New Midtown library is exactly what NYC needs after pandemic

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Last week, after more than a decade of false starts, the New York Public Library ­unveiled its fully renovated Midtown book-lending building on Fifth Avenue. The eight-story library is a Midtown triumph. As New York recovers from the pandemic, Gotham needs more projects like this: less “reimagining,” more back-to-basics nuts and bolts. 

The new library is a full-scale refurbishment of the shell of the 106-year-old limestone edifice, once home to the Arnold, Constable & Co. department store. NYPL has operated a library there since 1970, lending out 2 million books, DVDs and other materials every year. 

But NYPL shuttered the building four years ago for the $200 million gut reworking. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, funded by the late Greek shipping ­tycoon, funded a quarter of its cost, so the library has named the new branch after him. 

The first thing you notice in the new library is the natural light. The huge old-store windows mean that on sunny days, at least, it’s easy to browse without much help from artificial lighting. 

The second thing you notice is that the smart design allows for lots of open space and lots of books — a capacity of 400,000. There is floor after floor, not just of new releases, but older fiction, history, biography and cookbooks you wouldn’t think about unless you ran across them on these shelves. 

The library boasts ample sit-down workspace (although still roped off, due to the pandemic): huge workbenches with plenty of plugs for computers and banks of computers for people who don’t have one to bring. And: a kids’ section and an outdoor terrace (the latter also not regularly open yet). 

But what about the architecture? The best thing about the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library is that it is nothing crazily special. Beyer Blinder Belle, a firm that does lots of updates to historic sites like City Hall did what it was supposed to do: build a library. 

It is exactly what a normal person would consider to be a normal library. 

There is no great, multibillion-dollar “rethinking”: no steel birds’ wings that are supposed to open and close, as at the Port Authority’s post-9/11 Oculus train station downtown (the wings didn’t work). No hundred-story empty supertall tower on top of a ­museum, as at MoMA. 

This obvious plan wasn’t the library’s first choice; it took a lot of screwups to get to here. In 2008, the NYPL sold off its Donnell branch on 53rd Street to a developer. This was supposed to be a smart real-estate deal: The developer would preserve some space at the bottom of its hotel tower for a new ­library, lessening the burden for the taxpayer. 

Instead, it took eight years —and half a generation of kids missing out on a branch — for the library to get its windowless space in the basement. 

Then, there was NYPL’s “central-library” plan. Nearly 10 years ago, the library proposed a grand scheme to sell off the Midtown department-store building to some supertall ­developer and use the proceeds to dig out a huge new circulating library underneath the ­research headquarters across the street, thus, somehow, saving money. 

This would have meant moving research collections to New Jersey, forcing scholars to wait days for books, and the proposed price tag, $300 million, was laughably underestimated. 

Judging from the fact that it cost $200 million to bring us the Stavros Niarchos, the central-library project likely would have topped $1 billion, consuming money needed to run 92 separate branches across three boroughs (Queens and Brooklyn have their own systems). 

In 2014, after two years of near-universal booing, the ­library ditched this harebrained idea, and that’s how, seven years later, we have a modern circulating library for Midtown. 

It’s a lesson for the next mayor: We don’t need to “rethink” everything. 

We don’t need four new borough-based jails, at a cost of $9 billion (or more) — we need to spend far less to build modern jail buildings at Rikers Island, and provide better bus service for visitors 

We need to pick a plan, fast, to replace the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, likely a slimmed-down road, before the existing one falls down — and then actually do it. 

There aren’t that many ways to do the obvious: When people just want to borrow a book, they just want to borrow a book. 

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. 

Twitter: @NicoleGelinas

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