Queens Library's stunning form draws ire over function

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Queens Library's stunning form draws ire over function
The Queens Public Library at Hunters Point in Long Island City, N.Y., on Oct. 16, 2019. Heralded as an architectural triumph, the new $41.5 million public library provides stunning Manhattan views to patrons as they browse books, but several of the terraces are inaccessible to people who cannot climb them. Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times.

by Sharon Otterman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It has been heralded as an architectural triumph: A new $41.5 million public library in Long Island City that ascends over multiple landings and terraces, providing stunning Manhattan views to patrons as they browse books and explore.

But several of the terraces at the Hunters Point Library are inaccessible to people who cannot climb them. A staircase and bleacher seating in the children’s section, judged too risky for small children, has been closed off. And the five-story, vertically designed building only has one elevator, creating bottlenecks at times.

The accessibility issues, some of which have been angrily called out in social media posts and elsewhere online since the library’s Sept. 24 opening, have left officials with the Queens Public Library hurrying to find solutions and the architects exploring ways to retrofit the building.

It has also raised the question of how the pricey public building, nearly two decades in the works, made it through the lengthy planning process without more consideration for accessibility.

Some of the issues are a result of the building’s popularity.

New Yorkers — as well as tourists — are visiting the library, the most expensive Queens Public Library branch ever built, to admire the views. So are architecture buffs, eager to see a structure that a New York Times review praised as “among the finest and most uplifting public buildings New York has produced so far this century.”

Some of the accessibility problems, though, are rooted in the design itself.

The placement of the adult fiction section on three terracelike levels between the library’s first and second floors was the first issue patrons noticed. A few complained that they couldn’t access the fiction books because those levels were only accessible by stairs, Gothamist reported.

Queens Library officials responded that librarians could simply retrieve those books for disabled patrons, a solution in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and noted that the first of the four terraces did have elevator access.

But on social media and among advocates for the disabled, that rationale got panned.

“To me, that is the response of somebody who never had the experience of going somewhere and not being able to fully participate,” said Christine Yearwood, founder of the disability rights group Up-Stand. “Part of what universal design is about is allowing everyone to independently enjoy spaces. Having to ask someone else to help you is, at worst, demeaning, and at best, a limiting experience.”

The disputed shelves are now bare; the library, responding to the criticism, has moved the 2,900 adult fiction books to an accessible area on the second floor and is now figuring out how to use the vacated space.

Chris McVoy, a senior partner at Steven Holl Architects, the firm that designed the building, said that too much emphasis was being placed on the inaccessibility of the terraces, which he called a “small wrinkle in an incredibly successful project.” Concepts of accessibility, he added, have changed in the years since the building was designed in 2010.

“To be honest, we hadn’t thought, ‘OK we have to provide an exactly equivalent browsing experience,’ ” he said. “This will be a new standard for libraries, and that’s great. But that doesn’t mean it’s a flaw in the design. It’s an evolution.”

But the decision to build only a single elevator is also causing grumbles. The congestion is compounded by the placement of the main stroller parking area on a second-floor landing, which is insufficient for the dozens of strollers sometimes seeking a spot.

“It’s crazy right now,” said Nikki Rheaume, one of three children’s librarians, as she tried to navigate a crush of strollers around the second floor elevator Wednesday, when dozens of strollers descended on the building. “It’s chaos.”

It was 10:30 a.m. — toddler story time — and a rush of caregivers, having just come upstairs to park, were attempting to go back down for the program.

The closure of the children’s wing stairs is adding congestion to the elevator. Patrons who want to travel between the children’s levels must now either use the elevator or take a circuitous route around the library, up and down flights of stairs.

In his 2010 renderings for the children’s wing, Steven Holl, the project’s lead architect, had sketched images of children reading on bleacherlike seats that spanned from the lower level of the wing to the upper one, adjoined by an interior staircase.

But library officials, in a walk-through before the building opened, instead saw a potential liability for small children who could jump and fall on them. They have closed off the stairs and the top five bleachers until fixes can be made, said Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the Queens Library.

Wood panels now block the staircase entrances, and protective glass barriers have been added to the tallest bleachers. The bottom three bleachers remain open, however, and a security guard who usually stands there keeps an eye on them.

Vedesh Persaud, 32, who was visiting the children’s wing with his wife and their toddler daughter, Arya, praised the new library, as did most patrons.

“The curves of the space are pretty amazing,” he said. “It does give you a sense of openness.”

But his wife, Ravina, said she was surprised that the architects had overlooked the potential hazard of the children’s stairs.

“I’m sure that they didn’t have kids,” she said, “because as a parent, you know these things.”

McVoy said that the building would adapt and the stairs would reopen, perhaps after adding gates.

“What the lawyers believe is safe or not is a constantly evolving thing in this society,” he said. “Five years ago, they wouldn’t have even thought to block off that area, or even two years ago.”

How the planning process for the building did not include more of a consideration for accessibility has left critics puzzled and frustrated.

Planning for a library in Long Island City has been underway since 2001, when the old industrial neighborhood was being reborn. Library, city and community officials fought for years to secure funding and navigate bureaucratic hurdles to complete it.

Over time, the leadership of Queens Library system has changed several times, so everyone involved in the original planning is gone, officials said. Neither McVoy nor the Queens Library spokeswoman could recall a public hearing about the library’s design, though the community had been involved in aspects of the library’s creation.

When Dennis M. Walcott, a former New York City schools chancellor, took over the helm of the Queens Library system in 2016, the branch was just an empty shell on the Long Island City waterfront. By that point, Walcott said in an interview, the focus was on finishing the building, not in rethinking its details.

Now more than a month old, the library is navigating what de Bourbon called “significant growing pains” as staff learn how to adapt to the realities of running a branch library in a vertical work of art. There have been several other small problems as well. There is already more cracking than is typical in the terrazzo concrete floors because the contractor didn’t provide sufficient “control joints,” but that is only a visual, not a structural issue, McVoy said. Several small leaks, first reported on by the New York Post, have been repaired.

Starting this month, librarians said, there will be two, back-to-back story times in the mornings, to help alleviate the stroller bottleneck and waiting lists of children. A small lift may be added to the stepped terraces so the books can be returned to them as Holl envisioned.

“It’s a gorgeous building, and people are reveling in both the aesthetic nature of it and the functional use of the building,” Walcott said. “Our goal now is to make sure it is responding to the needs of the public.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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