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New York Post

 

Real-estate Fiction

July 08, 2013

By Nicole Gelinas

PRINTER FRIENDLY

NY Public Library’s risky scheme

Last week, a group of professors and historians filed suit against the New York Public Library, alleging that the library board’s plan to demolish its book “stacks” at 42nd Street violates its mission to protect books. But the plan could be a fiscal disaster, too — making the NYPL the latest institution to go broke thanks to vanity real estate.

It’s not too late to stop it, as preliminary construction work is barely underway.

The library — apparently convinced it combines the deal-making savvy of Donald Trump and engineering expertise of the MTA — is embarking on a Big Dig beneath Midtown.

The library wants to merge three multi-story mid-Manhattan spaces (so it can sell two). But all those people and books don’t fit in one place.

To cram the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison and 35th and the Mid-Manhattan circulating branch on Fifth and 40th into the research library (the one with the lions) at 42nd and Fifth, the NYPL will overhaul much of the research library.

From a structural point of view, the renovation will more than gut some of the library (not the current public spaces) — removing stacks of books on structural shelves that hold the building up.

Then, the library will move some stored books off site, carve out more space under Bryant Park, and add above-ground space.

This is all supposed to cost $300 million. But the fact that starchitect Norman Foster is designing it almost guarantees a higher price.

It would be one thing if the library seemed expert at this stuff. But at a June hearing, state Assemblyman Micah Kellner asked library chief Tony Marx how much the structural aspect — the hardest part — will cost.

Marx wasn’t sure. “The budget we have for the entire project includes the renovation of rooms . . . includes the demolition of the stacks, the building of the structure [of] support,” he said.

He added: “Whatever the cost, the city will not pay more than $150 million.”

That’s right: City Hall — which provides much of the library’s funding — made the library sign a contract under which the library will cover cost overruns.

But City Hall is the friendliest of the parties the library will have to negotiate with, compared to developers and construction contractors (and donors who, Marx said, are supposed to fund any shortfalls if selling the branches doesn’t bring in enough cash).

Yet the library didn’t negotiate risk-sharing with the city on cost overruns, which means the city is at least vaguely worried that the price may spiral. Indeed, Marx has acknowledged that the project has no firm cost ceiling yet.

Another unsettling sign: Faced with criticism of construction drawings the library released last year, Marx said, “The rendering was never intended to be a design, it is not a design.”

That sounds like the old Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which disavowed its “renderings” of a new World Trade Center in 2002 after public slamming.

The library might deserve the benefit of the doubt — if it hadn’t botched an easier project.

In 2007, the NYPL sold its Donnell branch on 53rd St. In return, the developer would build space for a new — and better — branch at the bottom of a new skyscraper.

But the developer went bankrupt — and now the perfectly serviceable branch is gone, while the revamped tower, under new management, is years late. (A long time if you’re a little kid.)

Plus, the branch will be smaller, and the property’s likely worth more than what the library got for it.

Marx wasn’t in charge then. But at the hearing, he offered the tired excuse that “none of us could have envisioned what happened to the economy.”

Envision this, then: The nightmare scenario is that after the NYPL has sold off its prime real estate to another savvy developer, the library will become embroiled in a nightmare project on 42nd Street that costs multiples of today’s estimate and takes a decade instead of five years.

The library is doing this because it says it needs money (go figure). “The money for this plan is generated by the plan,” Marx insists. Oh.

The NYPL claims it can’t just fix up Mid-Manhattan and add better climate control at the research library — although during the hearing, Marx said “independent actors” would look. (The science branch, not two decades old, is in fine shape.)

But City Hall — a big financial backer of the library’s everyday operations — should be asking if that need is really worth the risks of this ambitious scheme.

The hundreds of people at the Mid-Manhattan and science branches before the holiday weekend last Wednesday — 16 people in line to check out of Mid-Manhattan alone — seemed happy enough reading their books in their everyday space.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/real_estate_fiction_Py6RHXoIZlrDES5HhqhVNN

 

 
 
 

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