Why Is New York City Planning to Sell and Shrink Its Libraries?

Defend our libraries, don't defund them. . . . . fund 'em, don't plunder 'em

Mayor Bloomberg defunded New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth, shrinking our library system to create real estate deals for wealthy real estate developers at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity. It’s an unjust and shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness.

It should NOT be adopted by those we have now elected to pursue better policies.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Open House New York Hosts an NYPL Presentation of Its Mid-Manhattan Library “Renovation” Plan

From left to right: Elizabeth Leber, Francine Houben, Iris Weinshall, and Gregory Wessner
On Tuesday March 6, 2018, with Open House New York hosting, the NYPL presented its renovation plans for The New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan Library to an audience of architects and the architecturally interested.

The NYPL’s presenters were Iris Weinshall, Chief Operating Officer of The New York Public Library (and wife of Senator Charles Schumer); and architects Francine Houben, Founding Partner/Creative Director, Mecanoo Architecten, and Elizabeth Leber, Partner, Beyer Blinder Belle.  They were introduced by Open House New York Executive Director Gregory Wessner who afterward moderated a brief discussion of the plans with the audience submitting suggested questions on index cards.

One such question submitted on an index card
Open House New York exposes the New York public to important architectural projects, often with site visits.  In this case pictures of the project and a virtual reality film of it were shown on the impressively huge screen of the SVA Theatre at 333 West 23rd Street.

Citizens Defending Libraries equipped the audience with flyers beforehand as they entered the theater.  Our flyer is below.
CDL Flyer for event- Click to enlarge

Here is the text:
What’s Happening to
Manhattans’ Central Destination Libraries?
What’s Happening to NYC’s Libraries?
Where Are the Books?
What happened to the Donnell Library and all its books?  It was sold off for a pittance in a shrink-and-sink deal, replaced by a luxury tower (just like the second biggest library in Brooklyn).  See: PICTURE & VIDEO Gallery: Opening Ceremony For 53rd Street “Replacement” For Donnell Library- “Where the Hell Is Donnell” Demonstration Outside.

Why are we spending millions on a glitzy consolidating shrinkage of the Mid-Manhattan Library and selling off SIBL, the city’s biggest science library, while the architects promise the NYPL trustees that even the paltry reduced book collection that results can later be done away with?  Why are library officials telling us to get our science from the internet as net neutrality is attacked?  See: As NYPL Senior Execs Present Pretty Pictures To City Council Of Expensive Mid-Manhattan Do-Over Renovation They Neglect To Mention One Thing: Rush To Immediately Sell SIBL (at a suspiciously low price?) To Very Interesting Buyer.

Why is the NYPL spending millions to commercialize the 42nd Street Central Reference Library with a wine-serving restaurant to replace its Map Room facilities and a new “exit buy the gift shop” while the famed central stacks designed to hold three million now exiled books sit empty?  See: Citizens Defending Libraries: NYPL’s Presentation of its “Master Plan” to alter and commercialize the 42nd Street Central Reference Library and Committee to Save the New York Public Library: Response to the NYPL Master Plan - Improving A Research Library For The 21st Century.
“There is little in this plan that advances the goal of providing researchers with faster and better access to NYPL’s collections; in fact, the plan to relocate the maps does exactly the opposite. . . NYPL’s promise of an open, transparent, participatory planning process has a hollow ring when its trustees approve a master plan based on a video and a few renderings without public consent. . .   A master plan that ignores the stacks is no master plan at all.” (CSNYPL)
AND Read more at Citizens Defending Libraries about the real estate deals between Blackstone’s Stephen A. Schwarzman and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, their involvement in selling libraries and America’s public assets.

Sign our petition on the web: Citizens Defending Libraries

* * * * 
Francine Houben, the architect from the Dutch firm of Mecanoo
These NYPL presentations are highly scripted and PR vetted before they are made so that when you hear them more than once there is usually little deviation from what you have heard before, even if Tuesday’s presentation was pitched in somewhat more architectural terms.  What is always most interesting is when something slips through the tight seams of the presentation that amounts to an admission against interest, or in the case of architects presenting, an admission against the client’s interest.  In this vein, Francine Houben, the architect from the Dutch firm of Mecanoo made statements about squeezing into the renovated Mid-Manhattan those things they want to fit there.

During her presentation she said:
And of course there is this dotted line [around a color graph up on the screen of multiple functions that it was the goal to include in the building] . . In a way, we wanted too much happening in one building.
And went on just a bit later to say:
I think it will be a very workable building, but at the same time it’s also a compact building.  It’s not that big.  It’s the largest branch library, but it’s not- uh- uh -uh not a very great- uh a big building.   
As Houben faltered, architect Elizabeth Leber of Beyer Blinder Belle, intervened, changing the subject to how the renovated library was intended to provide everybody with an all accommodating cradle-to-grave library experience.

Although Houben referred to the Mid-Manhattan library as the “largest branch library,” that does not distinguish it for what it really is, a central destination library intended to have the most complete circulating collection in Manhattan.  In fact, Mid-Manhattan is a central destination library just like two of the other special function libraries for which the NYPL plans, in a consolidating shrinkage, are now having Mid-Manhattan take over.  Those two other central destination libraries are the once esteemed and beloved Donnell Library and SIBL, the Science, Industry and Business Library.

At one point Iris Weinshall was asked about what was happening to SIBL, including the science library that the NYPL is doing away with entirely.  There was a gasp heard from some in the audience when Weinshall explained bluntly: “We sold it.”  (The NYPL sold it to the fabulously wealthy son of a librarian who made his yacht and vintage airplane fleet supporting fortune in science.)

One of the things that didn’t come out when Houben alluded to how the sufficiency of the remaining space at the renovated Mid-Manhattan could be debatable, was that the renovated library will actually have less space than the existing MML.  That might seem counter-intuitive, since the NYPL is introducing new rooftop space, but Veronika Conant of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library calculates that with only 100,000 square feet, the “renovated” library will have one third less space than the pre-renovation library.  This significant loss of valuable floor space is due to the floor space lost through the creation of atriums in the building.

The overall shrinkage was never made clear when the “renovation” was presented to the City Council or to the Community Board.  Nor was it truly clear when the plan was presented to the NYPL trustees.

The NYPL also tries to obscure the overall shrinkage by pointing out how work space at the library will be transformed into public space, by which they mean space accessible to the general public space (all space, including work spaces at libraries, is “public” space.)

The loss of books at the libraries was obfuscated in the presentations and in the responses to questions.  No one would have known from what was presented that the previous incarnation of the Mid-Manhattan was designed to hold 700,000 books, far more than the 400,000 the NYPL sometimes talks about the new MML holding.  Nor would anyone have known that later the Mid-Manhattan was supposed to absorb another 175,000 books from just one of Donnell’s collection when that central destination library was shut down.

When presenting this MML plan to the NYPL trustees, Francine Houben brazenly assured them that there could be even fewer books in the library in the future: “They are not structural, the shelves, you can take it away later if you want.”  (We have since publicized her remark.)

Before this architectural audience on Tuesday, Ms. Houben was only slightly more circumspect in her phrasing. First she described the central stacks around which the 42nd Street Central Reference Library across the street was famously designed as “problematic” because they are “structural.”  Those 42nd Street stacks were designed to hold three million research books and in a marvel of engineering deliver them efficiently and quickly to readers.
One big difference with the stacks in the SASB Building [i.e. the 42nd Reference Library] is they are structural, which make them very problematic.  Here [in the MLM redesign] is flexible, so I don’t know, in a hundred years there’s maybe more, maybe less books, you can even make something else out of it.  So it’s flexible.
Houben calls the reference library “the SASB Building,” which has been renamed as advertising and brand name burnishment for NYPL trustee Stephen A. Schwarzman, head of the Blackstone Group, recently in the news for being the first CEO to pull in an annual income of more than $1 billion.  His crossing of that financial line this year was probably helped by his spearheading of Trump administration-assisted plans to sell off and privatize American infrastructure.

It must be noted that Ms. Houbenm, along with the Beyer Blinder Belle team, is also one of the primary architects that the NYPL has engaged to "renovate" the 42nd Street Central Reference Library Carrère & Hastings designed building.  So for her to refer to what is almost universally recognized as the genius of that building's design, the way it research stacks are incorporated integrally into its function and plans is supremely disconcerting.  It is also a window into the NYPL's thinking about the building, one at odds with how the NYPL has represented to the public that it has an open mind about the future of those stacks, which it now official says it intends to treat as an afterthought to the "renovation" it is launching for that building.

The presenters were asked about whether the NYPL was going to reduce books because of the concept of the world now being in the “digital age.”  The question was: “Why have books at all?”  Iris Weinshall gave a perfunctory and safe answer about how the NYPL wanted to provide both physical books and digital books while acknowledging the obvious, that people do like to hold physical books.  She steered clear and at a very safe remove from the much more complete answer she could have given and the slew of nuanced issues that question invokes.

Ms. Houben explained the lack of bookshelves and the reduction of books as a vision of the future to which she subscribed:
In a library you should not have shelving that is blocking views.  So if we would put all the books back, so these are the kinds of shelving system, we would only have just have a little bit,  few place, for people sitting together to study.  Come on!: This is not `the library of the future.'
(Science fiction writers, with perhaps better imaginations than Ms. Houben’s, have had a field day imagining the “Library of the Future.”)

There was no discussion about how expensive the “renovation” is, about $2,000 a square foot.

The evening got off to an amusing start with Gregory Wessner, the Open House host for the evening, introducing the discussion with his memories of the blissful refuge that he, as a youth, had taken in Mid-Manhattan’s air conditioning.  Apparently he didn’t get the memo from the NYPL saying that one reason it had wanted to sell Mid-Manhattan entirely (which our library defending efforts helped prevent) was that the NYPL was telling the public that the building couldn’t be adequately air conditioned.

Ms. Houben mobilized against any favorable reminiscing about the old Mid-Manhattan telling the audience that the building smelled: “you could also smell the building.”  Elizabeth Leber. However, was more complimentary about how the building, given its commercial history as a department store, “had great bones.”   It was intriguing to learn that the shape of the site and the building heralds back before that when the a Vanderbilt mansion and carriage house had stood there.  Belying its coherent facade, the building was actually built in phases over time.

Much was made of how architecturally appropriate it was that the MML building is the same period as the 42nd Street Reference library across the street.  No mention was made of the fact that SIBL, just is a ways further south in another former department store on Fifth Avenue, the former Altman’s, is also of the same period with the same good bones.  Those good bones were taken advantage of to make it the “library of the futurein 1996.

The last big news of the evening for the architecturally omnivorous was about the finishes that will be used.  Red carpeting has been chosen because it echos the red carpeting used in the research library across the street.  Also, they have not yet selected furniture, but they know it has to be sturdy and that they should go with vinyls rather than upholstery because of the heavy use.  (The durable furniture that was discarded was worn because it had been subjected to decades of heavy use.)
Iris Weinshall, Chief Operating Officer of The New York Public Library and wife of Senator Charles Schumer who receives significant funds from Stephen Schwarzman and Blackstone

Elizabeth Leber, Partner, Beyer Blinder Belle

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