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New York Public Library Responds to Outcry, Abandons Renovation Plans

By Harriet Staff

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The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both confirm the rumors: The New York Public Library will abandon its controversial renovation plan. “Its decision came amid three lawsuits and skepticism from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was under pressure from his supporters to claw back $150 million in city funding for the project,” writes the WSJ. Though many of the main branch’s books are still headed for storage, the much-loved Mid-Manhattan Library isn’t going anywhere. More from the NYT:

This shift is something of a defeat for the library, which had already paid the British architect Norman Foster $9 million in private funds for his firm’s work on the plan for the flagship, a 1911 Beaux-Arts landmark. Library officials had long defended their plan against a roster of prominent scholars and authors who said the introduction of a second library in the research building would diminish it as a center for scholarship.

Library officials had heralded the renovation as part of a significant effort to rethink the flagship building in preparation for a digital future in which public access to computers would become as important as books.

Various factors contributed to the library’s decision, several trustees said: a study that showed the cost of renovating the main building to be more than expected (the project had originally been estimated at about $300 million); the change in city government; and input from the public.

Three lawsuits have been filed against the project and protests on the library steps, including one in which critics dressed as books, had become a regular occurrence. Among the many cultural heavyweights who campaigned against the plan were Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie and Francine Prose.

The critics objected partly because the plan required that books in the stacks be moved to New Jersey, which could cause delays in retrieving them. Many also questioned the cost as vague and wasteful. Under the new plan, all of the books will remain on site; the library has found a way to free up additional space in its storage area under Bryant Park.

“They went back to the drawing board,” said David Nasaw, a historian who had opposed the original plan. “When they finished doing their due diligence I think they recognized that there was another way, a better way. For the people of this city and for the library it’s a great victory.”

[...]

Library officials had said the consolidation of buildings would generate annual operating savings of $7.5 million, some of which would be directed toward the 88 branches in the system. Officials said they were committed to further investment in the branches, but it was unclear whether the branches will be part of the plan.

Mr. Marx and library officials briefed the board on the change of plans on Monday during a closed-door session and will now shape details of the new project in conversations with the city administration. The shift is so fresh that drawings of the original project were still on display at the library this week.

[...]

“Obviously, I respect the decision of the trustees and whoever’s been involved in the decision,” Mr. Foster said. “If I have any kind of sadness on the thing — besides obviously not having the project going ahead and having spent a huge amount of passion on the project with colleagues — it is that the proposals have never been revealed, and there hasn’t really been a debate by those involved, including those who would have benefited from an inclusive approach to the library.”

After the design was widely criticized — the critic Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times wrote that its curved staircase was “more suited to a Las Vegas hotel” — the library agreed last June to re-evaluate the plan’s design and cost. The library has yet to present its conclusions and confirmed on Wednesday that it had revealed its new direction only after inquiries from The Times.

Under the original plan, the Mid-Manhattan Library would not have closed until the new space was ready, so that its operations as the city’s busiest circulating library would not be interrupted. Now the library hopes to complete Mid-Manhattan’s gut renovation in stages, so that part of the building can stay open during construction. The Mid-Manhattan building has long been in poor condition and is considered unattractive.

Reaction among board members to the change in course was generally positive. “Given all the complexities,” said Robert B. Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books and a trustee, “I do think this is a reasonable and good solution.”

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, May 8th, 2014 by Harriet Staff.