The CLP Is Dead!

May 7, 2014

Today’s New York Times reported what many of us thought would never happen–Tony Marx and the NYPL have abandoned their preposterous Central Library Plan. Let no one doubt that several years of hard work by many individuals, most importantly Charles Warren and the Committee To Save the NYPL, caused the library to retreat and finally capitulate on this very public scam.

Opponents of the Central Library Plan got another reminder of why the NYPL board can’t be trusted last week. The library has put out a deceptive email request to supporters that purported to be asking for thumbs up on the mayor’s plan for library funding. Buried in the second paragraph was a reference to support for the “central branch library.” There is no such thing, but implicit in the statement was that everyone who cares about branch libraries should also favor the horrible CLP. Disgusting. The Committee to Save the New York Public Library will soon post a rebuttal.

Yesterday was definitely a mixed bag for the people fighting to save the New York Public Library from moneyed interests in Gotham. Two plaintiffs in lawsuits to stop the horrible Central Library Plan argued persuasively for a halt to the project, and got a sympathetic hearing from Judge Paul Wooton in Manhattan Supreme Court yesterday in an all-day session with attorneys. The judge issued a temporary restraining order that will be in force until January 28, 2014.

Unfortunately for those fighting to save both the Mid-Manhattan Branch and the 42nd Street stacks, the NLPL board had an ace up its sleeve. Richard Leland, the library’s attorney, pulled out a mysterious “Letter of Resolution” from the New York State Preservation Office that appeared to give the green light for both the sale of the busiest branch library in the NYC system, and the destruction of most of the historic stacks in Carrere and Hastings’s masterpiece. Only two weeks before, Michael Lewis, professor of art history at Williams College, declared the building to be the greatest civic edifice in the United States. Apparently bureaucrats in Albany didn’t read the New Criterion’s indictment of “the tyranny of philanthropy,” as Lewis dramatically framed the problem with the Central Library Plan.

Why did the SHPO, which had twice rejected the NYPL’s proposal for demolition of the stacks in a National Historic Landmark building, change direction so abruptly? As we’ve seen before in this multi-year battle, the forces of greed are powerful and multi-headed. It’s not surprising that high-level politicians in New York state have succumbed to their pressure. But it’s certainly very disheartening.

Upzoning Goes Down in Midtown

November 13, 2013

Thanks in part to Bill De Blasio’s election, and the work of Dan Garodnick (with some pushing by the Committee to Save the NYPL) the destructive Bloomberg plan to turn Midtown East into Shanghai west went down today. See the NYT front page story. This development (or lack thereof) is proof that the people can have power when interests are allied. Next we hope that the Central Library Plan, which is predicated on upzoning the 40th Street Mid-Manhattan Library site, will meet the same fate.

Dates to Remember

November 6, 2013

November 4th and November 5th 2013 were extraordinary days in the history of New York City. On Tuesday, New Yorkers elected a progressive, Democratic mayor for the first time in 20 years. Bill Di Blasio says that he will fight for the 99% in his city, and as of today we can take him at his word.

Less noticed but still significant were events happening on Monday, November 4th. Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent his last evening in office at a gale fundraising event in his honor at the New York Public Library. It was covered in the society pages by the New York Times, but outside on Fifth Avenue another signal event was taking place: a citizen protest against one of Bloomberg’s pet projects, the Central Library Plan.

As Michael White of Citizens Defending Libraries put it in a video of the event, it was ironic that Mayor Bloomberg, who cut library funding in every budget but one during his three terms in office, and who is selling off public assets to high rolling developer friends, should be given an award by the NYPL board. Steven Sondheim, a co-awardee, must have been livid when Bloomberg diminished his beloved Lincoln Center research collection by selling off some of its contents and firing all but two of its staff.

Protesters stood on the library steps and handed out over 1000 leaflets explaining the NYPL board’s  irresponsible dismantling of the public library system in New York. Just two months prior, Bill Di Blasio stood on those same steps, declaring his opposition to the plan and demanding accountability from the city government. Now that he is mayor, we’ll want him to remember his promise, and think about November 4 and 5, 2013.


NYC Landmarks Law on Trial

January 21, 2013

Tomorrow at 2:00 PM the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission will begin deliberations on the Central Library Plan. Its final decision on whether to accept this destructive scheme will hinge on whether commissioners under Robert Tierney are courageous enough to oppose Mayor Bloomberg and admit that the NYC Landmarks Law is inadequate as protection for the city’s greatest public building.

New Yorkers are largely unaware of the limitations of the law passed in the wake of the Penn Station demolition during the 1960s. Most buildings are protected only for alterations to their exterior construction; a few get additional designation for specific interiors such as the Astor Stair Hall at NYPL. Even when significant structural alterations are proposed, such as the removal of book stacks that hold up a major space, the Commission is powerless to save a building from permanent defacement. What if a law does not function as intended? Should it be amended? Ignored?

Opponents of the Central Library Plan will argue tomorrow that Commissioners should go beyond the letter of the law in order to uphold its real mandate: avoidance of disasters such as the destruction of Penn Station. Will any of these public officials stand up to moneyed interests and vote no? Watch this space and see.

After months of controversy, the Central Library Plan will be presented to the public during a few rather closeted meetings this month. Here are some reasons why New Yorkers must fight this sham and stop the NYPL board from eviscerating one of the city’s most cherished public buildings.

  • The Foster design is simply not good enough. It has all the distinction and architectural panache of a run of the mill airport lobby.
  • The architect and the library board are deluding the public with their presentation of the current design, and lying about its funding. Light levels are lower than shown, there is no provision for book transport from underground storage rooms, and the views of Bryant Park will be blocked by restaurant service zones. Moreover, the critics cannot have access to full plans or details about the cost of construction, so there may be even more faults in the design.
  • The NYPL board has conducted its business and made its decisions on this plan with virtually no public input or open discourse about its merits. Only when confronted by scholars and preservationists did it even agree to hold meetings to review the CPL.
  • The city is wasting millions in taxpayer dollars on what will prove to be a spectacular failure. The new “circulating” library will not attract more patrons, will not provide better space for reading and study, and will not even improve on the technology of the existing Mid-Manhattan branch.
  • All of the reasons for destroying the stacks, moving millions of books, selling two library buildings, and constructing a new facility in the Schwartzman Building are based on false premises that seem to change with each public communication from Tony Marx. Why should New Yorkers believe anything he says?
  • Most importantly, the Carrere and Hastings masterpiece that has served the city for more than a century must be preserved as a whole ensemble, not a series of set pieces, each with its own named patron or donor.
  • The stacks are an engineering marvel and a historic landmark that is more than worth its own preservation effort. All those who love historic buildings should decry their destruction, especially for such venal ends.

Paul Goldberger, the architectural critic of Vanity Fair (and previously not a few other New York media mainstays) has finally written something about the Central Library Plan. Never mind that he is too late to offer any relevant criticism, but his title says much about how little he has followed the controversy since 2008. He says that Tony Marx and the library board were “surprised” that the CLP would provoke controversy–perhaps it was Goldberger who found the project’s critics more determined and persuasive than he would have liked. His lengthy narrative about the CLP mainly covers old ground. He sheds some light on the inner workings of the library board, but skims over the real issues at hand. His own view of the plan, like many of his “critical” positions, is squarely on the side of the establishment, though he tries to convince the reader otherwise.

Goldberger, contrary to much that has been written about him, is a New York animal concerned almost exclusively with maintaining his status as a member of the A-List in society–a denizen of the Hamptons and the Upper East Side who delights in being seen with every kind of elite. Vanity Fair is just where he belongs, as The New Yorker found him lightweight and barely tolerable as a writer.

After reading his piece, I could barely believe that a man so deeply entrenched in New York’s cultural history could produce a story so full of contradictions and circular reasoning. After admitting that the library board backed into a public relations disaster, he seems content to accept Marx’s view that critics were silenced when he offered to put the books back under Bryant Park. Goldberger admits sheepishly that he helped put Norman Foster on a list of possible architects for the project in 2007, but insists that he had no position on whether such a “star” architect with “critically acclaimed” new insertions into old buildings should have been chosen from his list. Moreover, he describes features of the Foster design, which has yet to be shown to the public, as if they were already in place.
Further clouding the picture, he suggests that the New York Public Library was admired for its resistance to the a kind of cultural blackmail which billionaires foisted on the Guggenheim, Whitney, MOMA, and the Met when giving huge gifts for capital projects. When Steven Schwartzman’s $100 million gift broke the library’s will in 2006, it went for the same kind of “naming opportunity” as those museums had years earlier. Why then does he then treat Marshall Rose, Neil Rudenstine, and other board members as forward-thinking heroes only a few paragraphs later? Either there was something salutary and wise about its previous stance (and its longstanding commitment to scholarship), or there wasn’t. Go figure.

This long essay expends a good deal of clever prose on the library’s history, including stories of its opening after the death of John Carrere, but it fails to consider any relevant facts about the book stacks and the nature of the library’s design. The author admits that the building is probably the greatest and most beloved cultural institution in America’s cultural capital, but refuses to accord it special status as an icon worth preserving.

Goldberger is finally so taken by the charm and charisma of Tony Marx, to whom he defers repeatedly in the piece, that he cannot give Stan Katz and Joan Scott equal space to voice their negative opinions on the CLP. When all is said and done, this essay is merely a shill for the library board’s destructive plan, and a betrayal of the values that built it in 1912. Vanity Fair will get some points for weighing in on the controversy, but it has copped out on its opportunity to expose a sham.

Near the conclusion of the essay, Goldberger lays out his position clearly: “Even leaving the exterior of the library untouched, however, has not fully calmed some historic preservationists, who have argued that the bookstack should not be altered or dismantled, since it is a key part of the original Carrère and Hastings design. There is no doubt of its historical importance, but given the difficulties with bringing the bookstack up to present-day standards of temperature and humidity control, keeping it functioning is hard to justify.” I am proud to be one of those preservationists. Saving the stacks is not only justifiable, it is imperative.

We’ve had online videos, New York Times stories, and a debate in the New York Review of Books. Now Margot Adler of NPR has entered the fray. Her piece on Morning Edition is really wonderful, because you can actually hear the sounds in the Rose Reading Room! Nothing like radio to bring a story to life.

Another highly critical piece on the Central Library Plan has appeared in the online publication, ARTINFO. Take a look at it, as it references our remarks at the May panel discussion. My colleague, Charles Warren, has written a wonderful essay for the Wall Street Journal or a sympathetic newspaper. Let’s hope it gets published.