The Hidden History of New York City’s Central Library Plan | The Nation


The Hidden History of New York City’s Central Library Plan

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This May 20, 2011, photo shows the marble lion "Fortitude," one of a pair created by Edward Clark Potter in 1911, at the main entrance to the New York Public Library in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Alleen Brown, Luis Feliz and John Thomason contributed research to this article. 

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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The demise of the New York Public Library’s Central Library Plan is the end of a Bloomberg-era castle in the sky.

After public outcry, the library’s $300 million project to demolish stacks and sell off branch libraries has collapsed.

On the morning of February 1, Anthony Marx, president and CEO of the New York Public Library, met with a group of business and political leaders who had assembled in a majestic room inside the 42nd Street library. Marx was introduced by a prominent Manhattan real estate developer, William Rudin. Near the end of his spirited presentation, Marx digressed from library policy and asked his audience to buy commercial real estate in the vicinity of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street—the location of the Mid-Manhattan Library, which the NYPL is determined to sell under its Central Library Plan (CLP), the core of which envisions a colossal, $300 million–plus transformation of the 42nd Street library by the architect Norman Foster. 

The CLP has been the subject of mounting controversy for almost eighteen months. In the spring of 2012, hundreds of scholars and writers protested the NYPL’s scheme to remove 3 million books from 42nd Street—a backlash that prompted the NYPL to raise $8 million to build shelving for 1.5 million books under Bryant Park, behind the library. In December, the late architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable declared, in her final essay, that “after extensive study of the library’s conception and construction I have become convinced that irreversible changes of this magnitude should not be made in this landmark building.” On June 7, Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic of The New York Times, told New York magazine: “If you’re going to be spending untold millions on this plan, it better be what the city really, really needs. Otherwise, this will be considered one of the calamities of the city’s history, along with Penn Station.” 

On June 27, at a hearing sponsored by New York State Assemblyman Micah Kellner, Marx promised not only an independent audit of the CLP, but also an analysis of the costs of rehabilitating the nearby Mid-Manhattan Library instead, as critics have urged. In early July, two lawsuits were filed by scholars opposed to the CLP, and on July 12, the NYPL signed a legal document stipulating that it would not undertake construction or demolition work in the stacks area at 42nd Street at the present time. (In its rush to execute the CLP, the NYPL has already removed 3 million books from the stacks.) 

For two years, the NYPL has refused to discuss the CLP in detail, and many questions remain unanswered. How and why did one of the world’s greatest libraries get into the real estate business? How did the CLP, which was formulated between 2005 and early 2007, advance into late 2011 without any significant public debate or discussion? Who first conceived the idea of demolishing book stacks that were constructed by Carrère and Hastings in the first decade of the twentieth century? What role did the Bloomberg administration play in the creation of the CLP? Finally, what was the role of Booz Allen Hamilton—the gargantuan consulting firm whose tentacles reach into the defense, energy, transportation and financial service sectors—which was hired by the NYPL in 2007 to formulate what became known inside the trustee meetings as “the strategy”? 

Ten years of NYPL trustee meeting minutes, obtained by The Nation under the state’s Open Meetings Law, shed light on these questions and reveal the extent to which the CLP, from its inception, was characterized by secrecy and hubris. 

* * *

The trustee minutes are permeated by financial anxiety and fiscal uncertainty. The NYPL relies on New York City for much of its operating budget, but the city has refused to “baseline” (or normalize) library funding. Hence the annual “budget dance” that we’ve seen for years: the mayor proposes a massive cut to the NYPL budget, then the City Council steps in to restore much—though not all—of the funding. (In an election year, the process can be smoother and less punishing.) It’s a dance that rarely serves the NYPL’s best interests: between 2007 and 2010, the library endured a 19 percent reduction in city funding. Indeed, financial stress in 2005 led the NYPL, in a controversial move, to sell one of its most valuable paintings, Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits. It also sold two portraits of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, as well as other paintings in its collection. 

The NYPL’s financial difficulties are aggravated by its size and structure: the city pays 79 percent of the cost of running the eighty-seven branch libraries but provides only 21 percent of the revenue for the four research libraries, of which 42nd Street is the most prominent. The research libraries are largely supported by private philanthropy and an endowment. Sustaining them has been a long-term challenge for the NYPL’s leaders. “People don’t understand how under-endowed the NYPL is,” says trustee Robert Darnton. “The endowment isn’t even a billion dollars, which for a huge organization simply is not adequate.” 

If the NYPL’s annual operating budget is uncertain, so is its capital budget: the branch libraries, according to Marx, require up to $1 billion in repairs; but New York City has no systematic process for fixing and upgrading those buildings, many of which are in very poor condition. In a July 3 interview, Marx insisted that the branch libraries remain an urgent priority, and he has launched a private fundraising campaign to assist them. Still, the disparity between the 42nd Street library, which has received at least $65 million for renovations since 1995, and the dismal condition of many branch libraries is generating questions. On August 5, the Daily News highlighted the plight of the Macomb’s Bridge branch, which is located in a Harlem housing project and has only fourteen chairs in a 700-square-foot space. 

In late 2005 and early 2006, the trustees began to ponder expansive questions about the NYPL’s future and approved the creation of an ad hoc committee “tasked with considering the Library’s evolution over the next five to ten years.” 

In January 2007, Booz Allen Hamilton was hired to assist the trustees with “the strategy.” On February 7, the trustees went into executive session (the substance of which is never covered in the minutes) to discuss “certain real estate…matters.” Booz Allen appears to have finished its work by May, because the board held two “special meetings” the following month (June 6 and June 28), at which the strategy was unveiled and discussed. (At this time, First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris was told of it, and she and her colleagues expressed “initial enthusiasm.” NYPL officials also met with Mayor Bloomberg in 2007.) 

At the first special meeting, Paul LeClerc, the NYPL’s president from 1993 to July 2011, presented the “pillars” of the strategy. A crucial pillar entailed “transforming the Library’s physical footprint”—bureaucratic language for the sale of NYPL real estate and the remaking of the 42nd Street library. But why would the NYPL want to sell its own real estate? Its leaders have insisted for two years that consolidation and efficiency were always the central ideas behind the CLP; the trustee minutes state in passing, and without elaboration, that the strategy was developed to address the library’s “structural deficits.” And so the NYPL decided, in the words of David Offensend, its powerful chief operating officer, on a plan of action that entailed the “monetizing of non-core assets.” (The other pillars of the strategy included the strengthening of the NYPL’s digital presence, “encouraging innovation” and “securing the Library’s financial future.”) 

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