Facing two new lawsuits and vociferous protests from numerous scholars and critics, the New York Public Library (NYPL) has decided to take a step back and re-evaluate its proposed renovation plans for the iconic 5th Avenue branch.
In December, Foster + Partners unveiled renderings of the new circulating library to be housed in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building with an ambiguous price tag of $300 million. This costly overhaul of the historic Beaux-Arts branch called for the removal of seven tiers of stacks beneath the Rose Main Reading Room to make way for a new circulating library. NYPL’s controversial “Central Library Plan” would consolidate the Mid-Manhattan and Innovative Science, Industry, and Business libraries within the main branch on 42nd Street and transfer roughly three million books from its research collection to storage space beneath Bryant Park and to off-site locations in New Jersey.
“We also believe the removal of the stacks and relocation of books will create a situation that is really negative for people trying to use the library in a research capacity,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of Historic Districts Council and member of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library. “It is really a crippling blow to the purpose of the building.”
The funding for this ambitious undertaking would come from a mix of public and private sources. So far the library has secured $150 million from the city, and hopes the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library and Science Library will generate an additional $200 million.
“We don’t trust the numbers that the library is throwing around. Where is the oversight and where is the accountability?” said Bankoff.
At a hearing on June 27, State Assemblyman Micah Z. Kellner, chair of the Assembly Committee on Libraries and Education Technology, listened to roughly 50 people voice their concerns about the merger of the three branches. Acknowledging the public’s misgivings about the hefty and somewhat vague cost of the renovation, NYPL president Tony Marx said that the library would initiate and provide independent cost reviews. The NYPL has committed to exploring several options, including cost estimates for renovating the stacks and Mid-Manhattan Library, and a third review of the larger renovation project to be updated once again by Foster + Partners.
“All projects, especially projects this large and complex, go through an iterative process,” said NYPL official Ken Weine. “Come fall we’ll have a new design from Foster + Partners.”
When the library filed for building permits in early June prior to the completion of the public review process, it prompted several scholars and preservationists to take legal action with the help of the law firm Advocates for Justice. The aim of the lawsuit against the NYPL is to avert plans to permanently alter the historic building, which the plaintiffs contend will betray the mission of the institution and play to the interests of private developers.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs make the case that the NYPL has breached its promise to keep public books at the library, violated New Yorkers’ constitutional right to have access to information, and failed to take proper measures to assess environmental impact. They also argue that the library trustees have breached their fiduciary duties by not considering other options to ease financial concerns in addition to abandoning the charter to keep the books on site.
A second lawsuit was filed on July 10 by another group of critics and preservationists, including authors Edmund Morris and Annalyn Swan along with a library advocacy group, Citizens Defending Libraries. These plaintiffs have filed an injunction to halt construction and removal of the stacks. This lawsuit focuses on a 1978 Agreement between the Library, City, and New York State that, according to the plaintiffs, prohibits any “structural alteration of the Central Branch” without approval from the state first.