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Queens Chronicle

Civic objects to library demolition

Group says Elmhurst will lose more than it gains in design plan

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Posted: Thursday, January 5, 2012 12:00 pm | Updated: 1:23 pm, Thu Jan 12, 2012.

Members of a community group in Elmhurst are battling the destruction of the existing Elmhurst Library at 86-01 Broadway because they say it has a historic facade that should be preserved.

But the Queens Library and area politicians say the building’s demolition — scheduled for Monday, Jan. 9 — is all but a fait accompli. The $27.8 million plan for a new library in its place, which would double the branch’s size, was finalized some time ago as part of a process that began in 2003, according to Joanne King, a Queens Library spokeswoman. The new building is scheduled to be completed in 2013.

“I spent more than 60 years going to that library,” said Thomas McKenzie, president of the Newtown Civic Association, the group that is fighting the existing library’s demolition. Referring to it being torn down, McKenzie said, “it hurts to see.”

The Newtown Civic Association said it had met with the Queens Library once three years ago about the design, and only knew of the demolition plans when they were announced to the public at large in October.

The Elmhurst Library is one of seven remaining “Carnegie” libraries in Queens — buildings originally funded by Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born steel magnate, in the early 20th century. The Elmhurst branch is the largest of the seven, according to the Newtown Civic Association. Designed by the architecture firm Lord and Hewlitt, construction began on the building in 1904 and was completed in 1906.

ıut the Queens Library has contested whether the structure is historic at all, as several renovations and expansions have been made to the building since it opened. King said the library “hasn’t been a Carnegie library structurally since 1930.”

Robert Valdes-Clausell, the Newtown Civic Association’s treasurer and the owner of a residential building behind the library, countered King’s statement with photographs of the library’s facade through the ages: the building as it stands now looks markedly similar to a photograph taken of it in 1910.

The main doors and windows have been replaced, Valdes-Clausell said, but otherwise the facade remains largely the same. He said the Newtown Civic didn’t object to a more modern and larger library — the Elmhurst Library is the second-most used branch in Queens and has been bursting at the seams — but wondered why a new library couldn’t have been built around, behind and above the original facade.

“It would be a failure of imagination not to incorporate the original design,” he said.

King said such a design had been considered, but was disregarded as “cost prohibitive.”

Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said it was unfortunate the facade couldn’t be saved, adding that the library’s design was approved before he came into office.

He noted, however, that the community was consulted during the design process and that “there is desperate need for additional library space in the community.”

“Yes, we will lose and we will mourn the loss of a Carnegie library,” he said, “but we will gain a lot more in terms of having a modern library structure.”

Referring to the Queens Library, Dromm said that “the progress that they made can’t be stopped at this point – it just can’t be stopped. Nor do I think that it should. It’s coming, it’s happening, it’s been decided.”

While he doesn’t represent the district, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) worked for the Queens Library for over 11 years before being elected to office, and said it would not be possible to halt construction at this point.

“The library has made its decision and ... they are not going to change their minds,” Van Bramer said. He added that while he would “love nothing more” than for the library to preserve the existing facade, the brand-new, 30,000-square- foot library will “benefit the children of that community for years to come.”

In the meantime, the community has been dealing with the library’s construction schedule. The existing facility closed on Nov. 7. A temporary facility across the street — four trailers — has yet to open. This gap in service was planned for, according to King, and is unavoidable.

George Miltiadous, the president of Promo-Pro Ltd., the Long Island City company subcontracted to erect the trailers, said one impediment to opening the temporary facility sooner was a “crane and wide-load embargo during the Christmas holidays.” The Queens Library always said the temporary facility would be open at some point in the winter, while Miltiadous seemed confident it would be completed by February.

To McKenzie and the other members of the Newtown Civic, the gap in library service is unacceptable. Since the building closed, a bookmobile parked outside the now walled-off location has been open during certain days and times.

“It’s a ludicrous statement saying that a bus is an adequate stop-gap,” Valdes-Clausell said.

“I have more books in this one room of my house than the whole book bus,” McKenzie quipped.

But, according to Dromm, all the library’s plans, including the use of the bookmobile and the winter opening of the temporary facility, were “disclosed throughout the whole process.”

And come Jan. 9, that process will include the destruction of the library itself.

Èor McKenzie, who has lived in the same house in the neighborhood for his entire life, the new library – a three-story boxed structure with several glass elements – will stick out like a “sore thumb” and reminds him of “a new bank.”

“A community is not judged by what it builds, it is judged by what it destroys,” he added.

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