Even Amid Deficits, Libraries Are Priceless

From a New York Times story by Michael Kimmelman headlined “Even Amid Deficits, Libraries Are Priceless”:

A city is only as good as its public spaces. The Covid-19 pandemic was another reminder: For quarantined New Yorkers, parks, outdoor dining sheds and reopened libraries became lifelines.

But now Mayor Eric Adams wants to slash funds for parks ($46 million) and for libraries ($13 million this fiscal year, more than $20 million next), and the City Council is debating the dining sheds. The sheds need regulation and the city budget needs to be cut by perhaps $3 billion. That said, if you don’t find the current political conversation shortsighted, you might want to do what I recently did and check out some of the library branches that have opened since the start of 2020. I visited three of them — each one a boon for its neighborhood, and money well-spent.

In Upper Manhattan, I toured the compact, 3,500-square-foot Macomb’s Bridge branch. A private donor paid the $2.1 million construction costs. Michielli + Wyetzner Architects oversaw the conversion of seven defunct little storefronts at a landmark public housing development from the 1930s. Residents in the underserved district had lobbied beforehand for a larger library, but the pocket-size Macomb’s has become a popular community hub, and no wonder: Making the most of tight quarters, Michielli + Wyetzner have designed an efficient, sunny, multipurpose space that nods to the building’s architectural history and that functioned as a welcoming sanctuary during Covid.

In Brooklyn Heights, I stopped by the three-story branch that Taryn Christoff and her colleagues at the mega-firm Gensler designed. Brooklyn Heights Library, as it’s called, occupies the base of a new wedge-shaped high-rise by Marvel Architects, constructed on the site of an earlier Brooklyn Heights branch. The developer, Hudson, bought the site from the Brooklyn Public Library system, tore down the former branch, erected the high-rise and donated empty space in the tower’s base for the new branch. The Brooklyn Library paid to build out the space and owns it.

NIMBYs and preservationists opposed the sale and demolition of the early 1960s branch, in no small measure because they opposed the tower. Library officials said they had determined that renovating the old branch would be too costly and a waste of money. They were looking at a multimillion-dollar tab just to fix the air conditioning, they said.

The new library became an instant attraction. Christoff and her Gensler team listened to neighbors and included a community room (I happened on a sewing circle one afternoon); a teen space on a mezzanine; a children’s library, and (this was more symbolic than logical) enough book stacks to hold as many volumes as the demolished library housed.

The main reading room is a little overstuffed with stacks, obscuring the grand, handsome space that Christoff has created and filled with elegant, bespoke furniture. A semicircular amphitheater for public readings negotiates a four-foot change in grade on the west end of the building. Relief sculptures salvaged from the old building decorate side rooms. Christoff has also devised a terrific place to read in the prow of the library, where tiered reading tables, arrayed under a spectacular hanging sculpture by Jean Shin of an upside-down tree, look onto Cadman Plaza Park through big windows.

The sale of the property occupied by the former branch to Hudson, in 2014, raised some hackles but also more than $50 million for the Brooklyn Library system. As part of the deal, Hudson agreed to underwrite the construction of dozens of new subsidized apartments offsite. The money also helped seed upgrades to Brooklyn branches in Fort Greene, Greenpoint, East New York and Sunset Park.

And it subsidized the third library I visited, a 6,565-square-foot branch on the ground floor of a former 19th-century torpedo factory turned recycling facility in Dumbo. The Adams Street Library, as it’s called, caters to Dumbo’s gentrifiers but also to residents in nearby Vinegar Hill and the Farragut Houses, especially parents with young children. The architects, Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, founders of WORKac, designed a joyful, tiny masterpiece.

Adults congregate at tables below the factory’s original 10-foot-tall windows and timber beams. Andraos and Wood exposed the ceiling and brick walls to recover some of Dumbo’s industrial grit. A forest of white columns support a canopy that hides mechanicals and lights, to show off the timbers.

Toddlers occupy a Creamsicle-colored room-within-the-room: an eye-popping, thick-walled pod with a ’60s vibe, swathed in maple. The pod’s floor is a bouncy orange carpet of recycled rubber. Ramps lead into the pod. Carved openings, one shaped like drawn curtains, give children elevated views of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge.

None of the three new libraries was built by the Department of Design and Construction, the agency ostensibly in charge of erecting New York’s public works. The Brooklyn and New York Public Library systems opted to oversee construction themselves. During the Bloomberg years, a rejuvenated focus by City Hall on the quality of public architecture produced dozens of new and refurbished firehouses, parks, emergency medical stations, police precincts and, perhaps most conspicuously, public libraries, many in long-neglected neighborhoods. The city also instituted a program called Design and Construction Excellence to entice gifted New York architects willing to suffer the city’s bureaucratic swamp, squabbling agencies, broken procurement processes and notorious late payments.

But then Michael Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, made clear he had little or no interest in design excellence, leaving the city only with its morass. Mayor Adams has just appointed a public realm officer, which is a good sign, but he is meanwhile proposing budget cuts to libraries and parks. The mayor ran for office in 2021 promising to double the Parks Department’s budget and plant 20,000 new trees a year. Now facing a possible $3 billion deficit, he has explained that it would be “irresponsible” for the city not to slash park and library spending while cutting education and health.

That sounds sensible, but the city now spends only 1 percent of its roughly $100 billion budget on parks (some $600 million) and libraries (some $400 million), arguably a pittance considering the outsize roles they play in public health and safety, real estate and economic development, and the welfare of millions of residents, as the pandemic reiterated. It’s a question of recognizing value.

This may be the usual political theater: New York mayors sometimes cut funds for libraries and parks knowing City Council members will restore the funding, so everyone can take a victory lap. But Mayor Adams’s intentions remain a mystery.

New Yorkers rely on library branches not just for books, but also for access to computers and free broadband, employment services, English-language courses for immigrants, after-school programs for teens, de facto child care, havens during extreme weather, free events and safe spaces for latchkey children, the unhoused and older adults.

I mentioned dining sheds, a subject for a different article, which also brought quarantined residents out of their apartments and helped revive neighborhoods and empty streets during Covid. Suffice it say that there’s an opportunity now for the city to rethink curbside real estate in general. The curbside lane is public land, after all, not the private property of car owners or restaurants, and it takes up a not-insignificant portion of the city, which could be reimagined to improve truck deliveries and trash pickup, widen sidewalks — as well as generate tax revenues from more limited outdoor dining establishments that comply with new design guidelines. New York’s leaders don’t seem to be thinking holistically about this aspect of the public realm, either.

With the pandemic seemingly in the rearview mirror but the city still seeking its new normal, New York’s recovery depends on fortifying, not diminishing, tent-poles like parks, streets and libraries. The mayor might want to reconsider what library branches like the ones I saw deliver — and why their design has ripple effects.

The success of Macomb’s in Upper Manhattan, for example, has helped pave the way for the renovation of the Roosevelt-era low-rise housing project the library occupies, called Harlem River Houses. The renovation is a Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, project: It’s being done by a cohort of private developers, in concert with the New York City Housing Authority. Harlem River Houses was the first federally funded public housing project built in the city. A Black architect, John Louis Wilson, Jr., was on the original design team.

The 1930s architecture — simple, dignified, four- and five-story buildings with big apartments and community spaces, organized around courtyards — took its cues from the Amsterdam School of the 1920s. Dutch architects back then were turning out high-quality, low-cost housing for the working classes distinguished by Expressionistic masonry, turrets and balconies, and stylish art glass, ironwork and sculptures.

The architects of Harlem River Houses updated the decorative details, giving entrances Art Deco canopies and tall modernist windows; courtyards, elaborate fountains, benches and trees. Storefronts with bay windows flanked the public avenue that bisected the complex.

Michielli + Wyetzner removed the bearing walls between the former stores and finessed a change in elevation to create a single, open space, exploiting a setback to install clerestories and bring more light into the children’s area. They restored the bronze lintels and pink granite along Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. The library now serves as a kind of gateway to Harlem River Houses.

Something similar is happening at the Dumbo branch: WORKac enlisted Linked by Air, the Brooklyn graphics firm, to paint “LIBRARY” in giant white letters across the former factory’s exterior, a cheeky nod to the old signage that animated the bygone industrial waterfront. Like the rest of WORKac’s architecture here, the gesture reinforces a basic message, that the Brooklyn library bridges the city’s past and present.

Here’s hoping city authorities don’t shortchange its future.

Michael Kimmelman is the Times architecture critic. He has reported from more than 40 countries and was previously chief art critic. While based in Berlin, he created the Abroad column, covering culture and politics in Europe and the Middle East. He is the founder and editor-at-large of a new venture focused on global challenges and progress called Headway.


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