Why Is New York City Planning to Sell and Shrink Its Libraries?

Defend our libraries, don't defund them. . . . . fund 'em, don't plunder 'em

Mayor Bloomberg defunded New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth, shrinking our library system to create real estate deals for wealthy real estate developers at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity. It’s an unjust and shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness.

It should NOT be adopted by those we have now elected to pursue better policies.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Open Letter To Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson

It was not announced beforehand that questions from the public would be invited as part of the October 7th :Community Advisory Meeting.  When the public arrived they were told that if they wanted to submit questions they should be on an index card provided for that purpose with the name of the submitter written at the top.
October 15, 2014

Linda E. Johnson, President
Brooklyn Public Library
10 Grand Army Plaza
Brooklyn, New York 11238

Re:  Request for answer to question concerning the unrecognized cost to the public of selling and shrinking the Brooklyn Heights Library

Dear Ms. Johnson:

Tuesday, October 7, 2014, was the first “Community Advisory Committee” meeting concerning the proposed sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library where the meeting was officially opened up to (oral) public questions.  This was unexpected.  Although the public was invited to ask questions with an apparent expectation on their part that they would be answered, we write concerning a question that was asked and that remains unanswered concerning the unrecognized cost to the public of selling and shrinking the Brooklyn Heights Library.

Michael D. D. White, a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries asked the following question of you:
Please calculate the losses to the public associated with the library sale.- Please state what should considered subtractions to the $52 million gross purchase price the BPL will receive for selling and shrinking the Brooklyn Heights Library, the transaction costs, the lost value, etc. and then state your calculations of all those amounts and what they total up to.
Mr. White and Citizens Defending Libraries apologize if, while soliciting your response to such questions, we have displayed any inappropriate anger or impatience respecting what we view as the BPL’s efforts to under-represent the value of what it is selling, and to over-represent what it is actually getting back in return.  We always want our actions to serve, as best they can, our foremost goal of protecting our valuable public assets.

In your response to Mr. White you said that you didn’t think he was interested in hearing an answer to his question.  Mr. White insisted that he was and we assure that we do want the answer requested.  While Mr. White noted he has offered his own calculations, he asked for yours.

We do not believe that you can dismiss as inconsequential the fact that you are selling, without replacement, exactly 66.33333% of the publicly owned space in a 63,000 square foot library building under the vague rubric that the space not being replaced is `not accessible to the public.’  (The BPL is also proposing to dispose of additional significant property used by the library and the public at the site.)  All space has value, existing current use value as well as other obvious potential value.  Publicly owned assets should not be sold without identification and assessment of their value.  BPL should, as the federal government does, supply an inventory of any assets you wish to treat as surplus and you should state assessments of the assets inventoried.

For instance, BPL should (supplying floor plans to make your calculations interpretable and verifiable) state how you have measured and give values about any such space you are regarding as subject to elimination because it is, in your term,  `not accessible to the public’ providing specifics, more or less as follows: [INSERT XX] square feet of [FOR INSTANCE “office space used by” INSERT X# “librarians and off limits to the public."]  Value is: [INSERT XX.].

To inform the public with the information requested we ask that you do so for all of the space you are deeming `not accessible to the public’ with statements about why you decided to consider the space `not accessible to the public,’ and who it is used by including without limitation any of the following: 
    •    Office spaces.
    •    Conference room spaces such as the conference room on the second floor
    •    Auditorium space.
    •    Librarian desk and shelving space, such as the front desk space where librarians deal with the public.
    •    Entryway space.
    •    Custodial and closet spaces.
    •    Bathroom spaces.
    •    Elevator space.
    •    Stairway space.
    •    Hallway spaces, for instance the space used for circulation and exhibition displays.
    •    Above-ground bookshelf space.
    •    Below-ground bookshelf space.
    •    Storage space that is not shelf space.
It is entirely reasonable for the public to expect that such inventory would be supplied prior to sizing a replacement library, prior to asking the public to participate in envisioning and contributing its ideas for what the design and content of a replacement library should consist of, prior, in fact, to concluding that the assets should be discarded, and even prior to concluding that the library should necessarily be sold at all.

Similarly, as the BPL now plans to also remove from the Brooklyn Heights Library the space and assets that you have deemed to categorize as space and assets of the Business and Career portion of the Brooklyn Heights Library, we believe it is also entirely reasonable to expect that an inventory of all those assets with their assessed values should be similarly supplied to the public.

That’s just the space interior to the Brooklyn Heights Library.  Also needing to be inventoried with value assessed is all the other property at the site used by the library and the public exterior to the building.

Let us stress that all of what is being given up, and all that is sacrificed by not replacing the existing library with one equivalent in size and with equivalent assets is a loss for the public in this equation. 

Aside from those assets lost, there are the expenses associated with selling and shrinking a library that must additionally be netted out from the gross price to assess where the public comes out in the end.

For instance, it was noted (for the first time) during the course of the CAC meeting, that although no space is being added to the Grand Army Plaza Library to take in and receive the transfer to it of the Business and Career Library from the Brooklyn Heights Library there will be costs associated with that consolidating shrinkage that include the cost of construction at the Grand Army Plaza premises.  This was one cost Mr. White asked about in his question, asking you to provide a figure associated with the loss.  No figure has provided.

Mr. White also pointed out that, per the BPL’s press release, the BPL is calculating that building a new shrunken replacement Brooklyn Heights Library would cost $10 million, but Mr. White noted that using figures associated with building the replacement shrunken Donnell Library, the replacement cost is more likely to easily exceed $15 million.  Given the cost overruns for the Donnell construction reported after the meeting that figure is now up to an easy $15.75 million.

The developer, volunteering, stepped in to answer the question Mr White asked on your behalf.  We do not believe it is appropriate that the developer should be the one answering the question of what losses the public is suffering as the developer has a vested interest in portraying these losses as being as minimal as possible.

The developer answered that the losses to the public are calculated by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and that the developer covers all the public’s losses.  We don’t believe that the EDC has, in fact, calculated the total of all of these public losses on the BPL’s behalf nor required the developer to cover them.  We also believe that it would be inappropriate for the BPL to delegate such calculations of public losses concerning our libraries to an agency like the EDC with such a different mission.  It is also an agency that many would consider to have been subject to “regulatory capture” which results in developer-driven transactions.

We acknowledge that both you and the developer spoke about how the developer is paying additional amounts, another $18 million according to the developer, to cover some losses and costs to the public on this transaction that the developer construes as equivalent to increasing his real purchase price.  In this respect, you ventured to observe this includes the developer paying the rent for a very small temporary (8,000 square foot) library space at Our Lady of Lebanon.  But that partial coverage of a larger public loss with an immediately self-canceling theoretical increment to the $52 million purchase price (i.e. add the rent amount to the purchase price and then immediately subtract it out again as the public loss it is) is not what we are asking you about because we are asking about the uncovered losses. . . Those uncovered losses include the insufficiency of the temporary space.  During the years of construction the public will be at least 13,000 feet shy of having a library even the size of the vastly shrunken 21,000 square foot library the BPL is proposing.  One calculation for just that uncovered public loss alone comes to $6.37 million.

While answering the question on your behalf the developer represented that EDC was requiring that the developer cover an allocable portion of the monies that the BPL has paid to the consulting firm of former Forest City Ratner Vice President Karen Backus in connection with the sell-off.  BPL’s initial first payment to Ms. Backus was $925,000. We must ask whether this is, in fact, true and ask for further details about the specific amounts involved.  (The evening of the meeting the developer represented that Ms. Backus was also a personal friend of his.)

Also, what of the other consultants involved?  Booz and Co. assessed and justified the real estate sell-off plans for the NYPL (including the disastrously ill-advised sale of the Donnell Library and the Central Library Plan with its $500+ million price tag for library sell-offs and shrinkage) and has now done months of work for the BPL.  What of the Ivy Group?

The above were the subject of Mr. White’s as yet unanswered question.  As there was an apparent offer on your part and perhaps the developer's to supplement the answer requested by stating the costs the developer is incurring, the aggregated $18 million the developer was characterizing as an addition to purchase price, we would love to receive details about those amounts too.

The BPL’s own offered calculations of public loss should hardly be considered a determinative final evaluation given the BPL’s record of pursuing its planned real estate deals over the years with various stratagems that included secrecy.  Nonetheless, we feel that the BPL should have done its own calculations of the public losses that subtract from whatever gross cash price it is receiving in connection with the sale and shrinkage of the library.  The BPL’s calculations would at least provide a starting point or reference for the public’s own evaluation.

We think that BPL assessment and figures respecting all of these obvious losses should have been available and ready at the Community Advisory Committee.  They should, we think, have been available long beforehand.  As they have not yet been furnished we request and express our interest in receiving the information now.


Carolyn E. McIntyre
Citizens Defending Libraries

Postscript Additional Questions:

After the Community Advisory Committee meeting concluded you lingered, offering information in a group that included the developer and Citizens Defending Libraries co-founder Carolyn McIntyre.  There you made several statements:
    •    You said Spaceworks, incorporated at the end of the Bloomberg administration with one of its primary missions being to take over, as “underutilized,” space in New York City libraries, is “not a private corporation.”

    •    You said that Spaceworks, whose Executive Director is Paul Parkhill, is “part of the Department of Cultural Affairs.”  We are aware that at a recent City Council hearing (9/29/2014) about proposed legislation that would involve representatives of the real estate industry in planning cultural matters in the city, the NYC Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Tom Finkelpearl spoke with praise about Spaceworks (as he did at a Land Use Committee meeting in the Red Hook Library where Spaceworks proposed to take over 2,000 square feet of that small, 7,500 square foot library), but we did not hear Mr. Finkelpearl say that Mr. Parkhill reports to him or works under him in his department.  Similarly, when Mr. Parkhill introduced himself at that hearing as the Executive Director of Spaceworks, one of the many non-profit groups in attendance that day,  we did not hear Mr. Parkhill describe Spaceworks as being part of the Department of Cultural affairs although we are well aware that Spaceworks has received funds from the Department of Cultural Affairs, something that we have raised questions about the appropriateness of.

    •    You said that it is wrong and unfair to describe the Spaceworks takeover of space at Brooklyn libraries as being a “selling of library space” and that you do not know why people are referring to it as such.  We are quite aware that Spaceworks and the BPL have sought to characterize the Spaceworks takeover of space at public libraries in the mildest possible terms, characterizing them as only  “licenses,” something we have criticized as a disingenuous maneuver to downplay the legal relationship, especially when walls separating space to be possessed are being built and Mr. Parkhill, a self-described real estate expert, describes, in public meetings, the boundaries of possession at the Red Hook Library as the “demise” lines.  As leases are a form by which real estate is possessed and a way in which such interest are bought and sold we don’t see why you say it is wrong and unfair to call attention to these "long-term" transfers of space from the library (subsequently "subleased") as a form of sale.
Since you made the above three statements very emphatically and did so while expressing their veracity to the President of the Brooklyn Heights Association and a number of individuals who where there to represent various of our elected officials and whereas it would appear that the above statements are not true, it seems important that corrections be made for the record.  Do you agree and will you make them?

CC:     Senator Velmanette Montgomery
           City Councilman Steve Levin
           Congress Member Nydia Velázquez
           Assembly Member Joan Millman
           Mayor Bill de Blasio
           Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams
           Public Advocate Tish James
           New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer
           Community Advisory Committee Meeting

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