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Borough Hall atrium first face-lift since ‘40

Comptroller John Liu (l.-r.), Borough President Helen Marshall, Design Department Deputy Commissioner David Resnick and Edna Wells Handy, Department of Citywide Administrative Services head, unveil a plaque commemorating The Forum. Photo by Rich Bockmann
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They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but maybe the ancient city’s founders would have moved a little quicker if they had had to deal with the December weather in Queens.

Comfortably shielded from the wet, raw weather outside, officials gathered at Borough Hall Monday for the soft opening of The Forum, an 11,000-square-foot enclosed courtyard behind the classical-style building.

“The forum in ancient Rome was the center of civic life,” said David Resnick, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Design and Construction. “It was an outdoor space. Obviously, if we were gathered here before this space was here, we’d be very uncomforta­ble.”

Resnick said just six months ago there was nothing more than a dirt field between Borough Hall’s two rear wings, but the design department and its partners had worked on an accelerated schedule to enclose the three-story courtyard with its vaulted roof and floating canopy.

“It gives you a sense of what this space is going to be,” he said.

Borough President Helen Marshall said her office put aside $23.7 million toward the design and construction of The Forum, which is set to be completed early next year after she has left the office.

“When I first became borough president, I envisioned a public space that would truly reflect the greatness of this borough,” Marshall said. “For decades, public hearings and other public events were held in cramped and unimproved quarters upstairs. No more!

“Now, for the first time, the people of Queens will have a fitting space in our county seat of government,” she added. “In fact, this atrium is the first major addition to Queens Borough Hall since it opened more than 70 years ago.”

When Borough Hall was built during the Great Depression, planners facing budget constraints were forced to construct the center of the borough’s civic life on the cheap, leaving out amenities such as elevators and a large gathering space.

For large events such as her annual State of the Borough address, the borough president often has to seek out other spaces in Queens.

The atrium’s construction was not without controversy, as Borough Hall was criticized last year when arborists felled a number of cherry trees that formerly lined the courtyard. The city said new trees will be planted along both sides of the atrium space to visually connect the interior and exterior landscapes, and those in attendance Monday said they could not wait to see the place in action.

“They often say you can travel the whole world without leaving Queens,” city Comptroller John Liu said. “Sometimes you have to travel the whole world just to find a good meeting space.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Posted 12:00 am, December 13, 2013
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