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Long Island City’s stunning, Steven Holl-designed library debuts

September 25, 2019

After two decades of planning and years of delays, a major neighborhood amenity is finally opening in Long Island City. 

 

Today, the Hunters Point Library will debut on the East River waterfront, putting to rest one of the more drawn-out development sagas of the recent past. A new branch of the Queens Public Library was first proposed for the neighborhood in 1999, but it took more than 10 years for concrete plans to materialize. And after that, it took another five years for the groundbreaking to happen, and another four years for the whole things to be complete. 

 

But city officials who have shepherded the project through its various phases are enthusiastic now that it’s finally ready for the public to explore. Dennis Walcott, the president of the Queens Public Library, called it a “community living room”—a place where neighborhood residents can read, yes, but also attend events, hang out, or use as a meeting point. 

 

City Council member Jimmy van Bramer, who represents the area and is a longtime advocate for the branch, compares the structure, designed by Steven Holl Architects, to the old Carnegie Libraries: elegant buildings designed by firms like McKim, Mead & White or Carrère & Hastings, and the polar opposite of the midcentury “Lindsay boxes” that are functional, but not exactly inspiring. 

 

“It is that aspirational civic structure for this century,” Van Bramer said during a recent tour of the building. 

 

The road here was bumpy, to put it lightly—and when all was said and done, the total cost of the library was more than $40 million. It was planned as part of Design & Construction Excellence, which was initiated under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to bring beauty and inspiring design to New York City’s civic projects. But its projects were notoriously plagued by protracted timelines and cost overruns, and the Hunters Point library is no exception. Issues with funding, bureaucratic red tape, and construction—including a strike and a problem with window fabrication in Germany—all contributed to the delays. 

 

But now that the building is complete and ready for Queens residents, was it worth the wait? That’s an unequivocal yes: The new building is a striking addition to the urban fabric—and is especially necessary in Long Island City, where the dominant architectural style could most charitably be described as “uninspired.” The new library is a square box covered in precast concrete (which has been treated with metallic paint to give the whole thing a subtle sparkle), with swooping windows carved into the exterior. From the inside, those windows offer some of the most spectacular Manhattan skyline views you’ll find in the city—and they’re free and open to every single person who wants to access them.

 

 The interior of the library is a warm contrast to the building’s cool exterior, with bamboo walls and ceilings (some of which are soundproofed) and a neutral color palette, the better to showcase its 50,000-item strong collection. There are several dedicated areas—a “teen room” with computers and comfy couches, a children’s space with stadium seating to accommodate school groups—as well as cozy nooks and other gathering spots. 

 

The building is 82 feet tall, but once you’re inside, it feels much larger. “That’s one of the thing that Steven Holl says: a building should feel bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside,” says Olaf Schmidt, a senior associate at Holl’s firm who worked on the project. “It’s a spacious small building.”

 

It also comes with another lovely public amenity: A small roof terrace, which has stadium seating and more stunning Manhattan views. It was originally “value-engineered” out of the final design, according to Van Bramer, but he pushed for its inclusion (and contributed funding to make it happen). “It was not acceptable to me that we would invest all this money, go through all this trouble and then not have this incredibly rare space in the city of New York available to the people of Queens,” he says. 

 

That idea of community was emphasized by all of the officials involved with the project, whether it’s the roof deck that’s open to the public, or free Wi-Fi that extends into nearby Gantry Plaza State Park, or programming for neighborhood residents of all ages. Schmidt called the building “a beacon for the neighborhood,” and Van Bramer said it’s “what a library should be for today.” 

 

Still, it’s worth questioning why this project took so long to realize, and why other Queens library branches aren’t given the same love. “[W]ith over $200 million in unfunded capital needs for local Queens branches, my hope for the future is that we return some sanity to the way in which we allocate resources throughout our local branches of the Queens Public Library system,” former Queens City Council member Elizabeth Crowley wrote in an op-ed in the New York Daily News. 

 

But the Hunters Point branch here now, and it’s a wonderful addition to the neighborhood. “This is not just a repository for books,” Van Bramer says. “It’s a community center, it’s the hub of Hunters Point and Long Island City.”

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