January 8, 1987
Landmarks Panel Calls Plan For Bryant Park 'Untenable'
David W. Dunlap

A four-year-old plan to build a restaurant behind the New York Public Library has been dealt a surprising setback, with the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission warning that it would consider ''absolutely untenable'' any structure that would make it difficult to view the library's west facade.

''We would not want this project to go forward with the misunderstanding that this commission could countenance such development,'' the panel members concluded in a motion that they adopted late Tuesday afternoon, 7 to 0, by voice vote.

The commission also unanimously approved a plan to build a subterranean extension of the library stacks under the lawn of Bryant Park.

The current restaurant plan by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, envisions three separate glass-and-steel dining pavilions on the upper terrace of Bryant Park, behind the Fifth Avenue library, linked by a pergola running almost from 40th to 42d Streets. A more ambitious proposal by the restaurateur Warner LeRoy was withdrawn last year before it could be considered by the landmarks panel.

Indeed, the current restaurant plan was not itself on the commission's agenda Tuesday. Rather, the panel was considering a proposal to renovate the western portion of the park, including its lawn, tree-filled perimeter and main entrance on the Avenue of the Americas.

But during an intense 90-minute discussion among the commissioners, a consensus formed that Bryant Park and the Public Library, both designated landmarks, ought to be judged as an entity and that a proposal omitting the upper terrace - the middle portion of that block - could not be considered.

Preserving View of Library
Moreover, the commissioners said they wanted to send a signal that they would look with little favor on anything that obscured the 75-year-old library, designed by Carrere & Hastings. Its western elevation is highly unusual for a Beaux-Arts building: 26 alternating bands of light marble and dark window strips that mark the location of the book stacks.

''This elevation is one of the finest in the country,'' Commissioner Anthony M. Tung said Tuesday, as he composed the motion that was subsequently adopted. ''We feel that it is an absolutely untenable notion that a structure or any kind of impediment be created that makes it difficult to perceive this elevation.''

Yesterday, the chairman of the landmarks commission, Gene A. Norman, elaborated: ''We're not attempting to prejudge anything. We're attempting to make sure that the deep concern the commission feels is recognized.''

Unlike private landlords, municipal agencies are not legally bound by decisions of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern said yesterday that he favored a ''modest structure'' on the upper terrace and hoped that the landmarks panel ''will eventually support'' the proposal. It is already obvious, however, that some commission members will oppose any building.

Park Plans to Proceed
Mr. Stern also said that he would go ahead with plans for renovating the western portion of the park, notwithstanding the unfavorable reaction of the landmarks panel.

''We're not going to tear up the park twice,'' Mr. Stern said. ''The improvement of the park must coincide with the building of the underground stacks, both for reasons of economy and to minimize public inconvenience. So if we receive Art Commission approval on Monday, we will proceed.''

The entire central lawn must be excavated to build the two-level underground stacks, which would be linked to the cellar of the central research library. The new stacks would have 120,000 square feet of space, with room for 3.5 million volumes, 600,000 microform reels and a microform vault.

As currently planned by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, the private group managing the project, and the architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, the upper terrace would contain pavilions offering ''many different forms of food service'' for up to 900 people at a time. This contrasts with Mr. LeRoy's plan, abandoned in March 1986, to build one large restaurant with 1,000 seats.