The Hidden History of New York City’s Central Library Plan
The NYPL is known for its institutional sluggishness. But the minutes show that the trustees moved swiftly in 2007. Offensend, at the first special meeting, reminded the trustees that “Booz Allen, based on its extensive experience with large organizations, recommended that the strategy be implemented as soon as it is approved by the Trustees.” Three weeks later, the trustees passed a resolution approving the new strategic direction, and board chair Catherine Marron, who served in that capacity from 2004 to 2011, noted “the crucial assistance provided to the effort by consultants Booz Allen Hamilton.”
During the proceedings, Marron “reminded all in attendance of the importance of maintaining confidentiality.” Why did Marron, who did not respond to an interview request, urge confidentiality? The likely reason is this: the trustees were poised to undertake a pivotal decision, one that would evolve into a fiasco—the sale of the Donnell Library at 20 West 53rd Street, across from the Museum of Modern Art. It was a library cherished by generations of New Yorkers, one that served more than 700,000 people a year. At the end of the second special meeting, the trustees approved the sale of Donnell, on the condition that the NYPL retain a “core and shell suitable for housing a circulating library” on the site.
The Donnell Library’s fate became public months later, on November 7, when the Times reported that the NYPL had signed an agreement to sell the property and building to Orient-Express Hotels for $59 million. What necessitated the sale, LeClerc told the Times, was Donnell’s poor infrastructure—old elevators and outdated systems for air conditioning, heat and electricity. Patrons of Donnell responded with sadness and fury. A temporary replacement was established at 135 East 46th Street, for which the annual rent is $850,000, and to which the NYPL directed $4.65 million in renovation funds.
Were Booz Allen’s fingerprints on the sale of the Donnell Library and other “non-core assets” owned by the NYPL? In a recent interview, Offensend was tight-lipped about the NYPL’s association with Booz Allen, saying only: “The various real estate plans were all developed by the library prior to the engagement of Booz Allen. The primary reason that Booz Allen was retained was to help the library develop a broad strategic direction on a lot of different fronts.” (NYPL spokesman Ken Weine won’t release the documents that emerged from the NYPL’s partnership with Booz Allen, for which Booz received $2.7 million; nor will he make public documents produced by McKinsey & Company, which advised the NYPL from 2003 to 2004 and again in 2007.)
Likewise, was it Booz Allen (or McKinsey) that urged the NYPL to demolish the Carrère and Hastings stacks in order to make way for a modern computer library beneath the Rose Reading Room at 42nd Street? That idea, Offensend said, was first discussed at a meeting between himself and three top NYPL librarians—one of whom was David Ferriero, appointed Archivist of the United States by President Obama in 2009, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
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Central to the strategy was the sale of the Science, Industry and Business Library, which opened on Madison Avenue in 1996, and the decrepit but bustling Mid-Manhattan Library. Under the CLP, the services of both facilities would be transferred, in ways that have yet to be explained by Marx, to 42nd Street after the stacks were removed. The trustees knew they had embarked on a huge undertaking at 42nd Street: the minutes refer to the “complexity, uniqueness and duration of the proposed Central Library Building Project.” In late 2007, Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic, became an adviser to the NYPL’s architect selection committee.
For a while, in late 2007 and 2008, the strategy seemed to be on track. With Donnell presumably secure in the hands of Orient-Express, NYPL leaders focused their attention on the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library, for which they had high hopes. On May 14, 2008, Marshall Rose, a longtime trustee and the NYPL’s in-house real estate guru, informed the trustees that the library had “entered into confidentiality agreements with 35 parties interested in receiving the offering memorandum” for Mid-Manhattan. Other encouraging news arrived. City capital funds for the 42nd Street renovation were starting to flow: $15 million was promised by the City Council in July 2008.
But dark clouds were gathering as well: the economy was shaky, and Orient-Express was in distress. The trustee minutes for October 6, 2008, note: “Marshall Rose reported…that the purchaser, Orient-Express…likely will not be able to close on the scheduled closing date, given the recent disruption in the credit markets. Mr. Rose stated, however, that he believed this was simply a question of timing and that he expected the closing to go forward.” Rose, who did not respond to interview requests, was mistaken: in early 2009, Orient-Express announced that it could not complete the deal, leaving the NYPL with an empty library on 53rd Street. But the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library still seemed viable. On October 6, 2008, the trustees learned that it had a special meaning for one of the presidential candidates: “The Chairman [remarked] that Barack Obama…credited the Mid-Manhattan Library…in his efforts many years ago to find work as a community organizer.” Minutes later, they voted to sell it, but the deal was doomed—the buyer backed out as the financial crisis deepened.
The scheme for 42nd Street advanced nevertheless. On October 23, 2008, the Times reported that Norman Foster had been selected as the architect for the project. But Foster’s plan for 42nd Street would also be derailed, at least for a time, by the economic turmoil. The trustee minutes for 2009 are largely silent about the NYPL’s sundry real estate transactions. Instead, there was much somber discussion of austerity, cutbacks and layoffs. “A number of the Library’s endowment funds are ‘underwater,’” board chair Marron reported on September 16, 2009. On November 18, 2009, the trustees were told that 8 percent of the NYPL workforce had been eliminated, and that spending for branch library materials had been reduced by 25 percent and for research library materials by 35 percent.
The gap between the NYPL’s grandiose ambitions and ground-level economic realities was starkly evident at the meeting of February 10, 2010, at which Marron reported that Mayor Bloomberg “has allocated $50 million in City capital funds” for the CLP. But the applause must have been fleeting, because at the same time the mayor proposed a $38 million cut in the NYPL’s operating funding for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011. A cut of that size led the trustees to ponder a doomsday scenario: the layoff of one-third of the NYPL’s staff, the closing of ten branch libraries and a drastic reduction of library hours. (The worst did not come to pass: $28 million of the funding was restored.) Meanwhile, the real estate faction on the board kept itself busy: in May 2011, the trustees voted to sell floors three through seven of the Science, Industry and Business Library for $60.8 million; the library still retains the bottom three floors.
By early 2011, the Foster plan was uncertain: nearly four years after the strategy was approved, the city had promised only $60 million in capital funding. On June 29, 2011, LeClerc, just back from City Hall, burst into the NYPL’s executive suite: “Here’s the news,” he declared in the presence of a Nation reporter. “We got the $100 million from the city.” (LeClerc then turned to the reporter, asking, “Are you a friendly reporter?”) LeClerc, who did not respond to requests for an interview, was days away from retirement, and it was the outcome he had wished for: the city’s total allocation for the CLP would amount to $151 million. Still, he had no illusions about the NYPL’s financial predicament. At the trustee meeting of February 9, 2011, LeClerc had emphasized “the challenges in public sector funding for the Library that seem unlikely to abate anytime soon.”
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