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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Dogfight Over NYC|Central Library Plan

MANHATTAN (CN) - Ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg approved a plan that would "permanently disfigure" New York Public Library's central branch and displace millions of rare books, a coalition of library supporters claim in court.

Citizens Defending Libraries and eight scholars and authors, including biographer Edmund Morris, sued New York City, the Office of the Mayor, the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development, the New York Public Library, its President Anthony Marx, and its board of trustees, in New York County Supreme Court.

The lawsuit is the third effort to stop the renovation of the library's Fifth Avenue building, which is to include demolishing book stacks completed in 1911. The Carnegie book stacks have become an historical landmark and an integral piece of the Central Library, the preservationists say. Two other lawsuits, filed in July 2013, are pending in Manhattan.

"In the waning days of the Bloomberg administration, the Office of the Mayor of the

City of New York and/or the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development ('outgoing mayoral administration') issued what amounted to an approval of an application by the New York Public Library ('NYPL') for permission to proceed with a plan entitled the 'Central Library Plan' ('CLP') that would permanently disfigure the NYPL's Central library branch ('Central Library') -- a New York City landmark, a National Historic Landmark and a property listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places," the complaint states. "The CLP would also eliminate from the NYPL system, the Mid-Manhattan Library ('MML') and the Science, Industry and Business Library ('SIBL') -- two critical satellite branches that are heavily frequented by New Yorkers every day.

"Worse, the CLP would require demolition of seven stories of historic Carnegie Steel book stacks ('Carnegie stacks') and permanent displacement and diversion of millions of volumes of rare books and other historic research materials shelved there ('historic materials') to remote locations in Princeton, N. J. and Patterson, N. Y. ('distant offsite storage'). By eliminating the Carnegie stacks -- themselves a critical and historic architectural feature of the Central Library and an indispensable component of the book delivery system designed specifically for the NYPL at the turn of the century -- the CLP would essentially transmogrify the Central Library into an oversized circulating library, with an atrium that has been described by the architectural critic of The New York Times as having 'all the elegance and distinction of a suburban mall.'

"As shown below, in addition to the abject mutilation that the CLP would inflict upon one of the world's most beautiful architectural masterpieces, the reorientation of purpose contemplated by the CLP threatens to frustrate the NYPL's original mission, which was to create what would become, along with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., one of the foremost research libraries in the world."

The New York Public Library was formed in 1895 by the merging of three libraries previously owned by private philanthropists John Jacob Astor, James Lenox, and former New York Gov. Samuel Tilden. With nearly 53 million items, it is the second-largest public library in the United States, after the Library of Congress, and the third-largest in the world.

The coalition claims that the library's original board pledged that historic materials and books would always remain in the library.


The Bloomberg administration approved the renovation plan in December 2013, claiming it would not have any significant adverse environmental impact, according to the 64-page lawsuit.

The library agreed to develop an engineering plan to protect its famous reading room and create a historical record of the book stacks to be demolished in the renovation.

The coalition claims the mayor's office, which should not have been the lead agency to review the library's plan, approved it the same day it was submitted, and never performed an environmental analysis, as required under state and city laws.

It claims the city copied several paragraphs word-for-word from the library's environmental assessment statement, and paraphrased others, putting together a declaration that is "no better than a hastily prepared book report that a group of fourth-grade boys might have rushed to complete after an extended game of kickball during recess."

The mayor's office acknowledged that the library's environmental statement was the only basis for its conclusions, and that it performed no additional studies, according to the lawsuit.

The coalition claims the mayor and the city subcontracted their review responsibility to the library and its consultant, which were not neutral, nor independent, and "rubber-stamped a project which is likely to harm New Yorkers and the environment."

More than a year before the decision, then-Mayor Bloomberg publicly expressed support for the plan, claiming that it would not harm historic and cultural resources, but would preserve and improve them, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs claim Bloomberg was biased, overlooked important evidence and abused his discretion.

Current Mayor Bill de Blasio, on the other hand, supported the coalition in its efforts to stop the central library plan, the lawsuit states.

The plaintiffs, who use the library for research and educational resources, claim that demolishing the Carnegie stacks and moving millions of books and historic materials will turn the library into an oversized circulating library and interfere with its original purpose.

"Joseph Tortorella, the president of structural engineering firm Silman PC, which has been retained by the NYPL to implement the CLP, including removal of the Carnegie stacks, has compared removal of the Carnegie stacks to 'cutting the legs off a table while dinner is being served,'" the complaint states, citing a Jan. 29, 2013 article in The New York Times.

"While a colorful metaphor, Mr. Tortorella's descriptive reference constitutes a significant understatement; removal of the stacks while the general public continues to use the Rose Reading Room, for which the Carnegie stacks provide the structural support, is akin to removing and replacing the foundation of Yankee Stadium while a World Series game is played in front of a full audience of spectators -- a prospect that entails 'considerable risk.'

"In the words of the late Ada Louise Huxtable, the Dean of New York Architecture critics, the CLP 'is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of, or willful disregard for, not only the library's original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity. You don't "update" a masterpiece' (Ada Louise Huxtable, 'Undertaking its Destruction,' Wall Street Journal, Dec. 3, 2012)."

The coalition claims the demolition would displace valuable books and historical resources which would be sent to remote locations.

What's more, if the library sells or rents one of its out-of-use buildings, it will likely become a taller residential building with an adverse shadow impact on the nearby Bryant Park, according to the lawsuit.

The four-month construction project would increase noise in the library, and sub-surface material excavated in the process may also pose a health risk, the plaintiffs claim.

The coalition wants the approval annulled and the library enjoined from carrying out the renovation.

It is represented by Michael Hiller.

A spokeswoman for the library said in an email: "Our focus is on making The New York Public Library even stronger: creating an improved facility for our largest circulating branch, providing a superior storage environment for the treasured research collection, and expanding access to the iconic 42nd Street Library. As we shared months ago, we are taking the time to examine all programmatic, design and cost elements."

The Mayor's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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