In the summer of 2008, the New York Public Library announced that it would be opening a Grand Central branch at 135 E. 46th Street the following spring. In contemporaneous press releases, the NYPL pointedly referred to the new 13,000 square foot library as a "temporary site" which was being built in order to serve Midtown East residents while the 53rd Street location — then known as the Donnell Library Center — was under construction.

The Grand Central branch ultimately opened on April 29th, 2009. The date is easy for Ann Seligman to remember.

"I've been going there since the very beginning," she said. "And in fact, it actually opened on my birthday. So that just felt right."

To locals like Seligman, who said she practically grew up inside various NYPL locations, the new branch quickly seemed to outgrow its temporary status. As with all successful NYPL branches, it became an essential part of the community, providing children's programming, ESOL classes, cooling facilities for seniors and a dedicated teen center space, among other amenities. It also turned into a much-loved stop for workers and commuters on their way to and from the busy Grand Central hub, and was among the top 50 most used branches in the NYPL system.

But it may not be one for much longer. With the pandemic cutting into foot traffic in Midtown and several other local branches reopening, the future for the Grand Central branch is in doubt as the NYPL is considers whether to permanently close the location when its lease runs out at the end of the year.

"It’s an open secret within the library system, but elected officials and the public have received non-answers to repeated simple questions about the decision process, status and criteria," said Seligman, a member of Community Board 6.

She first heard a rumor about it closing last November from some librarians she's friendly with, who told her they were under orders not to talk about it with patrons. "Like evolution in Texas, they can talk about it if asked, but cannot raise the subject," she said.

A former employee who worked at the branch for several years, and says they were transferred in anticipation of the closure, said workers there were told the location would be shut down as well.

"My impression has been that it's a done deal," said the librarian, who asked to remain anonymous because of concerns about job security.

Angela Montefinise, a spokesperson for NYPL, confirmed that the library is weighing whether to renew the lease for the branch at the end of 2022, but said no final decision has been made yet.

Scott Lynch/Gothamist

A temporary solution

The NYPL was upfront about Grand Central's temporary status from the start. But that was complicated by the affection the location had built up in the area.

The original lease for the space was set to expire at the end of 2015, but thanks to the efforts of then-Council Member Dan Garodnick and State Senator Liz Krueger, the NYPL was able to find funding to extend the lease another seven years.

At the time in 2015, Garodnick called it "a fixture in our community," while NYPL President Tony Marx said that “after hearing the concerns of Grand Central Library patrons, and evaluating our plans for the future, we decided to keep the branch open. It is wonderful that this branch has become such a beloved part of the community, offering residents free and open access to knowledge, information, and opportunity.”  

Current Council Member Keith Powers, whose district includes a huge swath of the Upper East Side and much of Midtown, told Gothamist he could attest to the branch's popularity.

"I've been to that branch when it's bustling in the middle of the day. It's right in the heart of Midtown, and during normal times was serving a large need for the people that work, live, or just traveled to the neighborhood," Powers said. "During a time when there's been a lot of changes and renovations happening for a lot of the big libraries in my district, this Grand Central Library has served a really important need to make sure that people had a place to go in our NYPL system and has been a tremendous benefit to our community."

Seligman, who is retired, was one of those people regularly taking advantage of the space, participating in book clubs or volunteering as a tutor. She said the librarians there had done an amazing job building a connection with regulars.

"I very much felt we saw that community growing," she said. "People would walk in and so often the librarians would know them, and be able to greet them. And they were able to give good book recommendations or video [recommendations] because they did get to know their customers."

Scott Lynch/Gothamist

The popularity of the branch was borne out in the data as well: between the fiscal years of 2015 and 2020, Grand Central branch's annual visits hovered around 180,000 to 200,000, and its circulation hovered around 230,000. These numbers are relatively high — there are 92 NYPL branches across Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, and Grand Central was among the top 50 busiest branches according to a 2015 report by the Center for an Urban Future.

Compared to the other two local branches within Manhattan Community Board 6 (CB6) that were not under construction — Epiphany Library near Gramercy Park and Kips Bay — Grand Central easily dwarfed both in visits pre-pandemic.

Popularity wasn't the only reason the lease was extended. While the refurbished, much-upgraded 53rd Street library was reopened in 2016 (to somewhat mixed reviews), another big renovation was already about to start at the next closest NYPL location, the massive Mid-Manhattan Library. That $200 million renovation of NYPL's central circulating branch, located on Fifth Avenue across the street from the Central Research Library, shut the location down from 2017 until early last year, when it reopened as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL).

Montefinise, the NYPL spokesperson, said now that both 53rd Street and SNFL are open and flourishing, there may be less of a need for the Grand Central branch. When the 53rd Street location reopened, Grand Central saw a dip in visits, which then increased when Mid-Manhattan closed a year later.

"The factors on the table are whether — in a world of finite resources and so much need across the diverse communities that the NYPL serves — the Library should extend a lease on a space located in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country when patrons there are now served by two of the system's largest, most modern libraries (which represent a nearly $225 million investment in Midtown). It is not a simple question, but an important one that is being carefully considered," she said by email.

"We understand and appreciate that people grew to love this temporary library," she added, calling it a complicated situation. "We will share updates when we have them."

A photo of a map of the NYPL locations in Midtown

The various NYPL locations in Midtown

arrow
The various NYPL locations in Midtown
Google Maps

Pandemic complications

The other factor that has added to the complexity of the decision and compounded the frustrations of locals is the pandemic.

Like so many other NYPL locations, the Grand Central branch was closed during almost the entirety of 2020 into 2021. But while many branches started reopening throughout the first half of the year — and the NYPL restored full service system-wide by July — it took until late fall 2021 for the Grand Central branch to do so, which raised eyebrows among workers and locals.

"It was very, very weird," said the librarian who previously worked there. "More and more branches began to open, but ours didn't. So we were all working at other locations. We really didn't hear a lot throughout the whole process, there wasn't a lot of transparency. It was more dribs and drabs, what you're hearing from other people inside the NYPL, other people within maintenance."

The NYPL said the delayed opening was not wholly unique to this location: “There were a few other branches that opened later because of construction issues, things break down and need repairs,” said Montefinise.

At issue to patrons was the lack of communication. Seligman said she's spent the last six months trying to get anyone to answer her questions about the status of the branch, with the hope that if there was enough community interest, they could find funds to extend the lease, just like in 2015. She's tried contacting local politicians, library officials, and sending responses to fundraising emails, all to no avail.

"I have enormous respect for the NYPL and all the work they do, from supporting immigrants and language learners to expanding access to banned books," she said. "However, the lack of transparency and generally terrible handling of the questions around the future of the Grand Central Library have destroyed the good will and respect the NYPL has built up since I was a toddler going to the Donnell Library with my grandmother 60 years ago."

A photo of the closed second floor of Grand Central Library

The second floor of the Grand Central Library has not been reopened

arrow
The second floor of the Grand Central Library has not been reopened
Scott Lynch/Gothamist

The NYPL said the main reason for the delayed reopening was because the branch's HVAC was malfunctioning and had to be replaced.

The HVAC problem wasn't new — when the lease was renewed in 2015, the extension called for improvements to that HVAC system. But in the wake of COVID, it couldn't be delayed.

"We couldn't open the branch in that condition," Montefinise said. "We made the repair and had to keep the branch closed slightly longer than others."

When it did reopen, it was a shell of its former self. The second floor — which houses the non-fiction collection, the children and teen rooms, and the community center — was completely closed off to the public. The library's collection had largely been distributed to other branches. In photos of the location taken in early May, even the first floor looks like it has been emptied out.

The shrinking of the branch, coupled with the lack of people in Midtown, did not help its circulation numbers. According to NYPL internal data, Grand Central is currently at 16% of average pre-closure levels for checkouts (compared to around 40% at nearby branches), 13% for visits (compared to around 38% at nearby branches), and 20% of pre-closure for computer sessions (compared to around 50% for nearby branches).

"This could also be a symptom of declining foot traffic in Midtown, commuters coming from Grand Central — a factor to consider as the library discusses the lease," said Montefinise. "Having said that, in fairness, Grand Central did open later, and with the pandemic it is hard to know how to interpret these numbers. But they are lower, and that is to be expected with a temporary branch."

Scott Lynch/Gothamist

Checking out the future

From what Council Member Powers has heard, the changes at Grand Central are a direct result of the NYPL consolidating its services into the two bigger local branches, 53rd Street and SNFL. He said he is open to hearing from locals about the importance of this branch though.

"For folks who are concerned about it, they should certainly talk to the New York Public Library, talk to us," he added. "We always want to make sure that our constituents' needs are being met when it comes to any service, and especially, that they have a close and convenient library."

The problem, according to patrons of the library, is that most people didn't know to be concerned, because there's been no announcements that this closure was being considered until now. This particularly bothers the former employee of the location, who noted there are a lot of older people for whom the other locations aren't really within walking distance.

"The fact that they decided to reopen the library with one year to go on the lease without ever mentioning to the community that this is going to close at the end of the year, that sort of sticks in my craw a little bit," the former employee said. "Part of the library's mission is to advance knowledge and strengthen our communities. I think by both withholding the fact that this library is going to close, and by closing it, it doesn't advance knowledge and it weakens the community."

The possible closure comes at a time when the city needs libraries more than ever.A Center of Urban Future (CUF) study last November argued that libraries were essential pieces to the city's recovery that needed more support, a view echoed by the City Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs and Libraries.

"In many of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic, libraries are among the only trusted resources for immigrants, teens, older adults, and those on the wrong side of the digital divide," researchers wrote.

The report states there are innumerable examples of how public libraries help positively shape communities. According to an analysis of NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS) and Department of Social Services (DSS) data and locations, in over 60% of the city’s neighborhoods, libraries are the “sole public hub for career services and support for jobseekers" and the only local public resource for small business owners and entrepreneurs. And in over 33% of neighborhoods, they are “among the only options for free, drop-in homework help.”

But the three NYC public library branches — NYPL, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), and Queens Public Library (QPL) — are allocated less than 0.44 percent of the city budget. They collectively receive about $432 million annually, which CUF notes for comparison is 30% less than the Parks Department, 63% less than the Department of Corrections, and 92% less than the Police Department.

The report calls for the city to allocate $1 billion annually — about 1% of the city budget — in order to bolster and improve services, deal with building fixes, and invest in expansion. Otherwise, the current budget will “prove inadequate even to maintain existing levels of virtual programming while integrating the full return of in-person services.” And that funding could be the difference in keeping branches in danger of closing open.

"It's time to fully harness New York's branch libraries — and make them a centerpiece of the social infrastructure needed to cultivate an inclusive recovery and build a more equitable city," they wrote.

The NYPL says that even if the Grand Central branch closes, any remaining books will be distributed to other locations; any programs would shift to other places; and there will be no staff layoffs.

But what if it doesn't close? That's not something the branch's former employee can quite picture.

"I don't think the library really is in a condition to be reopened,” they said. “I know that this wait-and-see approach is being talked about, but that would be complete news to all of us. If that were to happen, it would be a stunning turn of events."

Scott Lynch/Gothamist