In the first public meeting on the massive, $317 million master plan for the renovation of the New York Public Library's historic Stephen A. Schwarzman main library, NYPL officials promised an open process, and to listen to the concerns and desires of their constituents as the plans progress.
"It's taken us some years to get to this moment, arguably something like a decade of talking, listening, and learning to get to what we are calling a 'master plan' for the single greatest renovation or restoration that this building has seen in its history," said NYPL President and CEO Tony Marx, kicking off the November 20 public meeting in the library's Celeste Auditorium.
"Two things I think we've learned in particular: one is to listen to our great library staff, library users, and the public at large, and to do that in an interative process—to keep developing plans and perfecting them and refining them as those conversations continue," Marx said. "And the other is to be totally respectful of the amazing iconic architecture of this building."
Marx was joined on the stage by the lead architects on the project: Francine Houben, from Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo, and Elizabeth Leber, from New York City-based firm Beyer Blinder Belle (who are also leading the renovation of Mid-Manhattan Library, the Library’s largest circulating branch, located across Fifth Avenue). The panel showed a brief video (featured below) and offered a short presentation on how the project was slated to unfold. Bill Kelly, the Library’s Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Research Libraries was also on hand for the Q&A session.
The two architects highlighted for the public some of the plan's main features, designed to improve both the function of the building, located in the heart of Manhattan at 42nd St. and Fifth Avenue, as well as the flow of people through it.
In broad strokes, the renovation would expand and improve areas that support researchers, while also introducing more exhibit spaces, an enhanced cafe, and improved opportunities to shop, and to congregate (including more space that will surely be available to rent for private events). It also includes an education center geared toward exposing high school and college students to research with primary resources. And, of course, more (and better) bathrooms.
In terms of the flow of people, which had been choked off and complicated over the years as the library's space was carved up ad hoc to deal with changing needs, the plan calls for a number of improvements, including a new elevator bank, and a new, third entrance that will greatly aid in moving people in and out of the building.
And, except for school group visits, it appears that kids and teens are basically being pushed out, with the plan reclaiming the current kids' space, with kids services to be largely provided at the Mid-Manhattan Branch across the street.
Much of the plan, meanwhile, addresses infrastructure issues the public won't notice, and in which the library has already invested considerable funds—air conditioning, for example, better climate-controlled storage, a more efficient book delivery system, and a new fire alarm system.
"We do this for a very simple reason," Marx told the audience. "We believe that this library, the research library, and the public use of a great research library, is more important now than it’s ever been. We live in a moment when the key values the library stands for, values that that we all share, Enlightenment values, are under threat in a way that we have never seen before, at least not in my lifetime. And it’s for that reason that we are saying now is the time that we need to invest, to make sure that this building can continue to be a magnet for everyone who wants to think, sit together, live together, create, and solve problems."
The plan is the NYPL’s second recent shot at overhauling its famous main library. In 2014, library officials were forced to abandon a controversial Central Library Plan after a public backlash.
As PW columnist Brian Kenney wrote in a November 2013 column, the plan faced opposition almost from the start. Critics questioned the lack of transparency in the process. And in terms of the plan itself, renowned architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable slammed architect Norman Foster’s designs in a pointed review in the Wall Street Journal; Michael Kimmelman followed suit with a pastiche of objections in the New York Times. And more than 1,000 scholars and authors signed a letter of protest. Then came a rally on the library steps, and a couple of lawsuits.
The battle over the controversial Central Library Plan (which also included a questionable plan to sell off some NYPL real estate, was chronicled in Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library (Melville House), by Nation writer Scott Sherman (which recently came out in paperback).
This time around, NYPL officials appear to have taken their previous experience to heart; Marx promised the new design will remain faithful to the building's purpose and architecture, while also preparing it to serve future generations. And more importantly, he promised transparency, and to solicit input from the public.
"We continue to expect to get feedback, and we welcome that," he said, stressing that the current proposal was "a master plan not a final plan."
Marx also addressed what may have been the biggest reason for the failure of NYPL's last renovation plan: it's proposal to do repurpose the space that now houses the library's famous stacks, roughly seven floors and 175,000 square feet of book storage. Curiously, the current plan does not address the stacks, and instead calls for a study.
"Some of you may be surprised that the master plan doesn’t include a final decision or recommendations in terms of the stacks," Marx acknowledged. "The stacks have not been touched," he added, noting that the library now understands that the new plan actually needs the stacks to house collections that "don’t require state-of-the-art preservation" yet have to be housed onsite. The stacks, built in 1911, lack proper climate control for book storage, as temperatures and humidity levels can vary dramatically.
Marx said NYPL officials will take their time and study all options for the stacks, with input from stakeholders.
"I’m sure the conversations will continue and it’s better that we take our time than make a mistake," he said. "I think we all agree on that."
So, what's the first impression of the NYPL's latest plan? It's certainly an exciting opportunity. But the first round of public questions during the Q&A period were rather muted. Expect the questions to get more pointed, however, as the project progresses, and constituents become more familiar with the plan.
"This building certainly has unique challenges," conceded PW contributing editor Brian Kenney, director of the White Plains Public Library, "especially in meeting the needs of the tourists who arrive each year only to find there is little to do except gaze at the iconic Rose Reading Room—sshhh!—take in a rather esoteric exhibition or two, and buy a mug."
Overall, Kenney, who attended Monday's hearing, said he views the new master plan as surprisingly conservative, focusing on the needs of "a select group of older researchers and scholars in 2017," while ultimately putting the burden for library service on the Mid-Manhattan Branch across the street (and currently under renovation).
"The elephant in the room is the status of the seven empty stacks underneath the Rose Reading Room," he observed. "While the NYPL may well want to avoid controversy, the decision on what to do with such a vast amount of space should happen now, and not later, since any decision would have an impact on the overall master plan. Unless, of course, the Library already has some ideas for the stacks, and is not sharing them."
That appears to be a commonly-held reaction. Asked for his first impression of the NYPL's plan, Scott Sherman, who chronicled the failed Central Library Plan, also raised the question of the stacks. "The stacks are essential to the mission of the 42nd Street Library," he told PW, "and they should be returned to full use as soon as possible."
A second public meeting is scheduled for Mid-December.