Friday, May 24, 2013

Previews Of The Proposed New Donnell Library: The NYPL Unveils Its Version Of The “Silk Purse” Libraries It Envisions For Our Future

NYPL COO David G. Offensend presenting plans for `replacement' Donnell Library at Community Board 5 meeting
Architectural plans for what they are calling the `replacement’ for the Donnell Library are out and they are likely to shock you. See: A Place to Hang Out (Read, Too), by Robin Pogrebin, May 6, 2013 and New York Public Library unveils designs for new $20M branch on W. 53rd Street, by Ginger Adam Otis, May 7, 2013.
The plans, giving short shrift to the public, are a pathetic joke: Less than one-third the size of the original Donnell, the plans depict what is basically a bleacher-like staircase descending underground oriented to a street level window to disguise the fact that the bulk of everything is subterranean.

Gone is the new beautifully large auditorium, the new state of the art media center, the new teen center.  The collections of the old Donnell are disbursed and disrupted.

The NYPL sold most of its rights and space in a building on 53rd Street in Manhattan across from MOMA between 5th and 6th Avenues for an undeniable pittance.  Just how little the NYPL got was confirmed with exact figures at the time these plans were unveiled.  The NYPL sold a mid-Manhattan building that was five stories above ground with a new huge auditorium below ground netting only $39 million.   The NYPL promises that the `replacement’ Donnell will be constructed without incurring cost overruns but if there are cost overruns then that net amount will become an even smaller figure.  Another cost to the public: As a result of the sale for shrinkage of Donnell the public is enduring a shutdown of all the library services from 2008, a shutdown that will continue to at least 2015.
A cutaway view removing the actual walls and viewing things from far away mitigates the possibility that the two below-grade levels might seem claustrophobic, cramped or subterranean and troglodyte   
The NYPL gave all that was the old Donnell up for just $39 million while just the penthouse in the building now going up at that site is selling for over $60 million.  Would anyone care to guess how many multiples of these figures it would cost to replicate the old Donnell?

The confirmation of how little the NYPL was getting came this month from NYPL Chief Operating Officer David Offensend who presided over the structuring of the sell-off of Donnell in 2007.  Noticing New York previously noted The Real Deal report to the real estate industry that the sale of the Donnell property to Tribeca Associates and Starwood Capital had closed for $67.4 million.  That may be an accurate figure for what the buyers paid to get the property transferred over to them from Orient-Express Hotels, the company that originally signed the contract to with the NYPL in 2007 to purchase Donnell, but Offensend confirmed that the NYPL’s gross was only $59 million.  Offensend also confirmed that the one-third size basement replacement library was costing the NYPL $20 million to build, thus resulting in the netting of only $39 million.    

According to what Mr. Offensend told the New York Times in March of 2011 the final deal involving the transfer of the original contract needed the NYPL’s approval to go forward.  The NYPL could therefore have reconsidered and opted out of the transaction* or at least demanded a better recompense as late as 2011.  But it didn’t.
(* There was plenty of reason to do so.  In 2009 community residents were requesting the City Council to compel the library's reopening.)
The week the Donnell 'replacement' plans were unveiled I was at two presentations of them, the Monday, May 6th presentation to the Education, Housing and Human Services Committee of Manhattan's Community Board 5 and the Wednesday, May 8th presentation to the trustees of the NYPL.
Above: Poster used at rallies protesting the sale and loss of libraries like Donnell
At the Community Board 5 meeting Mr. Offensend said that the sale of Donnell had `wound up' as a competitive process (although almost everybody remembers finding out about the sale only after a buyer had been selected.)  Offering an interesting description of those past events, Mr. Offensend explained that the Orient-Express hotel company had an inside track on bidding and that nobody else wanted to bid higher because that company already had a kitchen available that they could use in conjunction with building a hotel there: They owned the 21 Club restaurant on an adjacent 52nd Street lot, giving them “an almost unique interest” in the property.

Said Mr. Offensend:
We reached out. . . or we didn’t reach out, but our financial adviser reached out to several other parties who we thought might have specific reasons . . . so there were quite a number of developers in the development community who were contacted to see if they wanted to compete with this process and we did end up with a competitive process.
Offensend, pointing out that the Donnell property was owned by the library, described the sale as a “private transaction.”

An important component of the sale resulting in the 50-story building that is now being erected was that, as described by Mr. Offensend with little elaboration, the owner of 666 Fifth Avenue* agreed to eliminate a height restriction affecting the property.  Originally it had been reported that Orient-Express would build a hotel of eleven stories.  One must wonder why and if that would have provided reasonably sufficient justification to speed into a deal to buy and tear down the five-story library.
(* 666 Fifth Avenue now shows up in the portfolio of Vornado, landlord for Mayor Bloomberg’s Bloomberg LP. company.  In January 2007, the year that Donnell was sold, 666 was bought by the Kushner Companies according to the New York Times, 1/17/’12,-- Jared  Kushner is the publisher of The New York Observer– apparently for more than the 666 property was likely worth in terms of underwritten rents and Vornado got involved with the property in a later restructuring– described as “fantastic deal for Vornado” where Kushner put up a “$30 million share” into a pot of funds, that $30 million coming from the modified “air and light” agreement allowing the extra stories to be built at the Donnell site. No one has come forth to exactly explain all the deals that were structured behind the scenes but it is interesting to note that, in the beginning of 2007, Peter Slatin wrote speculatively in The Street envisioning some transactions that would have been highly pertinent to the Donnell sale had they in fact materialized: Getting All Aboard the Orient-Express, 03/26/07.  You have to read past the first page of Slatin’s post to see that he is imagining the scene he writes about where “Steve Schwartzman and Barry Sternlicht are sitting down for burgers” at the 21 Club with Andrew Davis of Von Essen Hotels celebrating their purchase of Orient-Express Hotels; Schwarzman and Sternlicht doing so respectively through their Blackstone Group and Starwood Hotels companies.  Who knows what stimulated Slatin’s speculative imagination, but what would have made his 21 Club victory dinner scene so oddly prescient had it or any variation thereof actually happened is that obviously Orient-Express Hotels later that year bought Donnell while at the same time Schwarzman was being brought into the NYPL as a one of the key NYPL trustees pushing the NYPL to do real estate deals like Donnell and the Central Library Plan, and also, obviously, although Orient-Express Hotels signed the inital contract to buy Donnell the company ultimately transferred its deal over to Sternlicht’s Starwood.  Perhaps the growth of monopolies and big companies being what it is there are just too few significant players in New York for coincidences not to multiply: In June of 2012 we find the Bloomberg administration approving Starwood to develop a hotel and residences in Brooklyn Bridge Park, with David Offensend as one of Bloomberg’s appointees to Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation complimenting the winning design in the minutes of the meeting documenting that corporation’s choice.  Evercore Partners, the investment company that David Offensend co-founded which might be described as sort of a boutique spin-off of Schwarzman’s Blackstone (two key partners, Roger Altman and Austin M. Beutner, are Blackstone alumni) has its New York offices at 55 East 52nd Street, just a ways down from 21 West 52nd Street, the address of the 21 Club.)
If you ask people you know in the real estate business they are almost certainly going to confirm for you that between the “almost unique interest” flowing from having the kitchen next door to the Donnell site and the ability to build a tower on the site with many extra stories, the latter is the far more important advantage one would want to lock up.

Presenting the Donnell plans to the NYPL trustees, President Anthony (“Tony”) Marx described the $39 million net figure for selling Donnell as “something in the area of $40 million”. . .  Because a precisely stated $39 million figure would have sounded just too darn small?

The public in attendance at the Community Board 5 was 100% negative about the new designs.  Most of the comments were about how small and un-library like the designs were.
The bleacher/stairs can be used to show people David Niven movies in the daylight
I was permitted to state a combined comment and question.

I noted that there is something that is both marvelous and sad: It is said that if a man suffers an extreme loss, say losing his legs or becoming a paraplegic, that the loss will be followed by unhappiness and grief but that even after such extreme losses human beings tend to return to a certain baseline or “set point” of happiness. Still, apart from the marvelousness of such human resilience I said I thought the saddest aspect of this was people would unfairly take things from others, expecting by taking advantage of this fact, expected that when a library like Donnell is wrenched away the public should be happy afterwards.

I noted that the plan renderings of the new library depicted a David Niven movie being played (in daylight?) for an audience that would sit on the bleacher/steps and suggested for this image it would have been much more appropriate to show the moment in Kings Row when Ronald Reagan awakens to find his legs missing and screams: “Where's the rest of me?”

I then asked why, if the theoretical purpose in selling Donnell was to capitalize on the potential value of the greater development that could be tapped (was that really the purpose?), the NYPL hadn’t built a bigger library, a better library, to serve a growing city rather than a much smaller, makeshift subterranean one?  After all, the city is a larger, wealthier city!
An image of a more appropriate film being shown in the space?: Ronald Reagan awakens, his legs missing, screaming, "Where's the rest of me?"
The question of why not a bigger, better library was not directly answered that evening except to the extent that Mr. Offensend said, in the course of some later general statements, that he viewed the new replacement space as equivalent space and that he thought that the reshuffling of programs and services off to other libraries in the system was a better way to serve the community.   
One reason the plans for the new Donnell don’t look like a library is their disregard for books. At the Community Board 5 meeting the presenting architect was asked whether the NYPL had specified what it wanted in terms of the books that it wanted accommodated in the space being designed.  The answer was that nothing had been specified either in terms of a book count or a required square foot area for books.
A slide shown in both presentations showing what the books in the library won't really look like, but showing that having books in a library is conceptionally important 
 Most of the panels of renderings do not show much in terms of the presence of books.  One, however, shows converging walls of books with stacks of them going up about thirteen feet into the air.  A member of the attending public commented about regulations requiring books to be within reach.  The architect explained that the rendering that featured all these books did not show what would actually be built, that it was just to show that the presence of books was conceptually important:
In terms of the images . .  again, this is schematic. .  So when you see images like this, this is not to say that books are higher than the allowed seven rows.  This is just simply to say that books are important to us, the books are important to the library when they came to us. . . that accessibility and visibility of the books is critical and that it should be something that helps define the space and create the character of the space.
When the same slide was shown to the NYPL trustees two days later they were told that the books would not be out of reach and that Tony Marx, the NYPL president, had himself spotted the problem that the rendering was of a conception that was impossible to permit.  Said the presenting architect: “We were reminded by Tony not to be unrealistic and to make sure that everybody could reach the books.”

The little space for actual books caused New York Magazine’s architectural critic Justin Davidson to wonder about the NYPL in a tweet: “Wonder if it'll make space for Orwell?”  How about Bradbury?
Plans to get people out of the library in "two minutes"
The plans show some books by the front entrance.  The NYPL trustees were told that the design was so that somebody ordering a book ahead of time could dash in to get it, needing to spend no more than “two minutes” in the library to get it.  

The stairway as library space is clever in that it is not only being used, oriented toward the one big street level window, to hide the fact that the space is subterranean; it also, by obviating the need for a stairwell, obfuscates the shortage of space in available and might otherwise have to be subtracted out for that purpose.  In the presentation, the stairway type space was praised for its “flexibility.”  As I have written in Noticing New York before, the praiseworthiness of “flexibility” (or “Murphy libraries”) is something that library officials are now onto as a way to extol the attractiveness of smaller libraries.
Sale of the Donnell Library site was no doubt inspired by the MOMA Museum tower rising to great heights right across the street:  Will this be the view toward which the gaze of library bleacher sitters will be directed as they gaze through the window above?
Library officials describing what the stair space can be (an auditorium, a daylight-admitting movie theater, a reading space, a concert space, a meeting or discussion space, even stairs!) display improvisational imaginations resembling Jonathan Winters on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show when handed a stick (it’s a fishing rod, a circus ringmaster’s whip, a flute).  Tony Marx referred to the bleacher/stairs as both an “agora” and a “piazza.” What is perhaps not so flexible is that when used as seating those steps will not be able to be moved or adjusted.  I haven’t visited the site to try to figure it out yet but will all those sitting on these steps legs forward find that their gaze, directed up through the street-level window, will be trained on the vertiginous sheerness of the Museum Tower’s monotonous glass walls?

The trustees were informed by the architect that the multiple uses would present complex problems when it came to noise that could not presently `pretend to have all the answers to.' At the Community Board 5 meeting assurance was given that buffering would prevent subway noise from being a problem despite the library being underground would be closer to it. The architects said they are looking at how to add “soft surfaces” to the "first cut" of the plan to reduce the sound levels.
The Prada store the library design resembles
The steps design of the library presented to the NYPL by name architects (Enrique Norten and his firm TEN Arquitectos) is actually something of a fashion knock-off, looking a great deal not like another library but like Rem Koolhaas’s 2001 design for Prada's flagship in SoHo.  At 24,500 square feet the Prada store is almost a match for the library’s 28,000 square feet.  (The old Donnell was 97,000 square feet.)  At $40 million the leased (fifteen years) Prada store in 2001 is double the $20 million being spent to build the library in 2013 and more than the NYPL sold the old Donnell for at the height of the 2007 real estate bubble. . . .

. . . This surely says something about the shifting priorities of our society.  The architect presenting to the NYPL trustees said the materials for the library would be “modestly priced” and recyclable to promote “sustainability.”
Construction site in March: Making way for condos and a high-end hotel
Is the open staircase space of the Prada store a good design?  This review expresses reservations that might apply to the setup of the library too:   
Upon entering the store, which previously housed the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim Museum, visitors are met with a largely vacant space dominated by an oversized, round elevator. OMA is said to have spent two months of research "investigating ways to reinvent the retail experience." Perhaps as a result of this, the ground floor only has a small amount of merchandise, relegating the majority of merchandise and actual shopping activity to the basement level, which feels cramped and lacks appropriate lighting.
50-story Baccarat Hotel and luxury residence tower from the Daily News.  Click to enlarge (if you dare).
If the new “Donnell” design doesn’t work out as a library, as it well might not, might it be transformed into another Prada store or the equivalent?  That’s a distinct possibility: As noted above, the space Prada took over for its retail enterprise was previously Guggenheim Museum SoHo branch space.  And would that not be a consummation devoutly to be wished by Tribeca Associates and Starwood Capital as the owners of luxury Baccarat Hotel tower, in which this space will be in the basement level?  They seem to have been pretty lucky in having wishes fulfilled at the expense of the public to date.
Triumph of `transparency’?
Ironically, when the Donnell plans were presented to the NYPL trustees the presenting architect celebrated the design as a triumph of `transparency’ that establishes a “welcoming dialogue with the community”: “What you see is a library that is intentionally transparent. . . an extension of the public realm.”   

When the Donnell sale was announced, Francine Fialkoff, Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal, wrote an editorial (February 1, 2008) excoriating the lack of transparency in that transaction: Donnell sale highlights need for transparency in decision-making.   Here are some extracts from it.               
        . . . the building that housed Donnell has been sold to make way for a hotel and a much smaller public library. .  (w)ith the proposed library having less than half the space for public services as the old Donnell . . . questions remain about the location of some of the collections. . . More importantly, the breakup of the collections diminishes the role of Donnell as a central library . . .  The decisions . . .  [were] communicated to staff (and in the case of Donnell, to the public) largely after the big decisions have been made.

        Should a public/private entity like NYPL. .  so blithely sidestep public and staff input? [The] Libraries Subcommittee chair of the New York City Council . . . “. . didn't know about the Donnell sale ahead of time.”  “It's troubling . . . in terms of . .  the whole mission of the library.”
        . . .  It's way past time for NYPL leaders to come out from behind their cloak of secrecy. .  get staff and public feedback before making any other sweeping changes.
Even now that lack of transparency continues: When the NYPL’s estimated date to open the replacement Donnell was last pushed back yet another year, from 2014 to 2015, the NYPL published that sad information on its website without mentioning the actual name of the library, which means that it would not show up in an internet search.  The NYPL website refers only to the “NYPL’s 53rd Street Library is scheduled to reopen to the public in 2015” without mentioning it by the now infamous name of “Donnell.”
Click on photo to enlarge (enough if you can): On left plans shows college classroom size auditorium
David Offensend and NYPL president Tony Marx are for the most part blithely unapologetic about Donnell.  They do not apologize for the lack of transparency, for the shrinkage, for the fact that it is underground, for the loss of the assets of the old Donnell, or for the pittance in return for which those assets were squandered/plundered.  (According to the Daily News the ‘replacement’ Donnell will have a tiny small auditorium of only141 seats.- In the public presentation this was talked about as being around perhaps150 seats, college classroom size.  The stair-shaped bleachers might hold 250.)   
Original Donnell auditorium being used for Jane Jacobs event in 2007, just before its announced destruction.  Not long after its expensive renovation. 
Marx’s only apology with respect to Donnell offered at the trustees meeting is that no one could have foreseen the 2008 financial crisis.  Calling the project “stunning” Marx said:
I really just want to thank Joanna and Dave [Offensend], in particular, for their leadership in this project from its beginning.  Of course none of us could foresee that the economy would change and change the schedule of this. . .
That’s not an excuse for how little Donnell was sold for since its sale price was set at the height of the real estate bubble preceding that crisis; it is only an apology for the fact that replacing Donnell (maybe in 2015) after its 2008 closing is taking so long.  Addressing the trustees to tell them such prognostication was impossible Marx displayed a sort of chipper pride.

What’s really scariest about this lack of apology from Marx and Offensend is that it goes along with envisioning these Donnell plans as the desirable model for all the city’s libraries.

I asked the following question at the Community Board 5 meeting:
On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being that this is a complete disaster that the NYPL is doing their best to cope with and 10 being that this is something exemplary that the NYPL wants to roll out to replace libraries throughout the system, how would you rate this?
David Offensend happily answered: “A lot closer to a 10 than a 1.”

Leaving the Community Board 5 meeting I wound up riding down in the elevator with David Offensend and his team.  I said “Well, your first presentation of the new Donnell!”

Offensend said, “We're pretty excited!”

I said, “I can imagine you were pretty excited when you sold it.”

He told me how great it was going to be for the users.  I told him he was saying all the right things.

I then said, “You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear” and I fixed my eyes on the architect who stood beside me, a young woman who I figure can’t really be blamed, as her firm had virtually nothing to work with.  (Later that day the Times article about the design would quote architect Enrique Norten as saying he had a "tough assignment" making the below grade into an inviting library.)

Offensend told me that he thought I was trying to make a sow's ear out of a silk purse.

The new shrunken Donnell plans are Offensend's silk purse?. . .

This is the model for the future?

. . .  What does this portend for the future of libraries in the city?  What does it say about the pride that Tony Marx and David Offensend are taking in the consolidating shrinkage of the Central Library Plan?  That plan also involves a suspiciously hurried and unexamined shedding of NYPL real estate assets to questionable ends.  Under that plan the research stacks of the Central Reference Library at 42 Street and Fifth Avenue under the Rose Reading Room would be demolished (the books being sent to Princeton, New Jersey), decommissioning that library as the important reference library it was intended to be.  The stacks are being ripped out so that the Mid-Manhattan library (the city’s most used library) and SIBL, the relatively new Science, Industry and Business library integrated with CUNY in the converted Altman’s Department Store building at 34th Street can be sold and jammed into that former stack space with cast-off remnants of the old Donnell.

What does this portend for the cities other libraries such as the Brooklyn Heights Library at Cadman Plaza on the border of Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn?   Even though that Brooklyn library is part of what is technically a separate system* (although all mostly funded by the city), its proposed sale for shrinkage closely replicates that of Donnell even as Brooklyn Public Library officials say they disavow the Donnell model.

    (* There are nevertheless notable connections to the NYPL’s Offensend.)
CB5 Board members at presentation: Board member far left suggests library "app" obviating need for architect at far right
Not all the reaction to the Donnell library plans during the Community Board 5 evening was negative.   The reaction of the public in attendance may have been 100% negative but the reaction from Community Board 5 members were positive on the whole.  They liked the digitization theme.  Said the woman running the meeting, perhaps envisioning a more total replacement of the library: “I am surprised you haven't already put your libraries on an app.”

Offensend, excitedly responded that they “would like to have it all on an app.”
Offensend out to view protestors outside the NYPL's Central Reference Library the day of the trustees meeting 
Is that where we are heading?   One friend of mine said of the envisioned substitution for Donnell: “It’s not a library . .   It’s a place for people to check their smartphones.”   But that’s not enough for everyone.  This week when I told a young college student in our family that she could instantly solve the challenge of providing herself with a book that she wanted by downloading it into Kindle she responded: “No thank you!  I like physical books.”
At the same protest event Offensend speaks with Citizens Defending Libraries Carolyn McIntyre (my wife) whose petition calling for a halt to the sale of libraries for real estate deals now has over 11,000 signatures, most of them online. 

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