and affordable housing needs. These two things go together so well it’s a wonder it took us this long to prioritize it. Capacity here means both the aforementioned footprint and the existing zoning. Some zoning can be amended, but it’s easier if that step is unnecessary.
- Public or privately owned land: With the right long-term lease, the library could be a great addition to any number of private developments coming to the area, though it does reduce some of the impact of adding net-new housing (on top of what’s already planned), particularly because housing developments on District-owned land are subject to higher affordability minimums.
- Accessibility: Maximizing usage of the library starts with making sure it’s convenient and safe to get to — particularly for families, who are a key customer demographic. These neighborhoods face a number of transportation barriers already, from deadly arterial streets to the impassable train tracks to a lack of protected bike lanes. Finding a site that is best located to help residents from across the entire service gap visit is a priority.
Here are a few potential locations that check a number of those boxes:
The Lemuel Penn Center
1709 3rd Street NE, 52,231 sq ft
Currently serving as the temporary site of DCPL’s Operations Center while they search for a long-term home, the Penn Center is sufficiently large that a new building on the site could potentially offer room for Operations, a neighborhood library, and housing (though they would presumably need to find a new temporary home during construction).
Sited directly on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, proximate to the NoMa Metro stop and the P6 MetroBus route, and adjacent to the new Tanner Park and thousands of residents in the mid-rise buildings of East Eckington, the location would benefit from significant network effects. Though currently zoned for production and technical employment use (PDR-2), the proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Map (FLUM) pending before the Council would allow for residential use as well.
At the Southern end of the service gap area, this location would be most convenient for Eckington residents, though the trail adjacency makes it fairly accessible for Edgewood neighbors as well.
Fifth Street Terminal
2115 5th Street NE, 63,102 sq ft
Only slightly up-trail from the Penn Center, the Fifth Street Terminal lot is a city-owned property currently serving as a parking lot for the District’s Special Education bus fleet. Accessibility wise, the location is about a ten minute walk along the Metropolitan Branch Trail to the Rhode Island-Brentwood Metro station. Also the same as the Penn Center, the zoning is currently PDR-2 with a proposed amendment to add in residential.
Engine 12 Fire Station
2225 5th Street NE, 30,574 sq ft (including parking lot)
One block north of the bus lot, the Engine 12 Fire Station is interesting not just on its own, but as part of a comprehensive re-development in the works. Last year, developer Jair Lynch (in coordination with the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church which owns a number of the relevant properties) submitted a zoning map amendment for the group of lots abutting the fire station on the south side of Rhode Island Ave NE between 5th St NE and the railroad tracks. The Office of Planning followed suit this month with their own map amendment for the station itself. The library’s early inclusion in the project (whether on the Engine 12 site itself or elsewhere in the development as a long-term tenant) could serve as something of a flagship component the rest of the plan could be built around.
This location would represent one of the more central options, again along the trail, roughly equidistant from Eckington and Edgewood, but with the added benefit of direct adjacency to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro Station and the G8 and P6 MetroBus routes.
Bryant Street/Rhode Island Center Development
630 Rhode Island Ave NE
Directly across the street from the fire station, the first phase of the Bryant Street development is already underway replacing the shopping center that once housed Big Lots and Forman Mills. Six more phases remain, however, with tens of thousands of square feet of retail to be leased out. With no public land involved, the Library would likely look to sign a very long-term lease guaranteeing their use of the space for the lifetime of the building.
This location would bring all the same benefits of the South Rhode Island one with the additional bonus of even more direct access to the Metro (the pedestrian bridge across the tracks empties out onto the site) and even more immediate adjacency to the cluster of public and affordable housing at the Edgewood Terrace site.
This is by no means a comprehensive list; there are a number of other planned or potential development projects in this area that might make good fits. By allocating funding to a new library in the budget, the city can offer some certainty about the project that may surface a number of interested partners.
Replace or supplement?
The choice of location is not just important in how a new library will best serve new communities, but also for how well it will continue to serve existing ones.
One crucial detail of the Next Libris report is that it recommends closing the small Northwest One Library in conjunction with opening the Edgewood/Eckington/Stronghold library (as well as re-opening the nearby MLK location and expecting decreased pressure on the similarly nearby Shaw library). That’s in line with a general plan the library has to upgrade these low-square-footage facilities (most of which were replacements for even smaller, limited-service kiosks) in order to meet the growing need for meeting and study rooms, program space, and access to technology and collections.
Because these small locations predominantly serve low-income communities, replacing them is a key part of the Library’s commitment to equity in their system. That’s true of the Northwest One facility as well, which is located within the redeveloping mixed-income housing complex of the same name and is immediately adjacent to Sursum Corda (also currently being redeveloped into a mixed-income community).
But for the Eckington/Edgewood library to serve this community, its location needs to be sufficiently accessible to local residents. A transit and trail-adjacent location in Eckington may work, but one further north is unlikely to satisfy the needs currently met by Northwest One.
Not just straight-line proximity, accessibility is also measured by the comfort and safety of the path between the old and new locations. Unfortunately in this case, that’s particularly difficult as the borders between the Northwest One area and the expansion neighborhoods — New York Avenue, Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street — are some of the most treacherous streets in the city, acting as both physical and psychological barriers. Even a relatively close location may functionally see fewer visits from residents on the other side of these streets. That’s certainly what the Library’s data already suggests when it shows low utilization of the Northwest One location by residents in Eckington, Edgewood, and Stronghold.
Still, there are three factors in favor of the relocation. The first is the relatively close proximity of the Northwest One area to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which functions as something of a cheat code to cross Florida Ave and New York Ave. North Capitol would remain a problem — but improvements to pedestrian crossings and the construction of protected bike lanes on K street NE/NW could help.
The second is that North Capitol Street is relatively well-served by the 80 and P6 bus lines, both of which function as safe and relatively affordable ways to travel between Eckington and near-Northwest. (Transit lanes on North Capitol Street could make that access more efficient and reliable during rush hour.)
The third is that Northwest One is fairly close to both the Shaw and MLK library locations. With the re-opening of the latter in particular, residents who currently use Northwest One may be able to replace their service at those facilities instead. Library customer data may be able to help determine the percentage of customers for whom that’s true.
That said, there’s another option as well, which would be not to close the Northwest One location at all. The Library’s recommendation for replacement is undoubtedly related to budget considerations. With staff costs one of their greatest expenses, shifting that investment to a full-service library certainly provides better bang-for-the-buck. But if the Mayor and the DC Council felt like a new library would not sufficiently serve the previous community well enough, there’s no reason that they could not increase DCPL’s operational budget in a sufficient amount to cover the cost of both.
Ultimately, the budget process is the next step for this project either way. Right now all of these plans are entirely theoretical; elected officials will need to allocate the required capital and operational budget to make this plan a reality. As FY22 budget season approaches, now is the time to reach out to the Mayor and your council member if you are interested in seeing that happen.