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The New $41 Million Hunters Point Library Has One Major Flaw

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Patrons must go up a set of stairs to enter three fiction sections in the new Hunters Point Library. Jake Dobkin / Gothamist

On Tuesday, Joe Bachner made a trip to the newly opened Hunters Point Library in Long Island City. A Jackson Heights resident, he was well familiar with the library’s backstory — 15 years to complete (20 by some estimates) at the hefty price tag of $41 million.

He was eager to experience all of the building close up. At 67, he has a bad knee, but it's not bad enough to have kept him from climbing the library's much talked about staircase, which stands against the building's carved-out windows and guides visitors through the maze-like interior.

Bachner, who is an avid photographer, was impressed by the views, but as he found himself walking back and forth across the fiction aisles, which were as of yet unlabeled, something else occurred to him.

“If you can’t walk, you can’t go through that area,” he said.

Because although the Hunters Point Library has an elevator, it does not stop at three fiction sections, which are tiered on three separate levels above the lobby. To Bachner, the design seemed like an obvious flaw. How would elderly library patrons looking to peruse the fiction shelves negotiate all those stairs?

“With all the money they spent and all the years of delay, it struck me as strange," he said.

By all accounts, Hunters Point Library has been an unmitigated success of architectural design on a municipal level. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times called it “among the finest and most uplifting public buildings New York has produced so far this century.” The headline last week to Justin Davidson’s gushing review in New York Magazine unapologetically read, “The Hunters Point Library Was Too Expensive, and Is Worth It.”

But following the library's official opening last week, which drew more than 1,300 visitors, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, some members of the public have raised pragmatic issues with its fetching and costly design, namely that of accessibility.

“I think it looks really beautiful," said Frank Wu, the president of Court Square Civic Association, a group in Long Island City that tries to encourage smart development. Wu said he has not himself visited the library, but that he has heard people in the neighborhood talk about its sculptural design as not very functional.

“There are a ton of stairs but only a single elevator,” he said, adding that accessibility has long been an issue in Long Island City, which has seen the number of young families with strollers balloon in recent years.

By law, public entities must comply with accessibility requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokesperson for the Queens Public Library, acknowledged that the library was aware of the concerns. "The building complies with all building codes, including the ADA," she wrote in a statement. "Our staff has been and will continue to retrieve books for customers, and we are going to offer devices that will allow customers to browse the materials available in those areas."

A spokesperson for the architecture firm of Steven Holl, which designed the library, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bachner, who asked about accessibility during his visit, said the library's offer to fetch books misses the point.

“Browsing is part of the enjoyment of going to the library,” he said. He noted that the lack of access also precludes certain patrons from relaxing or reading in those areas, which are fitted out with chairs and charging stations, not to mention the dazzling waterfront views.

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The reading area and charging stations for the fiction sections. Jake Dobkin / Gothamist

The oversight is especially glaring given the fact that accessibility has long been a focus of library administrators. In 2005, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions developed an accessibility checklist. The section involving access to materials begins, “All parts of the library should be accessible.” U.S. libraries, in particular, have historically pursued a policy of inclusion for the disabled.

The New York Public Library, which is a separate system from Queens, provides accessibility details on the website of each of its 88 neighborhood branches and four research centers. Most are fully accessible to people using wheelchairs; those that are not list the precise library areas that are not accessible.

Christine Yearwood, the founder of a group called Up-Stand, which lobbies for greater accessibility for families, said she was disappointed with the lack of detail on the Hunters Point Library website, which states that the building is wheelchair accessible but not much else. For example, she noted that there were no specific directions for traveling or accessing the building for wheelchair users. She said she was also disappointed not to find any information about family bathrooms or diaper-changing stations.

"The unfortunate thing is that it's supposed to be state of the art," she said.

She stressed that, unlike libraries challenged by outdated buildings, Hunters Point Library offered city officials an opportunity to build something from the ground up. It represents the first new library to be built in Queens in more than a decade.

"I think it's supposed to be a model," she continued. "But if it's still not fully accessible what does that say about what we are providing for our communities?"

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a formal statement from a spokesperson for the Queens Public Library.

UPDATE #2, 10/4/2019: A Queens Public Library official announced that the books in the three fiction levels would be relocated to another place inside the library.

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