Days before the Court Square Library is set to shut its doors, Long Island City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer led a fiery oversight hearing on the branch’s closure on Wednesday, Feb. 12.
During the hearing, an exasperated Van Bramer, chair of the City Council’s Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations chair and a former librarian himself, grilled Queens Public Library President and CEO Dennis Walcott for not doing enough to prevent the library’s closure.
While Walcott insisted that he did his due diligence to find a new location for the branch after he learned that its lease was set to expire, Van Bramer refused to let him off the hook.
“What you had to fundamentally do was keep this library functioning for this community. That is what you had to do,” said Van Bramer.
The Court Square branch has been located in the Citigroup Tower — paying a yearly rent of just one dollar — for the past 30 years, according to The City. Though its sublease with Citigroup expired in August, Van Bramer pointed out that library officials had known that this was likely to happen since Spring of 2018.
“We could have started four years ago and we would have been in the same place. We are caught in a vice of looking for space and the price point being extremely high — being conscious of the budget going forward,” Walcott said.
Walcott added that the library is currently in talks over several different locations for the branch, some which would involve building out an existing property. As a result of these negotiations, he said he could not give a definitive timeline, but he hoped to have the library ready for business by the end of 2020, and a lease agreement by the end of March.
Part of Van Bramer’s frustration stemmed from his belief that the library system is a hub for social services, where the public service should get priority over budget considerations.
“It was always the ethos of the public library system in Queens that we would never strand a library,” Van Bramer said. “Attendance in public libraries and participation in public programming in libraries is habit-forming. People get into a routine.”
Van Bramer asked if the QPL considered a temporary trailer for the branch while it was closed or if they had started a fund-raising campaign specifically to help afford a lease. Walcott responded that he simply did not think these options were practical.
In his questioning, Bronx Councilman Mark Gjonaj asked how the dissolution of Amazon HQ2 affected the search for a new location, a thorny issue for Van Bramer, one of the project’s chief opponents.
Amazon was slated to rent a large swathe of Citi Tower temporarily while it built its own new building nearby. Gjonaj asked if the QPL had a “done deal” with Amazon to keep the branch in place, hinting that fallout from the abandoned project delayed the process.
Walcott said they had been talking to Amazon but no such deal was reached.
“I’m not going to allow that to be the narrative,” Van Bramer responded to the line of questioning. “This is not an Amazon HQ2 hearing.”
Van Bramer’s assessment was bolstered by Meghan Cirrito, president of the Friends of Court Square Library. In her testimony, she said she rejected the notion that Amazon was the cause or potentially the savior of the library’s closing.
“Vital community services like public libraries surely do not close because a private company is no longer a tenant in a shared building,” she said.