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Mt. Pleasant Library fight still percolating amid construction

February 2, 2011 - 01:20 PM
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Mt. Pleasant Library renovation plans
Renovations are well underway at the Mt. Pleasant Library. But some neighbors are still fighting to stop it. (Courtesy DCPL)

Starting next week, construction crews will begin pouring the concrete foundation for a planned rear addition to the Mt. Pleasant Library. Meanwhile, a handful of vocal residents remain hopeful they might be able to halt and reverse the project before it's completed. 

The District's Board of Zoning Adjustment is now expected to rule Mar. 1 on a pending appeal of the library's building permit, following a tense day-long hearing on the matter Tuesday that at one point drew angry shouts from the dais.

Gregg Edwards, representing Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1D before the board, presented a case that was based largely on issues of fire safety. Opponents of the library's design have long been concerned about what amounts to the destruction of emergency vehicle access points behind the library, which abuts a handful of older apartment buildings. Edwards frequently referenced last fall's fatal fire at 3132 16th St. NW as well as the 2008 fire at the Deauville Apartments in his testimony, issuing dire pronouncements about the responsibility of the board (normally tasked with examining mundane requests for exemptions to the zoning code) to protect human life.

"You may be seen as complicit in any further deaths that occur," Edwards at one point told the board, an accusation to which board member Michael Turnbull took great exception.

"That kind of language is totally inappropriate for a body such as this!" Turnball yelled back. "I strongly suggest you take it upon yourself to step back and look at yourself here ... Somebody ought to sanction him from his ANC!"

It was an exchange that colored much of the rest of a lengthy hearing that ultimately combed through the details of what went in to the decision to approve plans for a rear addition to the library. But despite getting off to such a rocky start (not to mention a painfully obvious lack of expertise on zoning and planning regulations) by the end of it all, Edwards and his co-presenter, former ANC 1C commissioner Chris Otten, did seem to have to persuaded the board that there is at least one legitimate question about DCRA Zoning Administrator Matthew LeGrant's decision making process for this project.

When they come back to deliberate and rule on Mar. 1, the board will focus largely on why LeGrant opted to assign front and rear property lines that do not line up with the historic front and rear lines of the library. That decision matters because regulations governing the size and scope of both rear and side yards could be affected if the lines were redrawn.

Extensive renovations of the neighborhood library branch began back in August, after the city went ahead and issued building permits for the project to D.C. Public Library. Those permits came after two years and six formal public meetings on the design plan, a process that library officials have maintained was more than adequate.

But opponents say the meetings were just for show, that the city still failed to take into account the two main concerns raised by residents about the design: the aforementioned fire safety issues, and the length and design of a wheelchair accessibility ramp that would connect to a rear entrance, as opposed to the same grand front entrance through which non-wheelchair users would enter.  

Should the BZA deny the appeal, opponents of the design say they'll pursue an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit that would focus on the placement and grade of the ramp.


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