February 17, 2018

NYPL Ditches Controversial Renovation Plans in Midtown Manhattan

Schwarzman BuildingIn a major about face, the New York Public Library (NYPL) backed off its renovation plans for the system’s iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building as of May 7. Rather than eliminating the stacks at the central library—a decision that had caused no small consternation among New Yorkers, including newly minted mayor Bill de Blasio—NYPL representatives are now offering an alternative plan that leaves the building’s research collection on-site, ending plans to sell the Mid-Manhattan library across the street and relocate the circulating collection into the 42nd Street main branch, and making renovations to the Mid-Manhattan instead.

“When the facts change the only right thing to do as a public-serving institution is to take a look with fresh eyes and see if there is a way to improve the plans and to stay on budget,” NYPL president and CEO Tony Marx said in a statement. ”That’s why months ago we began a review of all programmatic, design and cost elements of the renovation plan and why we are now proposing an alternative plan that we believe will best meet our original goals.”

For more on this topic, see an opinion piece by NYPL CEO Anthony Marx on why the system is changing the central library plan.

The original renovation plan called for the sale of the Mid-Manhattan branch, and the elimination of the stacks in the Schwarzman Building beneath the library’s reading room. Many of the books in the world-class research collection—which is not open to the public, but requires library staff to retrieve titles from the seven story underground structure—would have been moved to a storage facility in New Jersey.

Since it was first announced in 2008, that plan proved unpopular with stakeholders throughout the city.It was the subject of no less than three separate lawsuits aimed at putting a hold on the renovations. In addition to community activists, New York authors like Art Spiegelman and Junot Diaz lent their voices to the chorus calling for a rethinking of the renovation. For members of organizations like the Committee to Save New York Public Library, the news of NYPL’s volte-face marked a victory in their years-long fight to preserve the stacks in the Schwarzman Building.

“I was just delighted to hear they’ve made this decision. It’s really a step forward if they’re going to keep the stacks, because it means that it’s possible to explore the options for bringing them back into full use,” CSNYPL president and architectural historian Charles Warren told LJ. “It’s important that the library continue to provide a university class research library, which is a great resource to the city.”

The alternative plan will still result in a big renovation—just not in the originally planned location. Now, NYPL’s Mid-Manhattan branch—on the opposite corner, at 40th Street and 5th Avenue—will be getting the lion’s share of the coming facelift, which is set to include a new adult education center and expanded space for computer labs. Under the new plan, the Mid-Manhattan branch, which is the largest circulating branch of the NYPL, and the Schwarzman Building will be more integrated, acting as a midtown “campus” for the system.

That pivot from NYPL doesn’t mean that nothing will change in the Schwarzman Building, though. Smaller scale renovations at that building will continue under the alternative plan, opening up long-closed rooms of the landmark building (only about 25 percent of the space is open to the public currently) But the departure of the library’s collection for an off-site storage facility, long the most controversial aspect of the original proposal, has been scrubbed.

That doesn’t mean the books will stay exactly where they are, though. Rather than making the move to the Garden State, plans call for the books to be removed from the stacks and placed in an expanded storage facility beneath neighboring Bryant Park.

“By more than doubling the storage capacity on site underneath Bryant Park, we can provide adequate humidity and temperature conditions for the research collection at less than half the cost—$24 million less—of doing so in the central stacks,” NYPL president and CEO Anthony Marx to LJ in an email. “That’s $24 million more to hire library staff and to buy books.”

Warren, however questions whether even expanded storage in nearby Bryant Park will be able to accommodate the entire collection, something he says is a key to the branch continuing to function as it was intended, with even rarely requested books on hand for perusal by scholars and researchers. “The collection is not a best seller list,” said Warren. “It’s a deep, rich compendium of the world’s knowledge, and scholars need access to those books.”

Warren also levied a familiar criticism at the new plan—that the process that went into creating it lacked transparency and public input, saying that, as with the initial plan, NYPL representatives are “just revealing what it is they’ve decided to do, rather than discussing with critics and the public what they want to do.”

Marx flatly denied that charge, saying that the renovation plans have been discussed for years at public forums, board meetings that are open to the public, and feedback from critics like Warren. “The plan,” Marx told LJ, “has changed and improved precisely because of this feedback.”

Despite changes to the plan, NYPL sources report that the $150 million from the city of New York is still budgeted for the project. NYPL, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Library were all winners when Mayor de Blasio announced his new budget for New York City. The $20.6 billion package includes significant gains for libraries, with each of the city’s three systems receiving a funding increase of more than 20 percent.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.



  1. Charles Warren is quite right to express doubts about NYPL’s claims that the research collection from the stacks can be accommodated in the expanded storage space beneath Bryant Park. Until recently, the building housed over 4.2 million volumes of the library’s 8.2 million vol. collection. The stacks held 3 – 3.5 million books according to CEO Anthony Marx, while 1.2 m volumes were housed in the top floor of BPSE (the Bryant Park Stacks Extension) and 300,000 – 400,00 vols. in other parts of the building. Marx has been saying for 2 years that the second floor of BPSE (which has the same footprint as the top level except for a small amount of office space) could hold 1.5 m volumes. This week NYPL reversed its plan to demolish the stacks because of the threat of losing $150 million in city funds if it continued its previous course. Once the funding was secured, Marx announced that the stacks would stay only, that they had actually only ever held 2.5 million books, and that the second floor of BPSE would be able to hold 2.5 million volumes and not the 1.5 million he’d previously claimed. At present these surprising new figures are unverifiable, since NYPL has refused to allow any public oversight of its internal documents. Given NYPL’s recent history of issuing misleading statements in support of demolition plans, these new figures are not immediately convincing. Now that the $350 million demolition plan is off the table, why shouldn’t the library spend $46 million (the library’s own estimate) to upgrade the outdated HVAC system in the stacks, allowing the displaced books to be returned to the building for easy access by researchers? Any additional storage under Bryant Park (price tag $22 m) would be a welcome bonus. The problems with offsite storage are 1. speed of access (books take 1-3 books to arrive, not the 24 hours the library claims); 2. risk of damage to the books from all the extra transportation – the ReCAP is 90 minutes’ drive from NYPL; 3. storage and transportation fees paid to the remote site. The NYPL’s lack of transparency throughout the planning process has been just shameful. No wonder the NYPL Board of Trustees was included in the Wall Street Journal’s recent article on trustees who are out of touch with the values of the institutions they are charged with serving (“Clueless at the Corcoran” http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304914204579395470907581650).

  2. It is simply incredible (literally–as in “not credible”) that the stacks are being left empty.

    If the powers-that-be at NYPL *really* wanted to “change and improve the plan” to benefit the public–which happens to include all those writers and researchers, graduate students, teachers, small businessmen, and the many others who rely on the Central Research Library as well as people who depend on great circulating libraries like Mid-Manhattan–they and Mr. Marx would have opted for the obvious: simply bring the existing environmental controls, which are 30 years old, up to date and return millions more books to the stacks under the Reading Room, where they belong, instead of keeping them in New Jersey. The 42nd Street Library was designed–in 1911!–to meet the public’s need for (non-circulating) reading and research materials with a retrieval system that until relatively recently was unsurpassed in speed and efficiency.

    The fact that Mr. Marx consistently refuses to address this issue suggests that he and the NYPL board of trustees envision some future for the stacks that they haven’t yet worked out, but about which they are far from willing to be “transparent.” Given their record on transparency so far, there seems reason to worry about Mr. Marx’s bland assurances that all is now well.