One of the most anticipated civic projects, the Hunters Point Community Library became a cautionary tale for the travails of executing high design within a New York City bureaucracy. It will now finally open its doors to the public next Tuesday.
Even prior to its debut, the boxy 22,000-square-foot building with curvy cutouts in its facade that fronts the East River in Long Island City had been heralded for its eye-catching modern design by Steven Holl Architects. But the $41 million project was beset by delays and cost overruns, prompting criticism about the city’s design and building process.
The design of the library started in 2010. Construction began in 2015. But by some estimates, the four-story library has been between 15 to 20 years in the making.
On Thursday, the finished product was on full display as a group of library and city officials gave a tour of the interiors to members of the press.
The various library wings, cloaked in warm bamboo, are arranged vertically and off to both sides, accessible by maze-like steps and ramps (and one nicely hidden elevator). But the main distinguishing features are the curvy windows that frame breathtaking views of Manhattan and Gantry Plaza State Park and allow the library to be bathed in natural light.
City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer, who once worked as the chief external affairs officer for the Queens Library system and aggressively lobbied for its completion, described the library as “the single most important project” of his life.
He confessed that he lost sleep during the project’s "darkest days."
But in the end, he said, “We held to it. And now we see the benefit that Queens has one of the most special buildings in the city.”
In contrast to the cheaply-fabricated 1970s libraries borne of a municipally cash-strapped era that became known as “Lindsay boxes,” the Hunters Point library was a product of the Design Excellence Program, an initiative started under Mayor Michael Bloomberg to create civic monuments and "elevate the citizenry," as put by Van Bramer.
The library will house 50,000 books, all of which can be checked out with futuristic-like electronic scanning machines. There is a two-story children’s section, a teen gaming area outfitted with a plush couch, a quiet room, a community room, and a stepped rooftop area that will give library users an outdoor place to relax and read, all against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
All of the furniture, which includes chairs by the famed French designer Jean Prouvé, was selected by the architect. With its relatively tiny footprint, the library was afforded verdant open space, including a garden surrounded by Ginko trees.
In his review on Wednesday, New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman called the library “among the finest and most uplifting public buildings New York has produced so far this century.”
But he also questioned why the city can’t do more projects of this quality in a faster and more cost-effective way.
The library, which is surrounded by luxury apartments and condominiums, may also spur questions about equity, which were voiced back in 2010 when a state-of-the-art public library opened in Battery Park City.
Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokesperson for the Queens Library, highlighted several high-profile library projects in other less affluent parts of the borough. Elmhurst Community Library, a $32 million project, which was similarly plagued by delays and took 15 years, opened in 2016. The following year, the city completed a highly praised $8.1 million expansion of the Kew Garden Hills library.
Looking ahead, last November, the city broke ground on a new library in Far Rockaway. The $33 million project is designed by the famed architectural firm Snøhetta, which also designed the National September 11 Memorial Museum and Pavilion.
During the tour, Van Bramer, ticked off a few of the lessons that had been gleaned from the Hunters Point Library experience.
“Have a real cost estimate when you start. Don’t do things that don’t make sense,” he said, referring to the selection of European glass, which subjected the project to a six-week delay because of a dock worker strike in Spain.
“There have been reforms as a result of this experience,” he said.
Although its silvery waterfront facade has announced its presence for some time to Manhattanites along the FDR Drive, the hum of activity inside the library was recently beginning to attract onlookers from within the neighborhood.
On Thursday, an elderly man stood outside staring quizzically at the building.
Motioning to it, he asked half-disbelievingly, “It’s opening soon?”
UPDATE: An original version misstated the construction timeline of the project. It broke ground in 2015.