June 2, 2014

Now they tell us: NYPL admits that the Central Library Plan would have cost $200 million more than estimated


NYPL exterior

In an article in the New York Times on Sunday, Robin Pogrebin reports that the New York Public Library has at last admitted what critics of the now-defunct Central Library Plan had long suspected: the cost of the plan would likely have far exceeded $300 million figure the library had originally estimated.

Officials, for the first time, revealed that the original plan, mostly scrapped last month in large part because of questions about the price tag, would actually have cost more than $500 million, according to independent estimates they commissioned last June.

Among the many questions this revelation raises is when library officials knew this information and why it wasn’t made public earlier. Did the library have these numbers even as it went ahead with emptying the stacks, and trying to drum up or lobby into being support for the plan? Pogrebin’s article is mum on this, nor do the estimates appear to have been made available for public scrutiny. In short, it’s an admission very much in keeping with the way the NYPL conducted the entire renovation program to begin with: move along folks, there’s nothing to see here, except that $200,000,000+ we might have accidentally been about to spend.

NYPL President Anthony Marx’s on-the-record comments about the library’s change in direction have been primarily focused on putting a positive spin on things. Just after the announcement that the library wouldn’t go ahead with the major changes proposed in the CLP, he was interviewed by Boris Kachka for New York Magazine:

Your tenure at the library has been closely associated with this plan. Does this feel like a professional or personal setback for you? What does it mean for your legacy?

I’m actually really proud of what the trustees and library leadership have done here. This has obviously been a bit of a rough road. But what was inspiring was how this most recent chapter unfolded. Reviewing all of the data was an obvious step. The rigor of review was intensive for sure. But a good, exciting solution emerged, and once that happened the trustees were unflinching in pursuing that option, and we all feel good about where we ended up.

I’m as happy as the next New Yorker that the library is now pursuing renovations that are less destructive to an architectural masterpiece and may come in somewhere near the cost estimates, but the problem of the library’s lack of transparency remains. “A good, exciting solution” emerging and the trustees’ pursuit of that option tells us nothing about the timeline for this change in thinking, nor unfortunately does it seem to promise a change in the library’s engagement with the public: “we all feel good about where we ended up” is what you say when you don’t want to answer any more pesky questions about the past or the future.

But as Scott Sherman’s post mortem on the CLP for the Nation indicates, there are numerous questions left. Sherman lists four that need to be immediately addressed:

First, will Marx repair the decrepit Mid-Manhattan Library, or will he let it deteriorate even further so as to sell it down the road under a more developer-friendly mayor? Second, in 2013 the NYPL hastily removed 3 million books from the stacks in preparation for their demolition. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the stacks will remain empty, an unacceptable outcome for a building that was designed as a splendid machine for book storage and delivery. Marx should convene a public meeting in the library’s Celeste Bartos Forum to discuss the future of the stacks and the various alternatives for them. (He must also clarify how many books and photographs were damaged when the stacks were emptied.) Third, Norman Foster has already received $9 million for a design that was partly scrapped—a reckless disbursement of funds from a library system in chronic financial difficulty. Marx has refused to reveal the source of that money. Did it come from the NYPL, or from one or several of its trustees? Last, will the NYPL’s eighty-eight branch libraries, many of which are in poor neighborhoods, now receive the funds they need to flourish?

In Marx’s public statements so far, he has addressed only the first and fourth of these, outlining in the Times article a bit more about the library’s plans for the renovation of the Mid-Manhattan branch, as well as less drastic changes planned for the Schwarzman building, and saying that $177 million would be spent on the branch libraries. (It also remains disturbing how offhandedly the branch libraries are introduced in these statements: no indication of how that $177 million might be spent, or if it’s anywhere near enough for the branches’ needs.)

But Sherman’s suggestion for a public meeting to discuss the second question, the fate of the stacks, is a great idea – for one thing, it would be the first meeting of its kind in this whole process. It would also be a step towards greater transparency, a step the library needs to take: the administration’s credibility, despite Marx’s smooth, sunny responses, has been fundamentally shaken and New Yorkers deserve to have a voice in the direction the library takes from now on.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.