The leadership of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and public officials gathered on Thursday morning to unveil the first phase of a $60-million-renovation of the Central Library branch at Grand Army Plaza.
The renovation, which leadership called the largest in the landmarked building’s 80-year history, features a refurbished lobby, an expanded Business and Career Center, a ‘new and noteworthy’ book hall and a “Civic Commons” area with space for government agencies and nonprofits.
“This building embodies BPL’s mission,” said Linda Johnson, the library system’s president and CEO. “It’s soaring architecture belongs to absolutely everyone, and inside it they’ll find the resources they need to participate in and advance our democracy.”
The project, which began in April 2018 with a rehab of the library’s front plaza, was funded with $35 million allocated by Mayor Bill de Blasio, another $2 million from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and additional funding from former State Assembly Member Walter Mosley, the Assembly’s broader Brooklyn delegation, and the state’s Education Department and Regional Economic Development Council. Private philanthropy also contributed money.
“With this new investment, the Brooklyn Public Library can better serve the public, making it easier than ever before for New Yorkers to engage civically, cultivate their small businesses, and expand their careers in their own backyard,” de Blasio said in a statement celebrating the renovation.
The transformation was led by the New York-based architect Toshiko Mori, whose work is visible immediately upon entering the building. The lobby features newly-poured terrazzo flooring and new lighting, and the oak wood paneling lining the walls has been restored and refurbished.
The space also has a new name: the Major Owens Welcome Center, after the longtime Brooklyn congressmember who worked for BPL in the mid-20th century. The space provides desks for book check-outs and returns, along with a new exhibit featuring information about the Owens’ life.
The 1,190-square-foot ‘New & Noteworthy’ section just off the grand lobby features about 2,000 books curated by branch librarians in a space featuring a striking metal sculpture on the ceiling and large windows that overlook Grand Army Plaza.
During a tour of the space with Bklyner, Central branch director Christine Schonhart said one of the goals of the redesign was to “take previously administrative space, or space that wasn’t open to the public, and turn it over to the public again.”
That effort is most visible in the significantly enlarged Business and Career Center, a space for job seekers and business owners that offers staff to help with resume review and navigation of government aid programs. It also includes dozens of workspaces and meeting rooms for public use.
The other major new space—the Civic Commons—consolidates services previously spread across the library, including the passport center, an IDNYC office and a space that will rotate between different city agencies and community nonprofits. The 10,000-square-foot space was previously accessible only to staff.
BPL leaders said the space would also host civic events like “local committee meetings, informational workshops and voter registration drives” through partnerships with the Brooklyn Voters Alliance, Immigrant Justice Corps, the city’s Department of Health, and others.
The upgrade features smaller touches too: upgraded elevators, new HVAC units and two all-gender restrooms. And it represents only the first phase of a larger effort to revamp the library; a planned second remodeling, scheduled to begin in 2022, will bring an enlarged Adult Learning Center, a new dedicated space for teenagers, and refurbished collections spaces.
Renovations and reconstructions at several other branches around the borough are also slated for completion in the coming year, as are two new branches, at Cadman Plaza West and Adams Street, whose construction was delayed by the pandemic.
More immediately: on Monday, BPL will open up 13 of its 60 branches for browsing and computer use for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic forced them closed in March 2020. Visitors will be able to browse first-floor collections on the first floor, access computers and sign up for library cards, though indoor seating, meeting rooms and programming will not yet be available.