NYPL Dumps Much-Maligned 42nd Street Renovation Plan

(Jeffrey/flickr.)

The stacks will stay. (Jeffrey/flickr.)

In an unexpected turn of events, the New York Public Library has abandoned a controversial plan to renovate the main branch of the library on 42nd Street, a move that would have hollowed out the core of the structure, removing the historic research stacks underneath the main reading room and replacing them with an airy public space and circulating library.

Instead, the NYPL will renovate the system’s largest circulating library—the Mid-Manhattan–which was to have been shuttered and sold under the old plan, leaving the stacks at the main branch intact, according to a statement released by the library this afternoon.

“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 Tony Marx wrote. “Throughout this process our focus has been making this library even better for our millions of visitors by creating an improved space for our largest circulating branch, providing a superior storage environment for the treasured research collection, and expanding public access to the iconic 42nd Street Library.”

The about-face, as first reported in The New York Times, is rumored to be connected to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s lack of support for what was known as the Central Library Plan. Though the New York Public Library is still expected to receive the $150 million for the renovation promised under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, some of those funds are expected to be directed towards Mid-Manhattan’s renovation, according to The Times.

In the now-defunct plan, funds from the sale of the mid-Manhattan branch, along with that of the Science, Industry and Business Library on 34th Street, were to have paid for the additional $150 million needed to complete the Foster+Partners renovation. The library claimed that the consolidation would also have generated operating savings of approximately $7.5 million a year, though many opponents of the plan claimed that NYPL’s financial calculations were faulty.

Still, in the year-and-a-half since it was first released to what can only be described as a pan in The Wall Street Journal by the great, now-late architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, the NYPL has stubbornly clung to its plan, despite widespread opposition from numerous patrons, politicians, academics and countless cultural critics, among them, Malcolm Gladwell.

It seems that it could not, however, survive the opposition of the mayor, who as a candidate had said that it would be imprudent for the city to finance the project without first demanding a review of the financial risks associated with the plan that would also “seriously consider alternative ways to use city funds to ensure the preservation of the N.Y.P.L.’s valuable collection stored at the Central Library and preserve the Mid-Manhattan branch as a functioning library,” he was quoted by The Times as having said last July.

And, it seems, a review he got. The library “began a review of all programmatic, design and cost elements of the renovation plan,” several months ago, according to the NYPL statement, which credits the review with resulting in the development of “an alternative plan that we believe will best meet our original goals.”

The alternative plan will involve adding computer labs and an adult education center to the Mid-Manhattan branch as well as “an inspiring, comfortable space” for patrons. Meanwhile, the main branch renovation, while it will still be “the most comprehensive renovation in the building’s history,” according to the release, will double the current exhibition space and create more space for entrepreneurs, researchers and writers as well as an “education corridor serving children and teens as well as teachers.”

Under the new plan, the stacks will remain in place and additional storage space will be created under Bryant Park to accommodate the research collection; under the previous plan, much of the research collection was to have been stored off-site, a move that researchers said would have made the collection less accessible.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman, who had criticized the previous plan, praised the news, writing in a statement that the library was “one of the crown jewels of our city and I’m extremely pleased they listened to the public and decided to shelve their Central Library Plan. The new course of action keeps intact the research mission of the Central Library and allows resources to be devoted to the renovation of the Mid-Manhattan branch, which at 1.5 million visitors a year is the most popular of the circulating branches.”

Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer also lauded the move, writing that, “It always takes courage to change your mind. I applaud the Board and leadership of the NYPL for listening to the public and changing course on their plan to close the Mid-Manhattan Branch.”

The new plan must still be approved by the city.