Astoria deserves a better public library.
The boxy, concrete bunker off 10th Street, designed by prominent architects Ernest and Ebba Wicks Brown, was considered a stylish example of Brutalist architecture when it opened in 1967.
But the building seemed too dark and dreary, too cramped, even before age eventually took its toll. The infrastructure — as Ruth Metz Associates concluded in a 2013 study — has reached the end of its useful life.
Unfortunately, the library’s $6.6 million renovation is off track.
The nonprofit foundation raising money for the project conceded in October that more public investment is needed. Volunteers raised $83,500 to pair with $1.6 million the city pooled from carbon sequestration credits and a memorial fund, far short of the $5 million goal.
We fear voters will not support a bond for the renovation. We also wonder if there is political will on the City Council to pursue other public financing tools.
Part of the problem is the renovation is a compromise of a compromise.
With the election of Arline LaMear, a former librarian, as mayor in 2014, the library was a priority at City Hall. There was momentum to either expand into the old Waldorf Hotel next door or build a new library as part of a mixed-use development with housing at Heritage Square.
Instead, the City Council spent three years talking itself out of both options before settling on the renovation.
Preservationists pressured the city to spare the Waldorf, and the cost of relocating to Heritage Square was expensive, but the renovation always felt like a halfhearted third choice.
The renovation is sensible enough — large windows for more natural light, removing the mezzanine, opening up the basement, improved reading rooms and more inviting meeting spaces — yet it lacks the kind of spark necessary to attract significant private investment.
Last year, the City Council agreed to extend the timeline for groundbreaking — and expand the price tag from $5 million to $6.6 million — to make public use of the basement. The timeline was contingent on the library foundation raising $5 million instead of the original $3.5 million.
LaMear, who left office in 2018 and is the president of the library foundation, is gamely defending the project.
But it might be time to start over.
One of Astoria’s best traits is that it is a small town that does ambitious things. The Column. The Riverwalk. The Riverfront Trolley. The Mill Pond neighborhood. Liberty Theatre. The Garden of Surging Waves. CMH Field.
Imagination and leadership were as important as money in these accomplishments. Former Mayor Willis Van Dusen and Paul Benoit — as city manager and community development director — showed how to channel entrepreneurial spirit into action.
A contemporary library promotes literacy and equality, providing access to knowledge and information. More than just books or an internet connection, a library can serve as a gathering place that improves civic engagement and the quality of life. It can be a beacon that reflects a city’s history and culture while shining a light toward the future.
City leaders, at least publicly, have shrugged off the two-year search for a new community development director with increasingly implausible explanations about the difficulty in hiring.
We like to think a creative community development director — or city manager, or mayor, or city councilor — would see the potential of a new library as the catalyst for redevelopment. Heritage Square is an obvious location, but there are several other forlorn properties downtown that could be repurposed for a library with housing, retail, office or open space components like a plaza or park.
Such a project would take several years and require considerably more public and private financing than the renovation. We believe voters would be more inclined to support a bond and private donors would be more interested in investing in something transformational.