Threat of NYPL book burning: A decade of bureaucratic delays delays fire alarms

By Reuven Blau and Farah Javed, THE CITY

February 13, 2022

The most chilling story of the city’s oldest library is a story of bureaucratic red tape delaying the installation of fire alarms for over a decade and counting.

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Working fire alarms do not exist, nor do the working overhead sprinklers inside the Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library in the East Village. The two-story building, dating from 1884, has long been exempt from updated building codes.

NYPL officials tried to upgrade the site for more than a decade.

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But the repair of the historic building has been delayed for more than 12 years. The city’s design and construction department now says full completion is finally slated for this spring.

“A project that involves a fire alarm should have the highest priority in terms of the resources DDC has to complete it,” Iris Weinshall, chief operating officer of the New York Public Library, told THE CITY.

The construction safety saga at the Ottendorfer branch — 147 months and counting — makes it the longest ongoing construction project in the city’s library system, according to a DDC review obtained by THE CITY. But it’s not the only one that drags longer than “War and Peace”.

The records also revealed two other projects that date back to 2009: a lobby renovation that closed the Jefferson Market library in Greenwich Village and another fire alarm upgrade at the Muhlenberg branch in Chelsea.

DDC officials said the blocked sites are remnants of a different era within the department when it “bundled” similar projects at multiple sites to meet needs cited by other agencies.

“DDC doesn’t do that anymore, and we haven’t done that for three years,” department spokesman Ian Michaels said.

scary story

Library officials say a lack of money to make top-to-bottom repairs on aging buildings is forcing them to make piecemeal repairs that extend closures to allow for additional work down the line.

“Libraries are going to be crucial to ensuring an equitable recovery in New York, but they can’t help anyone when they’ve been closed for years,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a policy group that has highlighted the challenges of library branches.

The Jefferson Market branch was partially closed in April 2019 and fully closed after the pandemic hit to avoid logistical complications.

At the Ottendorfer branch, repairing the fire alarm reminds the government’s good watchdogs of a Stephen King horror novel.

“These examples are mind-blowing,” Bowles said.

The Ottendorfer branch is between East 9th Street and St. Marks Place on Second Avenue, February 2, 2022/Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The 137-year-old branch’s modernization plan dates back to October 2009, shortly after Michael Bloomberg was re-elected to his third term as mayor.

It then took three years for DDC and the library to set up the design and put out a bid for proposals to interested contractors, records show.

It took another three years for the city’s budget office to set aside the money needed for repairs at the site and three other branches, according to a project schedule.

In 2017, construction finally began and 80% was complete.

But he was arrested two years later after the city’s Department of Transportation denied a work permit because of a new bus lane in front of the building on Second Avenue.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, everything was put on hold again, records show.

The consultant had to reapply to the Department of Environmental Protection for permission to connect new sprinklers to the city’s water system, which expired during the COVID break, according to DDC. Construction resumed in January 2021.

While that’s not the problem at the Ottendorfer branch, DDC has long blamed tinkering with the plan for some of the major delays. Every time the library or an agency comes up with a change to the designs, the whole project has to be redesigned, according to Michaels.

In January 2019, the ministry implemented a rigorous “scope change” review and approval process to limit changes to projects and keep them on track.

Library officials say small annual budget allocations force them to frequently adjust their approach to repairs and upgrades.

“Do you know of a build job that doesn’t have a scope change?” Weinshall asked. “And we’re not talking about structural changes. We often talk about things like changing the flooring.”

“Should Be Blown Up”

In 2019, DDC released a strategic plan to accelerate “nearly all phases of project planning and delivery”. The plan – which calls for a series of reforms such as standardized change work orders – is the brainchild of former commissioner Lorraine Grillo, who took office in July 2018.

Mayor Eric Adams named her first deputy mayor, giving some government watchers hope that she will use her expertise to push forward more reforms.

“New York City can no longer afford to waste its capital,” Bowles said. “The city’s infrastructure needs are too great.”

The agency, created in 1996 under the Giuliani administration, was designed to consolidate most of the city’s construction under one roof to reduce costs and time.

Construction work on renovations at NYPL’s Jefferson Market branch in the West Village. February 4, 2022/Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY

But DDC took heat for taking more than a decade to complete some of its more than 1,000 capital improvement projects for 27 agencies. In one glaring example, a sewer upgrade project near a Staten Island floodplain began in 1997.

The NYPL has spent the past few years trying to circumvent the DDC by building its own sites and using other city agencies.

The NYPL has partnered with other agencies such as the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Library officials also began using “pass through” contracts to do the building itself.

For example, construction of Jefferson Market began in April 2019 and is expected to be completed in June. In contrast, Charleston, a brand new building built with EDC, began in April 2019 and is expected to open in March.

SDC officials point out that it is often difficult to carry out repairs inside historic buildings riddled with other defects.

A non-working fire alarm at the Ottendorfer branch, February 2, 2022/Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I think this issue is about the larger issue of New York City shopping as a whole,” said Chi Ossé (D-Brooklyn), city council member, chair of the Cultural Affairs, Libraries and international intergroup relations.

Ossé, the youngest council member at 23, added that he plans to use his position to advocate for additional funding for libraries and cultural institutions in the next city budget.

“We all agree,” he said, “when it comes to some of these contracts, libraries sometimes take a back seat.”

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