Public Institutions In Private Developments: Plans For a Smaller, If Sleeker, Donnell Library Reveal Trade-offs

The old Donnell Library.

The old Donnell Library.

These last few years have been challenging ones for both the New York and Brooklyn public libraries. Anemic funding and dwindling resources have collided not only with the need to repair many aging structures, but also to retrofit them to meet changing technology requirements. The combination of lean budgets and growing needs have, without a doubt, created a mounting financial crisis.

The question is how to fix it. For the libraries, one of the more popular strategies of late has been selling buildings and land to developers in exchange for some cash and a space in the condo tower that will be built on the parcel. Recently, plans to sell two libraries in Brooklyn have stirred up controversy, with local residents protesting that the sales are a bad deal for both taxpayers and library patrons.As the debate continues to rage over whether the Brooklyn Public Library is getting a good deal by swapping its Brooklyn Heights and Pacific Street branches for new facilities in private developments, plans for the Donnell Library Center on West 53rd Street that were recently revealed in The New York Times suggest what those trade-offs might actually look like in practice.

Though the two library systems, and the details of each development deal are distinct, plans for the new Donnell Library Center—sleeker, smaller and subterranean, and with possibly a different name—share more than a few similarities with the future Brooklyn Heights and Pacific Street branches.

The Donnell Library Center’s rebirth also highlights some of the difficulties and problems with relying on a developer to rebuild an existing civic institution. The library, which closed in 2008, was to have been located at street level in the base of an 11-story Orient-Express Hotel, which bought the property from the library for $59 million. After the plans fell apart during the recession, the library worked out a deal with the following developer—Starwood Capital—and secured space in the bottom of the 50-story luxury tower.

But the new deal was not quite as favorable; in addition to having its opening delayed until the end of 2015 (a full 7 years after the popular branch’s closure), two of the library’s three floors will be underground. It will also be much smaller, shrinking from some 97,000 square feet to 28,000, even if the World Languages collection, which was housed in the old Donnell Library, is now located in a different branch and the teen room and media center will be eliminated. (The New York Public Library argues that even though Donnell’s footprint has been diminished, the World Languages Collection, teen room and media centers have all been relocated to other, more accessible locations, so in essence, nothing has been lost.)

The new branch is expected to cost the New York Public Library $20 million to build, eating up a good chunk of the profit from the sale. Additional funds have been used to pay for a temporary library space on East 46th Street, raising a question of how much the library really gained financially in the deal (the sale provided significant funds that were not only needed for Donnell, but also capital projects, according to the library.)

In a similar situation, the Brooklyn Heights branch will also shrink considerably from its 60,000 square feet, though the Brooklyn Public Library has argued that the library is mostly losing storage space. The business library that it once housed is also being relocated.

Perhaps the libraries are simply doing the best they can with limited resources—as a recent study from the Center for an Urban Future highlighted, funding has gone down at the same time that library attendance has soared. Still, given that libraries are more popular than ever, creating smaller spaces in largely subterranean real estate hardly seems like a way to celebrate their resurgence. Nor does architect Enrique Norten’s emphasis on the library as a place to hang out, with a huge auditorium and stairs for lounging, quite seem like the best use of the library’s much reduced footprint.