Victory for Manhattan’s Midtown Libraries

By Genevieve Belmaker, Epoch Times
May 9, 2014 7:22 am Last Updated: May 9, 2014 7:22 am

NEW YORK—For the first time in a while there is a sense of compromise over the controversial New York Public Library renovation plans, although the details still need to be hammered out.

The NYPL had planned to consolidate one of the country’s most highly trafficked circulating libraries, in mid-Manhattan on 40th Street, into the storied Fifth Avenue building just across the street. Their plan also involved moving the prized century-old research stacks.

NYPL President Tony Marx announced Wednesday that the much-maligned plan would be revised. A revised version will soon be presented to politicians, community leaders, and advocates.

“We see this as a victory for the public, for common sense and for the preservation of our public assets,” wrote Michael White, an advocate with Citizens Defending Libraries on the group’s website after the announcement.

Marx said in a statement that the change of heart came after a review of programmatic, design, and cost elements of the plan. Only broad details of the alternative plan are currently available.

The change was a hopeful note in an ongoing battle of ideals over best practices for the city’s libraries. It also came just one day before Mayor Bill de Blasio, in his first executive budget released Thursday, promised to end the annual “budget dance” that has left libraries perpetually scrambling for funds.

“We’re in a much better place with this mayor than with the previous administration,” said City Council member Costa Constantinides of Queens on Thursday. Constantinides is chair of the sub-committee on libraries. “This mayor has taken out a lot of the budget dance.”

Though the City Council is still trying to restore $65 million to make sure all libraries are open 6 days a week, the prospects of success are good.

According to Constantinides, the difference with the new administration is simply that they aren’t playing games with public assets like libraries.

“It’s much less of a dance—there is no dance,” he said following de Blasio’s announcement that he intends to end budget practices that, in the mayor’s words, have “obstructed fiscal progress and responsibility in past years.”

As for NYPL’s plan, Constantinides said he looks forward to reviewing the details in a sit-down meeting between de Blasio, Marx, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and others. A date for the meeting has not been set yet. But Constantinides is taking it as a cue that the debate has turned a corner.

“I think they definitely heard the community, they heard the concerns of many of the activists and officials who do not want to see the Midtown library disappear,” he said.

Community Board 5, which supported NYPL’s original plans, also issued a statement Thursday saying that it is waiting for a sit-down briefing about changes. The community board had previously stood behind the renovation plans.

In a Jan. 17 resolution, the board voted in support of the implementation of the plan, while citing concerns over “distinct needs in this time of fiscal austerity.”

Just a year ago, libraries citywide faced a $106.7 million budget-funding shortfall. NYPL had hoped to address some of those concerns by consolidating their mid-Manhattan branch and moving it into the landmark Fifth Avenue location across the street.

But the cost of the renovation would have been 20 times higher than the citywide average, according to the city’s Department of Design and Construction. The proposed renovation would have cost about $3,500 per square foot, or about $350 million for the total renovation. The average cost of library renovations runs about $660 per square foot.

Precious Research Stacks
One of the strongest objections to the renovation has come from the scholarly community. The Fifth Avenue building is home to a renowned collection of 300,000 research items in special collection rooms. The total research material is housed in four centers, including Fifth Avenue (or the Stephen Schwarzman building), as well as in a climate-controlled environment under Bryant Park.

There are 1.2 million additional items on the first level of Bryant Park storage. About 3 million books that could fit into the central stacks in the seven floors below the Rose Main Reading Room were previously moved for preservation. They’re currently either off-site or on the first level of Bryant Park.

NYPL is now building out a second, bottom level of the Bryant Park stacks.

Students, independent scholars, authors, and researchers are among those who use the library’s research material. It differs from other research libraries in that anyone with a legitimate research purpose can gain access, regardless of affiliation.

As for the library’s still-uncertain future, Constantinides has newfound optimism about the road ahead.

“I think we’re in a much better place, there are a lot of positives to the plans,” he said.