By: Ben Strachman  | 

Renovations to Mendel Gottesman Library and 185th Street Plaza Nearing Completion After Work Over Summer

Two major renovation projects on the Wilf campus that were planned for years near completion after major work was done over the summer on the 185th Street plaza and the Mendel Gottesman Library.

Neither project was paid for by YU. The $3.6 million plaza was funded by "Council member [Ydanis] Rodriguez, Comptroller Scott Stringer...and the Department of Transportation," according to Shavonne Williams, Public Information Officer for the NYC Department of Design and Construction. The renovations on the Mendel Gottesman Library for Hebraica-Judaica, which occupies floors 5 and 5A of the library, were funded by a donation from David S. and Ruth Gottesman.

Joseph Cook, Executive Director for University Operations, stated that for roughly twenty years, YU searched for resources and permission to block off and renovate 185th Street. The area eventually became closed off to traffic and a space for both the YU community and the local Washington Heights community to enjoy. When the New York City Department of Transportation began an initiative to create pedestrian plazas around the city, Jeffrey Rosengarten, former Vice President for Support Services, applied in 2008 to have the then-blocked off section of 185th Street made into one of these plazas. After years of efforts, construction on the plaza began in summer 2016.

The plans originally called for the project to be completed by summer of 2017, but delays caused by working around energy company Con Edison’s schedule pushed the finish date to the fall. While all major components of the renovation have been completed, the construction delays last winter pushed off the planting of various bushes and plants past the date predicted in the spring by Cook. At the time, he stated, “It’ll all be done by summer of 2017, except for the planting. They’ve gotten so far behind that they’re going to miss the spring planting, so the actual planting of all the shrubs, flowers, [and other plants] will be done in summer 2017.”

Phil Goldfeder, Assistant VP for Government Affairs, said, “The plaza is expected to be completed by the end of October. Although the physical planters were completed during the summer months, it is customary for the city to wait for cooler weather to plant trees and shrubs.”

The lane of Amsterdam Avenue that is blocked off from traffic was also resurfaced as part of the renovations, although according to Matthew Yaniv, YU Director of Marketing and Communications, “The implementation [of the plans for Amsterdam Avenue] is not complete. We are still awaiting word from our partners at [Department of Transportation and the Department of Design and Construction].”

Goldfeder further stated that “The DOT will oversee maintenance for the first year, after which YU will be responsible for maintaining the plaza, which will include everything from keeping it clean and snow removal to repairing minor damage.”

The recently completed renovations on the Wilf campus library constitute the second phase of renovations going back to 2015. The library building was completed in 1969, and until 2015, there were no major renovations on floors 2 through 6. Phase one, in which floors 2, 2A, 3, 3A, and 4 were renovated, began after the spring semester ended in 2015, and ended in early November, about a month behind schedule.

Phase two of the renovations, which focused on the Mendel Gottesman Library for Hebraica-Judaica on floors 5, 5A, and 6, began after the Spring 2017 semester ended. The renovations have been on schedule thus far, with the majority of the work finishing before the fall semester began, as planned. As Director of University Libraries Paul Glassman wrote in an email in June of 2017, “the punch list (miscellaneous items needing revision) [will] be completed by September 30.”

Josh Joseph, Senior Vice President of YU, stated in an email to the YU community that phase two renovations “will, by upgrading and modernizing the facility, provide an optimal environment for students and faculty to conduct research and collaborate. [They] will also allow the university's world class collection of Hebraica-Judaica materials to grow.”

“Much of the scholarship and publishing activity in specialized disciplines like these are still in print format, and the plan [included] adding library stacks to level 6,” Glassman wrote. “The goal [was] to preserve Mendel Gottesman Library as the Hebraica-Judaica library of record in the New York metropolitan area—one in which the materials remain accessible on site.”

The renovations on 5 and 5A included new lighting, electrical outlets, carpeting, chairs, upgraded Wi-Fi, and new tables made from recycled table tops. The 6th floor, which was never made open for public use since the library’s construction in 1969, was converted to a storage area for bound print periodicals, providing more area for library materials.

After concerns were raised by faculty members over possible disruptions to their research while the library was being renovated, Glassman sent an email explaining the renovations and assuring those concerned that steps would be taken to ensure as little disruption to normal library activities as possible.

“We were glad to be able to meet the research needs of everybody who needed to use that library over the summer...and that’s the feedback that we got,” Glassman said. “We set up a personal librarian program with all of the graduate students, we retrieved items for faculty immediately...[and] we moved heavily used reference items [to an area accessible to library users].”

The renovations included a significant amount of student involvement after Yeshiva College junior David Selis learned of the proposed plans in spring 2017. Concerned with some aspects of the plans, especially the proposed move to replace a popular study area on the east side of the 5th floor with enclosed study rooms and a conference room, Selis shared the plans with Yeshiva College senior Reuven Herzog. After Glassman suggested that he gather data on the student body’s opinions on the plans, Herzog sent out a poll to students, to which almost 90 responded. Herzog then showed Glassman the results of the survey and a compromise was reached. Glassman communicated the students’ concerns to the project architect, and the plans were then changed so that the study rooms, which Glassman said were necessary during times of heavy library use such as finals and midterms, were eliminated, and a proposed conference room was moved to the other side of the floor, preserving the area frequented by students.

After seeing the completed renovations, Herzog stated, “I am happy that some of the students’ requests were listened to: the configuration of the tables was mostly retained, and outlets are now much more accessible...I hope the work is not done – we certainly need more reading chairs up here and I think all the white paint needs more contrast – but on the whole it seems good to me.”

“Overall I'm happy with the renovations. The improved lighting, windows and increased number of power outlets make the 5th floor much more conducive to research,” said Selis. “That said, I think there is too much empty space and more tables as well as study carrels are highly desirable.”

Glassman welcomed further student involvement in library decisions by imitating other university libraries and creating a position for a student representative on the newly created library advisory committee. According to Glassman, the committee, which was called for by the YU strategic plan, will advise him on issues relating to library services and developments, as well as help him receive feedback on library services.

*An earlier version of this article featured a headline that misrepresented the name of the Mendel Gottesman Library as the Wilf Library. The headline has since been updated.

Photo credit: Yeshiva University Twitter