Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
A window at the Queens Library branch at Court Square.

By Christine ChungTHE CITY

This story was originally published on April 24, 2019 by THE CITY.

Two months after Amazon — the world’s largest bookseller — announced it was bailing on a lease in Queens’ tallest skyscraper, a local library branch in the same building could be facing its final chapter.

The lease for the Queens Public Library’s One Court Square branch, an economically sized 3,200 square-foot library on the ground floor of the 53-story Citigroup Building, is set to expire Aug. 31.

Library officials say they are scrambling to figure out what’s next. Patrons say the potential closure would be a huge hit to Long Island City, a neighborhood divided after the Amazon debacle.

“To lose a public library hub that is so necessary, so utilized — it would continue to separate people especially in that Court Square neighborhood, which is so close to Queensbridge Houses but also the heart of glass high rises,” said Meghan Cirrito, president of the Friends of Court Square library group.

A knitting group meets in the community room of the Queens Library at Court Square, April 23, 2019.
A knitting group meets in the community room of the Court Square library. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The public library really acts as an equalizer. Anybody is welcome and to lose that is to lose a free place for anybody who come out of their luxury high rise, out of wherever they live and meet in a place.”

The library has paid an annual rent of $1 since the building at One Court Square opened in 1989, as part of a deal with Citigroup. A Queens Public Library spokesperson said that Savanna, the building’s owner, has “indicated it is seeking market rent for the library space,” but has not specified what this price would be.

Last year, the owner was reportedly asking for $55 to $65 per square footfor rent in the building.

The library’s short-term goal is to extend the dollar lease another year, to when Citigroup’s lease ends in May 2020. At that time, the bank is expected to relinquish its hold of one million square feet in the building, which was originally slated for Amazon.

The Court Square branch of the Queens Public Library.
The Court Square branch of the Queens Public Library. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

“We are having conversations with Savanna to see what’s possible. We are talking to Citibank as well,” the Queens Public Library spokesperson said. “Based on our recent conversations with Savanna it [the extension] is doubtful, but nevertheless we remain hopeful about receiving an extension.”

A spokesperson for Savanna declined to comment.

‘We are Valued in this Community’

The Court Square branch is one of just two Queens library locations serving the bustling Long Island City area. It offers extensive programming for children and even a weekly knitting circle that’s been meeting for over a year.

Evelyn, a Citi employee who declined to give her last name, said she’s been a frequent patron of the branch since 1989 and comes often during her lunch break to decompress with some books.

“It’s like the community center in a way, everyone gets to gather,” Evelyn said. “Growing up in Brownsville, I lived in the library, I slept with my books. The library is like the best thing.”

Over the past three years, numbers of people visiting the branch, attending programs and borrowing books have been on the rise. Last year, the branch counted more than 98,000 patrons, according to library officials.

“We are overrun with children, babies and toddlers and are almost always full,” said Alex Nye, the branch’s children’s librarian. “We are valued in this community.”

Other Tenants in Jeopardy

Frank Wu, president of the Court Square Civic Association, said losing the library without a replacement plan would be devastating.

“It’s a public area that the community has today for young families, senior citizens and kids… Every Friday, [toddler time] registration opens at 10 a.m. By 10:05 all classes are filled. It’s literally like getting into a nightclub registering for these library sessions,” Wu said.

A book cart at the Court Square branch reflects the diverse clientele found in Queens.
A book cart at the Court Square branch reflects the diverse clientele found in Queens. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Queens library spokesperson said officials are “doing their best” to avoid this scenario and that their long-term goal is to identify another space to meet the community’s needs.

As the clock ticks on the lease’s last day, other small businesses on the ground floor of the One Court Square building also say they’re growing increasingly anxious because Savanna has not clearly indicated what’s next.

Raju Bhai has operated a small store selling cards and other gifts in the building for three decades. He said his lease is up early next year and that he’s waiting on management for more details about his store’s future. He said he pays $6,000 each month for rent.

“We are in big trouble,” Bhai said. “I spent my whole life. My whole family is depending on it. This is my bread and butter.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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