In the past two weeks, one of the biggest buzzes around New York City was the opening of an architectural masterpiece, the Hunters Point Library, right across the East River from Manhattan. Originally scheduled to be open four years ago, it cost $40 million and 10 years to build this library. But what a library: designed by Steven Holl Architects, it has stunning views of the East River and the Manhattan skyline; a spacious, airy, and modern study and reading space; and one where I was proud to hold a Queens Public Library card and check out a book or two. Proud mostly because I live two blocks from this library, and it is next door to my kids’ favorite playground. I didn’t have time to check out the whole library for accessibility as I was busy taking my kids’ stroller up the elevator (yeah! for accessibility, or so I thought) to the children’s section floor so my kids could put their hands on a few books.
And then I saw this Gothamist article, “The New $41 Million Hunters Point Library Has One Major Flaw” and realized: how could I have missed this? Near the library entrance, there is a long set of steps facing the river, where there are 3 levels of books where one could sit down, do some work, and peruse the fiction books. And none of these levels are accessible to the library elevator. Because I was busy with the kids, I didn’t have the chance to walk up these steps and pinpoint the problem.
In the media communications leading up to the opening of the Hunters Point library, it was highlighted that the library was ADA-compliant. A library spokesperson said, in response to the Gothamist article, “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.”
Retrieving fiction books for those who are not able to browse the fiction section is NOT ADA-compliant. What’s the point of browsing the fiction section and pick a book at your leisure when you can’t walk up the steps to it? I hoped this was fiction, but it wasn’t. 10 years to build it, and they missed this. (This veiled reference to “Field of Dreams” is intentional.)
Perhaps in response to negative publicity in social media about the local library’s response, the President of the Queens Public Library took over the messaging and announced that the fiction books would be moved to an accessible section of the library. Yet, there is still this wonderful three-level space with studying desks and USB ports, with an airy and expansive view of the Manhattan skyline and the river in front of it — not yet accessible to everyone. Yes, there are other accessible locations in the library where one could study and enjoy the Manhattan view, just not with the spacious view and relaxing space afforded by these three inaccessible levels. There has to be a way for everyone to access this space — let the design and accessibility experts collaborate to figure this out.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was conceived to enable full accessibility to millions of Americans with disabilities, by providing a mechanism to enforce businesses to meet certain requirements for accessibility. In the decades since the implementation of the ADA, many businesses have complied with the ADA requirements and, in the process, the concepts of universal design and inclusive design have moved to the forefront in businesses’ consideration of their stakeholders, including employees and customers. The universal design concepts, as a rule, go beyond what is required in the ADA, and have been embraced by businesses that perceive added value in including a significant market (20% of the U.S. population) in their sales and engagement efforts.
If it took 10 years to design and build this library, somebody, especially one at Steven Holl Architects, could have had an “Aha!” moment and realized that those three levels weren’t reachable for those who cannot walk up those stairs. Thomas Logan, the founder of Equal Entry, a global accessibility consulting firm, took the architects to task for not adapting its design process to be inclusive of all users, including those with disabilities.
It’s a teachable moment. It is critical, in any design and development process, to include people with disabilities in order to spot possible shortcomings in accessibility and to solicit their feedback. Especially when some of the most frequent patrons of any library are senior citizens.
Update: as of today (10/7/2019), when I walked past the library on the way to the playground, I could spot through the window the fiction books, still sitting on the inaccessible library shelves.