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

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

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

Why did one of the world’s greatest libraries adopt a $300 million transformation without any real public debate?


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)

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.”)

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

In early December 2011, The Nation revealed the contours and scale of the CLP and gave voice to critics of the plan [see Sherman, “Upheaval at the New York Public Library,” December 19, 2011]. Two months later, on February 15, 2012, the trustees decided to initiate “a public engagement process” to allow citizens to comment on the CLP. But at the close of the meeting, they authorized Foster to move ahead with the schematic design for 42nd Street.

News of the CLP was spreading. On March 12, 2012, radio host Leonard Lopate of WNYC devoted a segment of his talk show to the NYPL. On April 7, Garrison Keillor satirized Marx & Co. on A Prairie Home Companion. The historian Joan Scott circulated a protest letter that drew many hundreds of distinguished names from around the world. The trustees hit the accelerator. The minutes for May 16, 2012, state: “Dr. Marx reported that the ‘listening process’ will continue during the coming months but noted the importance of also moving forward with discussions with F+P Architects.”

On December 19, 2012, the NYPL held a press conference at which Foster himself unveiled his vision for 42nd Street. The critical response was scathing. Even NYPL adviser Paul Goldberger didn’t care for the design. “The result,” he wrote on, “comes off looking vaguely corporate, and more than a little like a department store.” Foster, who has thus far received $7.9 million, has been sent back to work on the design. Marx told WNYC’s Lopate on July 24 that “we’ve gone back to the drawing board.”

And that empty library across from the Museum of Modern Art? After Orient-Express pulled out in 2009, the property was sold to Tribeca Associates and Starwood Capital Group, which are currently building a fifty-story hotel and residential structure on the site; the penthouse apartment has been advertised for $60 million. In May 2012, the NYPL unveiled its design for the new (and smaller) Donnell, which is set to open late in 2015. Old resentments resurfaced. “The proposed replacement for the Donnell Library,” Sonia Collins wrote in a letter to the Times, “is not truly a ‘library’ but a grand staircase leading to an empty, bookless room in the basement of a luxury high rise.” Even the NYPL’s peers have joined the critical backlash: a senior executive of the Brooklyn Public Library—which is separate from the NYPL and has announced its own plan to sell branch libraries to real estate developers—recently told Library Journal’s Norman Oder that the NYPL’s experience with the Donnell Library sale constituted “a disaster.”

But Offensend is serene; he is satisfied with the $59 million that the NYPL received in the deal. Still, renovating the new Donnell will cost the NYPL $20 million. And if he could do the Donnell sale over again, “I wouldn’t do it differently,” Offensend says. “I think it will turn out to be a fantastic improvement in service for the patrons of NYPL. The new plans have been very well received by the community.”

* * *

What lessons are to be drawn from the CLP? First, transparency is essential when public libraries are planning immense transformations. A striking counterpoint is the Seattle Public Library, which remade its system in the late 1990s in a remarkably transparent way. According to New School professor Shannon Mattern, who writes about libraries, Seattle City Librarian Deborah Jacobs held more than a hundred meetings with the public to solicit a wide range of input, and Seattle residents were invited to join ten public work groups. Nothing like this occurred at the NYPL. Marx asserted in February that the CLP “has been the subject of public discussion for five years.” But the decision by the trustees to sell Donnell in June 2007 without any public consultation makes a mockery of that claim.

Second, librarians must be involved in library policy. The NYPL’s staff was mostly excluded from the conception and execution of the CLP, and excessive power was concentrated in the hands of two men with no library training, both of whom provided continuity between the LeClerc and Marx regimes: Marshall Rose and David Offensend. The former is a wealthy real estate developer; the latter worked in finance before coming to the NYPL in 2004.

Third, New York needs a more robust debate about library funding. A January report by the Center for an Urban Future, “Branches of Opportunity,” has already laid the groundwork for such a discussion. District Council 37 of the public employees union AFSCME, which represents some NYPL workers, has called for 2.5 percent of existing citywide property tax assessments to be directed to libraries—money that would allow for permanent baseline funding.

Finally, public research libraries must be preserved and defended. People around the world cherish the New York Public Library for its intellectual vibrancy, its tranquillity and its utterly democratic orientation. The city has other fine research libraries, but only the NYPL is free and open to all—a fact that has animated and energized critics of the NYPL’s current leadership, many of them independent scholars and writers without an institutional home. Those critics and others, including librarians, insist that the NYPL should not be undermined by real estate deals, corporate logic or phony populism. And they are right.

See Scott Sherman’s previous reports on the NYPL crisis, from the December 19, 2011, and the May 6, 2013, issues.

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