2016-11-16 22:56:16
For the Mid-Manhattan Library, a Redesign for the Future

In many ways, the New York Public Library’s renovation plan has been a step-by-step retreat from the ambitious and controversial $1 billion overhaul — with a design by the starchitect Norman Foster — that once called for moving the circulating library at the Mid-Manhattan branch into the main Fifth Avenue flagship.

Now, in a quiet culmination of all the sturm und drang that accompanied its earlier iterations, the library’s board on Wednesday approved an understated $200 million redesign of Mid-Manhattan by the lesser-known Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo that aims to improve the inhospitable interior and is unlikely to ruffle any feathers.

“We can finally give New York the central branch library it deserves,” Anthony W. Marx, the library’s president, said in an interview at his office this week. “It’s been a long time coming.”

While the project will ultimately include opening more public space in the library’s flagship Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, those plans have yet to be addressed.

For now, the library is focusing on the $200 million renovation of Mid-Manhattan, at Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, with $150.7 million of its cost covered by a longstanding city allocation and the rest to be raised privately.

The Mid-Manhattan will close at the end of 2017; construction is expected to last two years.

The signature aspect of the new design is a multistory wall of accessible stacks that will let the library move shelving away from the windows — bringing in natural light — and keep all the books on the premises. Moving some of them off site was one of the more contentious aspects of the previous plan.

“Loud and clear, people wanted the books in the library,” said Iris Weinshall, the New York Public Library’s chief operating officer. “The same amount of books that are in the library today will be in the new branch.”

The design follows a year-long study — led by Francine Houben of Mecanoo and Elizabeth Leber of Beyer Blinder Belle, the architect of record — that included usage data and interviews with staff, members of the public and community activists.

The renovated building — which the library has occupied since 1970 and was originally built in 1914 to house the Arnold Constable department store — will ultimately incorporate the activities of the Science, Industry and Business Library nearby. That library will move out of its current home in the former B. Altman building on Madison Avenue at 34th Street when the new Mid-Manhattan is ready to open.

The Mid-Manhattan receives about 1.7 million visitors annually and circulates about two million items. During the renovations, library patrons will be directed to use four midtown locations, including the Science library, the Schwarzman building, the Grand Central Library and the 53rd Street Library.

The exterior of Mid-Manhattan will remain intact, except for a new top floor that will hold meeting space, a cafe and an outdoor area — which Mr. Marx called “the only public free roof terrace in Midtown.” The new library will also have dedicated space for children and teenagers, a job training center, classrooms and small work rooms.

“People can come into this building, and they can take out of it what they need,” Ms. Weinshall said, “whether they want to start a small business, learn English, write a résumé, bring their children for a story hour or you’re in Midtown and you’ve got an hour on your hands.”

In 2014, the library abandoned plans to sell Mid-Manhattan and fold circulating operations into the Schwarzman Building following considerable opposition from pundits and the public.

In a not-so-subtle reference to the presidential election, Mr. Marx said that the new design is the right plan for today’s world. “At a time when America seems to be closing opportunities and feeling less inclusive, this library is making the largest investment in its history in a central branch library that provides opportunities for all to learn and is welcoming to all comers,” he said. “That’s our stake in the ground.”