County’s decision to rebuild rather than renovate library is a mistake

My Two Cents

Photo courtesy the Hyattsville Library.
- T. CARTER ROSS -

– T. CARTER ROSS –

On March 2, 2014, the Hyattsville Branch Library marked the 50th anniversary of its opening. However, it occurred under a shadow. Starting late 2013 and reaffirmed this month by library officials, the county plans to tear down the historic Hyattsville Branch and replace with a new, smaller library.

In response to the 2013 announcement, a group of library patrons and community members  formed Save Our Saucer to demand greater public input and oversight of the plans for the library’s next 50 years. I was one of them.

Just to be clear: Save Our Saucer is about a lot more than the iconic entryway to the library. It’s about the preservation and thorough renovation of the entire existing building, through a process guided by public input, informed by standard evaluations, conducted in a transparent manner, and including an open bidding process.

The Prince George’s County Memorial Library System (PGCMLS) has failed to conduct any of the standard evaluations that would provide justification for its decision to build a new library smaller than the one we have.

Compare that to the process the DC Public Library (DCPL) system is using for the Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library, which is slated to be renovated or replaced. Before hiring an architect, DCPL is hosting public meetings and conducting a detailed site survey, a hazardous materials survey, a geotechnical analysis, and a building cost-benefit assessment.

It’s important that PGCMLS do its due diligence before destroying one of the most distinctive structures in the city of Hyattsville.

Since 1988,  Prince George’s County has recognized the need to renovate the Hyattsville Branch Library, and such a project has been proposed in every annual Capital Improvement Project (CIP) budget since 1991. Each year’s budget has cited the need to modernize and to expand the facility to meet the needs of our growing community.

Each year, that is, until the FY2014–2019 CIP inexplicably included a 35,000- to 40,000-square-foot replacement of the library. Even without counting the existing 20,000-square-foot administrative wing, the new library would be smaller than the existing 50,000-square-foot library.  The decision was made even though Hyattsville is “one of the busiest [branches] in the county,” and despite the acknowledged need for greater library services in the region.

The decision to rebuild remains a mystery, as PGCMLS has yet to conduct even a needs assessment. In fact, the only recent independent report on the library seems to support a renovation over a rebuild. In 2010, the county hired two firms to conduct a facilities assessment of 14 of the system’s 19 libraries. Though the assessment noted a number of items that require upgrade or repair, it concluded that, “the building structure appears sound with many years of life remaining.”

It’s clear the PGCMLS has not accounted for the programmatic, financial, and environmental factors related to rebuilding the library instead of modernizing through renovation. It’s also clear that they’re ignoring the historical importance of the building.

Before the opening of the Hyattsville Branch on March 2, 1964, county residents had to wait for a visit from a bookmobile, visit a small store-front library (if one was within reasonable travelling distance), or travel to another county. At that time, the county library system had just one book for every three residents.

When Elizabeth B. Hage was hired as director of the library system in 1957, she was determined to see changes. She advocated for a $1 million bond that lead to the building of eight branch libraries and she more than doubled the system’s holdings while expanding it to include films, audio recordings, toys and games, audio books, and books in Braille. Thanks to Hage’s effort, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System became an asset for all the members of the community, improving access to information and knowledge.

The library was built at a time of great change in the country. The Space Race was on, and libraries were seen as an important part of this effort, and the saucer canopy was a deliberate connection between the educational mission of the library and the desire to inspire young minds to look to the stars.

Beyond the issue of protecting an iconic structure and preserving our area’s history, fiscal responsibility, community service, and environmental sustainability are all at issue in the decision to renovate or replace the Hyattsville Branch Library. The decision to switch from renovating and expanding the historic library to replacing it with a new, smaller building was made without public input. It was also made without any of the appropriate review needed to determine the needs of the local community or to determine if those needs can be adequately met through renovation.

The Hyattsville Branch was the first modern library in the county. Its renovation should honor that history while ensuring that the needs of library patrons are met today and well into the future.

T. Carter Ross has lived in Hyattsville since 1998. He is an active member of the Hyattsville Elementary School PTA and part of the Save Our Saucer Collective. He also sits on the board of the Hyattsville Life & Times.