Will DC Library Trustees Ignore Chevy Chase Controversy?

At last month’s Board of Library Trustees meeting, the Director of the DC Public Library (DCPL) Richard Reyes Gavilan mentioned that he was working with DC Department of Parks and Recreation on plans for the Chevy Chase Library that were “proceeding as one building,” with the library and community center to be combined in a shared structure with housing over it.

For DCPL to set off in this direction is at best premature and potentially a substantial waste of time. The Chevy Chase Friends of the library have not weighed in. This would be the first time in the course of the DC Public Library Transformation that the local Friends group was not included. Also, if the plan for Chevy Chase is to do what was done in the West End, the public property would first have to be declared as “surplus” by the DC Council. Surplus is defined by DC law as “no longer needed for public use.” That has not yet happened – and it’s not clear that it will happen since nearly 1,000 residents have signed a recent petition against it.

A 2002 document called the Chevy Chase Small Area Plan (SAP) released in 2022, was developed for the Office of Planning by paid consultants over the course of two years, and accepted by the DC Council. Notably, it does not contain the word surplus. And, at a surplus hearing with the community in January of this year, the approximately 200 attendees voiced near-complete opposition. Giles Stucker of the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), the DC department charged with running this process, said “The surplus hearing could result in no surplus.”

Ultimately, the DC Council must approve any surplus, and seven months after the surplus hearing there has been no report from DMPED nor resolution introduced to Council. A petition against the surplussing, recently launched by local civic group Chevy Chase Voice, is now approaching 1000 signatures, all from immediate area residents. Should the surplus not occur, the parameters for a new, renovated or expanded library would be quite different from a combined structure as referenced by Director Reyes Gavilan. At their meeting, the Library Trustees appeared unaware of any controversy, or of other reason to hold off planning, and casually accepted the Director’s information.

Unlike any other agency of the DC government, the Trustees are independent. Like all DC agencies, the Library’s funding is approved by the DC Council, yet the Trustees have independent contracting authority. They oversee the Public Library, the agency closest to the people, serving all constituencies, but their decision-making does not fall under any other rubric of authority.

It’s unclear why DC should give up any of its already diminished and limited public land, but in this case, surplussing (defined as no longer needed for public use) is particularly absurd. A new or renovated library would be rebuilt on the same public land. DMPED’s Director of Real Estate Sarosh Olpadwala claimed that enough public space will be kept for the library and community center, and what would be surplussed would be “air rights.” How can recreational space be severed from its air rights? Are green space, sunlight, and fresh air not inherent to outdoor recreational area? Where will the popular outdoor reading grove maintained by the Friends of the Library be transplanted? What becomes of historic trees on the park-like site?

The original plans for rebuilding the Southwest Library proposed to smother it on the lower floors of a mixed use and residential building. Working with their Council Member, Charles Allen, residents there kept the library’s free-standing location adjacent to a park that the library’s charming new front porch now looks out upon. Something similar could be achieved on the 1.7 acres of Chevy Chase Commons. Indeed, many say it already exists and needs only to be updated.

There have been five big battles about private housing being built over public libraries in DC: Benning, MLK, SW, Tenley, West End. A public land surplus — really a giveaway — was carried out only in the West End, where now-disgraced Councilman Jack Evans then reigned. All five fights were divisive and unpleasant. One wonders why the DC government’s leadership wants to embroil the public library – its most beloved and highly ranked agency – in controversy again and again? Especially when they have had to back down four times out of five. Can we not learn from the past?

In 2021, at the grand opening of the SW Library, I asked Mayor Bowser to please conduct a broad public conversation about combining housing and libraries, so that we could develop some consensus guidelines, and avoid another problematic public-private-partnership like West End. In particular, I thought a surplus controversy would ignite in Chevy Chase, as that branch was coming up next on the Library Transformation agenda. She told me, “The ANC is taking care of it.”

Right now the elected but un-remunerated ANC is working overtime to hold weekly meetings throughout the summer to develop a survey of local residents on their views about the Commons. For two years, paid consultants engaged the community to develop the SAP, and yet failed to mention the word surplus, leaving many residents feeling misled. In retrospect, this oversight can only be seen as a lie of omission. If the deception was not intentional, then it was incompetence of a high order by the well-compensated consultants. The unpaid ANC now bears the brunt of its constituents’ ire. And the Friends of the Chevy Chase Library have not yet been heard. Now is not the time for DCPL to embark on development of an architectural program for the Chevy Chase Library.