May 8, 2014

In a major reversal, NYPL to let the stacks live and keep Mid-Manhattan


NYPL exteriorThe New York Public Library has abandoned a plan to transform the flagship 42nd Street research library and sell the Mid-Manhattan Library. According to a New York Times report by Robin Pogrebin, who broke the story, the so-called “Central Library Plan” is off: The Mid-Manhattan Library will be retained and renovated, and the research collection, parts of which have been moved to off-site storage, will be returned to the library. The original plan called for millions of volumes in the research collection to be permanently stored in New Jersey.

The abrupt change is a major victory for critics of the library’s radical renovation plan. The Central Library Plan dates from as far back as 2007: it was a massive and controversial scheme to construct a new circulating library inside the 42nd Street library, designed by marquee architect Norman Foster, with the new library space replacing the Mid-Manhattan Library (on 40th Street and 5th Avenue) and the Science, Industry, and Business Library (on 34th Street and Madison Avenue). The plan would have been been partially funded by the sale of the two library buildings to private developers. (In the revised plan, the science library will still be sold.) In total, it was expected to cost between $300 and $350 million. The scrapping of the plan is major news.

The Times cites several trustees as saying that a new study, which has not been made public, “showed the cost of renovating the 42d Street building to be more than expected.”

The paper also gets a quote from Tony Marx, NYPL’s president: “When the facts change, the only right thing to do as a public-serving institution is to take a look with fresh eyes and see if there is a way to improve the plans and to stay on budget.”

The fate of the library’s plan has been in doubt for months, with New York’s City Council, according to one source, putting pressure on the NYPL to keep the Mid-Manhattan Library. And it seems the issue came to a head during the current budget process. The city budget is set to be finalized on Thursday, and, according to news reports, it will contain $150 million for the NYPL’s modified plan, funding that was perhaps contingent on scrapping plans to sell Mid-Manhattan

I’ve been posting about the NYPL controversy since 2011, when Scott Sherman’s authoritative essay “Upheaval at The New York Public Library” in The Nation first detailed the forward momentum of the Central Library Plan. The news that the library has called off its plan has come as something of a shock to the library’s critics, but the scrapping of the controversial plan has long seemed inevitable for at least one reason: the math never worked.

As the novelist and critic Caleb Crain detailed in an essay called “Finding numbers for Plan B,” a close consideration of the cost estimates behind the library’s plan never really made sense. The various operational savings that were promised didn’t really past muster, and it turned out that NYPL had only vague ideas about what its huge plan might cost. What Crain called “Plan B” in 2012 has turned out to be library’s new course, nearly exactly, and Crain deserves a lot of credit for poking holes in the math.

Just to press the point, have a glance at this snippet from Crain’s essay:

Suppose, on the other hand, that the library switches to Plan B and the city lets the library keep all of the $150 million allocated to it, and suppose that renovation of MML costs only $150 million … In that case, Plan B would add $70 million to the endowment, and Plan B would improve the bottom line by $6.5 million a year.

If you know the figures involved here, the above is somewhat amazing. The city has now allocated $150 million to the library for a modified plan to keep Mid-Manhattan, though NYPL said this would never happen without the ambitious architecture. And it looks like Crain’s $150 million estimate for a Mid-Manhattan renovation turns out to be right: the Wall Street Journal reported today that the cost for the renovation would be less than the library’s most recent estimate of $180 million. It might even turn out to be true that Crain was right about the operational savings of Plan B—$6.5 million—which would be significant, too, as the costly and destructive course set by the library was only ever intended to save about $7 million a year.

What now?

A post by Scott Sherman at The Nation questions the cost that the renovation plans have incurred the library thus far. The Times reports that “$9 million in private funds” have been paid to Norman Foster’s architecture firm. Hundreds of thousands more have been spent on various consultants. It would seem that the library’s leadership must openly account for these costs, as well as for the deep secrecy with which it has operated. As Sherman writes “One suspects that the de Blasio administration pushed the NYPL in the direction of cancelling the plan; let’s hope the Mayor and his team clarify the rest of the story soon.”


Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.