Capitol View Library Coalition Fights for Interim Services, Money for Renovations

A rendering of DCPL’s plans for the children’s space and library at Capitol View Library in Ward 7. Photo: DCPL

Francel Bellinger started working on a quilt for the Capitol View Library (CVL) in Ward 7 in the fall of 2016. She wanted children who use the library to share, on the fabric squares, reasons why they love it so much, because when she was their age she went before the US Congress and shared just that – why her neighborhood needed Capitol View.

The squares read: “I like when it’s quiet.” “Time to myself.” “The library is a safe place to let my imagination fly free.” “What I like about the library is that it’s quiet and I get much time to discover and explore things.”

Bellinger, again a resident in the Ward 7 community, realized while looking at these answers that the children rely on the space as a place of safety and comfort from the hardship some face outside and at home. It’s their safe haven. Neighbors realized too late that the plans of the DC Public Library (DCPL) to renovate the space at 5001 Central Ave. SE included closing the building and its resources for upwards of nine months (Renovations had started on Feb. 25, 2017) without interim services. They formed the Capitol View Library Coalition (CVLC) and reached out to DCPL and DC councilmembers to request more funds for a full renovation – not the partial one planned. They also asked for programming funds, resources, books, and computers during the renovation.

CVL originally had $10.5 million slotted for renovation, but Mayor Muriel Bowser’s fiscal year 2016 budget cut that to $4.5 million along with the budgets of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and Palisades Library.

CVL’s patrons want to know where that $6 million went and what DCPL can do to give them the renovation they feel they deserve for a library they consider a vital resource and space. In short, neighbors feel slighted.

Where’s the Money?

CVL is one of 23 full and co-located branches scattered across the eight wards. DCPL and the District have spent $162.7 million on recent construction projects to renovate or partially update these building. (DCPL doesn’t manage the four co-located libraries, so it didn’t fund their capital costs.)

DCPL spent an average of $13.3 million on 12 libraries between 2009 and 2016, according to DCPL’s budget records. But that average includes both costs for renovating already established libraries and building new libraries. Some got as much as $19.6 million (the Woodridge Library in Ward 5) and others as little as $1.95 million (the Takoma Park Library in Ward 4), depending on the needs of the library and size of the project.

Of that $162.7 million, about $54 million, or 40 percent, went to libraries in Wards 7 and 8. In Ward 7, the Benning/Dorothy I. Height Library (3935 Benning Road NE) received $12 million for its 2010 opening. And the Francis A. Gregory Library (3600 Alabama Ave. SE) received $13.2 million for its 2012 opening.

DCPL Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan testified at a 2015 DC Council budget hearing that the original $10.5 million for CVL was never intended to fund a full renovation. DCPL has since secured an additional $726,000 from its operating budget for furniture and equipment. Mayor Bowser has also added $2 million in the fiscal year 2018 Capital Improvement Plan for CVL’s exterior renovations.

If it goes through, CVL could have a budget of $7.2 million. Neighbors, though, want the $10.5 million back and a full renovation.

Defending a Vital Community Resource

Iola Anyan loved taking the Zumba class on the second floor of Capitol View. After moving to the community for grad school almost four years ago, she found herself in the highly popular class. But she learned in the fall of 2016 that DCPL had plans to shut down the building for months to renovate. That’s when she and others decided to create the CVLC, which she now helps lead.

Many community members rely on the library to prepare job applications on the computers, as a space to gather for community meetings, and for children to access the internet. “Why do they feel so comfortable to come to this neighborhood – a neighborhood that clearly needs these resources – and reduce the budget?” Anyan asked.

She attended all three of the most recent community meetings DCPL hosted, but felt Reyes-Gavilan and representatives deflected their questions about the funds and the need for interim services. She said his answers felt “cavalier.”

She acknowledged that community leaders made the mistake of remaining complacent in the years leading up to the renovation. But many didn’t actually understand what was going to happen to Capitol View. They didn’t realize the plans only included an internal renovation and a few outside updates like the roof and landscaping. “It was during the second meeting that it became clear that there were certain things going on … it started to become more contentious,” Anyan said. It didn’t feel like DCPL was trying to help.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Ashley Emerson (7E05) said the lack of money for renovations calls into question whether or not the city has fairly distributed funds across the wards. “It’s very clear that we are not being given what’s due for us in terms of equity,” Emerson said. 

But Reyes-Gavilan believes that with the funds allotted, DCPL has done good work planning for this renovation project and prioritizing funds east of the Anacostia. “I’m sympathetic, but I think of other libraries we have across the city … that have zero dollars attached to it for renovation,” he said. “I want to say the city has been very good.”

At-Large Councilmember David Gross (I), chair of the Education Committee, and Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray (D) declined to comment for this article.

What DCPL and CVLC Can Do

DCPL renovations lasting under a year don’t put budget money toward interim services, Reyes-Gavilan said. They prefer to place it all into the renovation. DCPL also pointed to the Benning/Dorothy I. Height Library as an alternative resource for neighbors during the renovation closure.

The community has pushed back for two reasons: people and students need the library to succeed in school and get jobs, and the Dorothy Height Library is a mile away, said Emerson. “People have to walk in neighborhoods that aren’t safe – busted bottles, people hanging out on the streets, lighting – it’s just not safe,” she said. DCPL and CVLC are working out a relationship with St. Luke’s Catholic Church (4925 East Capitol St. SE) across from Capitol View to offer a few days of programming and possible access to laptops or books. But anything the church can offer still won’t fill the gap CVL will leave.

Bellinger wishes more for her library. She said this whole process has made her community feel like second-class citizens. “We’re just in bad shape over here, and the library exacerbates the whole situation,” she said.

She’s not sure what to do about it, but she knows they need help. “It’s really important to this community,” Bellinger said. “It’s a backbone to the community, it’s where the kids come, it’s where the community meets.” 

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