A few years back, architects designed a public library in Queens that has been lauded as one of the most stunning public buildings produced in New York in a century. But it is also rife with obstacles for people with disabilities, according to city officials who are now suing the designers for the $10 million they say it will cost to fix.
At the Queens Public Library at Hunters Point, a staircase that runs from the lobby to the second floor is the only way to access three areas that have built-in desks with charging stations. A ramp that leads to the rooftop terrace, which has sweeping views of Manhattan, has a slope that is unlawful, the city argues. Bathrooms throughout the building do not have enough space for wheelchairs, the lawsuit says.
The city estimates it would cost at least $10 million to bring the building into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act and other federal, state and local laws. Officials recently filed suit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York against the firm, Steven Holl Architects, as well as Steven Holl, and Christopher McVoy, a senior partner of Mr. Holl’s firm.
City officials have accused the architects of a “breach of contract and professional malpractice.” The city’s law department declined to comment beyond what’s in the lawsuit.
A spokesman for the architectural firm called the lawsuit “meritless” and noted that the city had “repeatedly signed off on our design.”
“Accessibility is a core value of our work,” John Gallagher, the spokesman, said in a statement.
The library — which is 22,000 square feet and 82 feet high — opened along the East River in Queens in September 2019. It took a decade to build and cost more than $40 million.
The project faced a number of difficulties along the way, including skepticism from officials in the Office of Management and Budget about the need for such an extravagant library. The resignation of the former Queens library president, a supporter of the project, delayed the project. So did a dockworkers strike in Spain that slowed glass shipments.
Once it opened, it was lauded as a feat of design. The library has huge windows that carve whimsical jigsaw puzzle-piece shapes out of the concrete facade and offer spectacular views of Manhattan.
But concerns mounted soon after the building’s opening.
In October 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into whether the building complied with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The city is the subject of that investigation, as well as another one opened by the New York City Commission on Human Rights.
In November 2019, Tanya Jackson, a woman with mobility issues, and the Center for Independence of the Disabled filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn federal court against the library, its board of trustees and the city.
“They built a monument to stairs,” said Sharon McLennon-Wier, the executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled.
Ms. McLennon-Wier, who is blind, said that for the past two years, her organization and city officials have negotiated over design changes. She said there were problems that couldn’t be retrofitted and that parts of the library might need to be completely taken down and rebuilt.
“It’s really a shame,” she said. “This library was built in 2019. You would not think — ADA was passed in 1990 — that we would have such a new structure that has so many problems.”
Library officials have tried to make adjustments. The large staircase that runs from the lobby to the second floor has five areas attached to it that initially held bookshelves and desks. Because the elevator provides access to only two of the five areas, officials initially proposed that librarians could simply retrieve books for people who couldn’t access them.
But that solution drew criticism from advocates for people with disabilities, and officials eventually moved all of the 2,900 adult fiction books to an accessible area on another floor.
Still, in other areas of the library, people with disabilities must ask for help retrieving books, Ms. McLennon-Wier said.
“It’s demoralizing, as a person with a disability myself — nobody wants to have to be at someone’s mercy,” she said.
Neither the children’s area nor the rooftop terrace have space for wheelchair and companion seating, which is required by law, according to the city.
Mr. McVoy said in November 2019 that the inaccessibility of the terrace was a “small wrinkle in an incredibly successful project.” He said concepts of accessibility had changed since the building was designed.
The lawsuit also notes that the part of the children’s area used for reading and story time cannot be reached by elevator. The library also has doors that are too small for wheelchairs to get through, according to the city.
Donovan Richards Jr., the Queens borough president, said in a statement that accessibility was “not only a legal obligation; it’s a moral one as well.” He said the lawsuit would allow the city to recoup costs that would allow it to meet that obligation.
Rosanne Anderson, who lives in Queens, said she visits the library at least once a week.
“It’s beautiful, but then I realized with the steps going up in the different areas, even if you don’t use a wheelchair, still going up all those steps are hard,” she said.
Ms. Anderson, who said she was more than 60 years old, said that as a result, she typically just goes to the first floor of the library. “It was really kind of not a good idea to build this, spend so much money and then it not being accessible to so many people,” she said.
Richard Emanuel, 39, visits the library at least once a week with his five-year-old daughter and was “super happy” when the library first opened.
But he quickly realized its limitations. “There was talk that there was some issues with accessibility and if you’re in a wheelchair, you couldn’t get to certain floors,” he said. “Overall, it is a shame; it is a beautiful design.”
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