Steven Holl Sued Over 'Inaccessible' Library Design

John Hill
24. mei 2023
The stair and tiers with bookcases on opening day, September 24, 2019. These levels, some of which can only be reached via the stair, are a major part of the lawsuit. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

On September 24, 2019, the much-anticipated, long-time-in-the-making (Holl was hired in 2010) Hunters Point Library branch of the Queens Public Library opened to the public. The preliminary fanfare and celebratory mood around the opening quickly subsided, then soured, as the building was criticized over portions that were inaccessible, the Department of Justice opened an investigation in October, and before the end of the year a lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates. 

Cascading tiers of bookshelves rising from the lobby were the focus of attention in that first lawsuit and in the new one filed on May 17, 2023, since they comprise a major design feature but are in the majority inaccessible. The design by Steven Holl Architects was able to become a building — granted a permit by the Department of Buildings — because, reportedly, the librarians would fetch materials from those levels for patrons unable to do so. Not only would those levels be inaccessible to patrons in wheelchairs or those otherwise unable to walk up the stairs, those patrons would have to know exactly which book they wanted; they could not partake in browsing the shelves, an important part of using any library. The shelves on the inaccessible levels were emptied of their contents shortly after opening day, moved elsewhere in the library.

Regardless of these design flaws, the City's Department of Design and Construction boasted of the library's “stunning design” in a press release ahead of the library's opening. “The 22,000-square-foot building is 82 feet high and oriented vertically,” it describes, “with interior stairs that rise from an open-spaced entry through six levels up to a rooftop bleacher-style seating and reading area.” No hint of disappointment with Holl's vertically oriented design can be found in this description of the elements that are the sources of the lawsuits; it was only after the library opened and received criticisms over accessibility that the City appeared to take notice. 

The opening of the large sculptural window of the building's main, Manhattan-facing facade follows the angle of the stair and mezzanine levels. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

The lawsuit (PDF link) filed by the City of New York on May 17 in Manhattan Supreme Court names three defendants: Steven Holl Architects, principal Steven Holl, and design partner Christopher McVoy. The lawsuit alleges breach of contract, contractual indemnification, and negligence/professional malpractice. The City is seeking "remediation costs estimated at not less than $10 million" to cover the "substantial changes" needed to make the library compliant; no changes have been carried out to date, and it's not clear what those changes would be or if Holl's office would be involved. 

In addition to highlighting “several primary design elements of the building” not being fully accessible, the lawsuit also mentions “bathroom layout, door clearances, and the like” as not meeting ADA standards. Main among the complaints are “The Main Staircase and the Inaccessible Tiers,” an ironically poetic heading in the lawsuit, which describes how the first and fifth of the tiers are accessible via elevator, but the second, third, and fourth tiers can only be reached by the stair. Other areas mentioned in the lawsuit include: “The Children’s Area on the Second Floor,” with its inaccessible sitting area; “The Fifth Floor Ramp” that is too steep per ADA and is the only means to access “The Rooftop Terrace.” Lastly, “Additional Areas” is chock a block with non-compliance issues, including ramps, doors, and wheelchair maneuverability, grab bars, and other features in the bathrooms.

World-Architects will be paying attention to this lawsuit as it progresses. Stay tuned.

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