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, February 5, 2015

Open Letter to Brooklyn Community Board 2 Regarding Libraries

February 4, 2015

Shirley A. McRae, Chair
& Brooklyn Community Board 2
350 Jay Street, 8th Floor
Brooklyn, New York 11201

Subject: Brooklyn Community Board 2, Libraries, Citizens Defending Libraries

Dear Chair McRae, Community Board 2 and Committees:

Citizens Defending Libraries looks forward to working with and providing resources to Brooklyn’s Community Board 2 for the sake of libraries and the benefit of the public they serve.  We also acknowledge that, as CB2 Chair Shirley McRae reminded us the other day, much of the real work of the community board is done at the level of its committees.

We expect that (and have discussed this matter with District Manager Robert Perris) most of the work concerning libraries in the district will be done primarily by two committees, the Land Use Committee and the Youth Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.  Nevertheless, as libraries are significant public anchors for our communities, integrating into our communities in so very many vital ways, we don’t want to shortchange recognition of the other committees’ interests and would like, for reflection’s sake, to provide an overall review of them here.  There is ample reason for these multiple interconnections with the community: More people visited public libraries in New York than every major sports team and every major cultural institution combined.

Here is a review of some of the ways that interests of the various CB2 Committees suffuse what there is to be thought about when it comes to libraries in the CB2.
    Land Use Committee

The land used by the Brooklyn Public Library to provide libraries is city land, city property (except for a very few exceptions where the property is rented).  This means that because it is always important to think about what is an appropriate use and disposition of city property, any changes in the land or property ownership have to go through ULURP (the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure).  ULURP reviews go through the Land Use Committee.  The Land Use Committee might also need to pass on any discretionary approvals associated with zoning changes or variances connected with the pieces of an overall project.

Another land use issue: some branch libraries ought to be landmarks.  The historic Pacific Branch, designed by Raymond Almirall, was the first Carnegie Library built in Brooklyn.  The Brooklyn Heights Library, built in the 1960s, is substantially older than the 30 years required for landmarking (although it was  renovated in the 1990s.) Francis Keally designed it; his Grand Army Plaza Library is a New York City Landmark, but his elegant Brooklyn Heights Branch is unprotected, standing just outside the Brooklyn Heights Historic District and the more recent Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District.

Because libraries are public assets on city land, the design for their building, redesign, or renovation must be passed up with an appropriate recommendation about approval to the Public Design Commission.  This might come from the Land Use Committee or another committee could also appropriately be involved.

    Youth Education and Cultural Affairs Committee

Libraries provide obvious ancillary support to the educational mission of schools, particularly important with respect to our overtaxed, under-capacity public schools where in-school libraries are often shut down.  Public school libraries are often shut because, under the Bloomberg administration, the city became more than 50% out of compliance with the requirement to have librarians to man the school libraries.  Libraries are a place to research, obtain books, do homework, and receive supplemental assistance and support to what is provided in schools. 

As more residential units have been added at an accelerating pace, our educational infrastructure in the district is strained and needs expansion.  Affecting PS8, approximately 3,750 new housing units have been/will be developed between 2004 and 2017 without even counting the Pier 6 development projects or the potential proposed residential development at the Brooklyn Heights Library.  This is while PS8 is significantly overcapacity (142% as of 2013).

Libraries are also an obvious support to cultural programs and affairs and often include auditorium and meeting space that the public desperately needs.

It should also be noted that one of the factors driving the proposed sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library is that selling and shrinking it will benefit Saint Ann’s, a private school. . .   But we do not think that it makes sense to sell and shrink a public library to benefit a private school.

    Economic Development and Job Creation Committee

Libraries are economic drivers.  Studies have found that  for every dollar we spend on public libraries, the public realizes about 3-5 dollars in benefits. 

In terms of opportunity, libraries have been referred to as “the great equalizer.”  They are also places where people go to find and create jobs for themselves and engage in activities that support the creation of new businesses.  The two libraries in New York City that are most important to those searching for employment are both centrally located destination libraries serving all New Yorkers, specially adapted for that purpose, that are now both targeted to be shut down as part of proposed sale and shrinkage plans: The Science, Industry and Business Library at 34th Street and Madison Avenue and the Brooklyn Heights Library that has integrated into it the Business and Career Library.

Somewhat astoundingly, job seekers will likely have to deal with the simultaneous elimination of the job search support resources provided by both these libraries.

The BPL says that when it eliminates the Business and Career Library functions in its proposed shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library it will “move” them to the less accessible Grand Army Plaza, where no new space is being created for them.  We believe that there is a significant likelihood that currently provided resources and services will largely lapse and disappear, indistinguishable from the rest of Grand Army Plaza activities.  To the extent that the BPL will make way for the cramming of Business and Career functions into the non-expanded space at Grand Army Plaza it will have to involve the elimination of other resources there with design, construction and other costs that we have asked the BPL to state for the public.  Although we have requested information about those costs or sacrifices, the BPL has been unwilling to provide such information.

The attack on libraries and their appropriate and adequate funding also involves class and race issues.  (This committee is responsible for oversight of advocacy for equal opportunities and affirmative action for employment and is the board's liaison with the Human Rights Commission.) All New Yorkers use public libraries, but given the access to private libraries, sometimes in-home personal libraries and other resources there are obvious issues of who depends most on the libraries and with the greatest need.

The issue of race pertains particularly to the Pacific Branch and Brooklyn Heights libraries and has been covered in depth here: Tuesday, May 14, 2013. A Consideration of Race, Equality, Opportunity and Democracy As NYC Libraries Are Sold And The Library System Shrunk And Deliberately Underfunded.

In the case of Pacific Street Branch, the BPL had plans to replace an historic family friendly local library with its well-known children’s room with an up-scale BAM-supporting “cultural condominium” library in a luxury tower being marketed with an arts tie-in.  The centrally located Brooklyn Heights Library draws patrons into Downtown Brooklyn from all over including heavily from the nearby projects.  Some of the dialogue involving the proposed shrinkage of the library has included unfortunately frank references to such redesign and shrinkage as a means of evicting such users from the Downtown and Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.
    Health, Environment and Social Services Committee

The Health, Environment and Social Services Committee is responsible, among other things, for “matters concerning social services, the disabled, the homeless and senior citizens” all of whom are users of the libraries.

Particularly important is that, because of the transportation systems and available elevators in the subways, the Brooklyn Heights Library is much more accessible to the disabled (similarly senior citizens) than the Grand Army Plaza location to where the BPL proposes to remove resources.  An appreciable number of those showing up at the Brooklyn Heights Library to further their job search are also confronting problems respecting homelessness although one might not immediately suspect this to be the case when they are showing up at the library to access computer and information in their interview attire.

The libraries are also places where one can research public health and environmental issues.

    Parks and Recreation Committee

It may come a surprise to the Parks and Recreation Committee, but the Brooklyn Heights Library at its north end has a small park with walkways and seating suitable for gatherings that the BPL keeps locked and inaccessible.  We would like to see it opened up and perhaps used by street musicians or, occasionally,  for things like poetry readings.  Overall, there is a fair amount of green space and a fair number of trees on the city-owned land surrounding the Heights Library.  We think that, with minimal effort, it could be attended to and better landscaped, giving thought to how it supports the aesthetics and feeling of nature in the neighborhood, notwithstanding the extent to that it is already fulfilling such roles importantly.  Among other things, we would suggest using somewhat less of this mostly landscaped space for parking cars.

Reading and associated things like public poetry readings are, of course, a form of recreation.  In the city of Austin, a tech hub where they are expanding their libraries and adding to their number of books, the designs for new libraries incorporate outdoor areas for reading while taking in views of nature.

    Transportation and Public Safety Committee

With this committee the question is where to start first.  The committee has responsibility for matters with respect to police and public safety.  Author Neil Gaiman wrote in his article for The Guardian, Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, October 15, 2013:
I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons - a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth - how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn't read.
It is perhaps then not such an odd coincidence that one of our principal adversaries when it comes to those who are selling off and shrinking libraries is Stephen A. Schwarzman, head of the Blackstone Group, among other things the world’s largest real estate investment firm, and that among other none too savory economic activities (fracking, buying up foreclosed homes, and “fleecing” state and local government pension funds) Mr. Schwarzman and his Blackstone Group have invested in privatizing prisons.

When it comes to transportation the committee should obviously be concerned with congestion.  Congestion is avoided by transportation efficiency and avoidance of trips that are artificially longer and more complicated than necessary.  Libraries are frequently located where they are so as to be as centrally located and as accessible as possible.  This also makes library real estate a much more valuable target for real estate developers influencing library administration officials and politically nudging them to sell these public assets.

When officials from NYC Economic Development Corporation (the city’s real estate corporation serving real estate developers) and the library were flogging the benefits of a Brooklyn Heights Library sale they told developers when meeting with them:
It's accessible to numerous transit lines.  So you have the Jay Street hub, you have the Borough Hall hub, the subway lines.  You have Clark Street, Court Street, High Street, all of these different subway lines are serviced at this location. There are parts of Manhattan that are not as well serviced as this particular site and you're able to get to downtown Manhattan within minutes.
Selling and shrinking the library would mean that these assets would no longer be so accessible to the public, a factor to be considered multiplied by the number of trips made by all the many, many library users.  The end goal of transportation planning, including elimination of congestion, is, of course, to make trips as short and efficient as possible, even unnecessary if that can be arranged.  But, by converting the resources of one of Brooklyn’s most important central destination libraries into luxury housing used by a relative few, the many library patrons using the library would have to make longer trips contributing to congestion affecting others while having their own trips become long and inefficient.
All the above is mostly for background purposes only.  We are aware that, as Mr. Perris has pointed out, there is a fair amount of overlap between the membership of various CB2 committees that will create efficiencies whomever we work with.  We also understand that the Executive Committee performs coordinating functions.

We want whatever assistance we can provide in working with the board to be timely and that is why we are approaching the board now.  We don’t think that the board, without preparation, should be put in the position of having to respond to what the BPL puts before it without enough time to react or get the information it needs.  According to its own minutes, the BPL’s plans to sell and shrink libraries go back at least to 2007, perhaps as far back as 2005.  We have been requesting important information about these transactions that we think the CB2 board will also want to know the answers to orient itself and properly represent the community.  In some cases, our requests for information go back more than a year, and yet the BPL has not been forthcoming with information readily available to it.

Among other things we have not received the BPL “Real Estate Strategy” put together by former Forest City Ratner vice president, Karen Backus.  With respect to the Brooklyn Heights Library we have asked for and not gotten information about past assessments we know were done with respect to the now unrepaired air conditioning, cited as a reason to sell and shrink the library.  We have similarly not received an accounting of what the public is giving up and the other costs associated with the sale.  Much of what the BPL has failed to deliver is information we believe we are entitled to pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law.

Unless the CB2 begins as early as possible it is likely to find itself being told by the BPL that the BPL cannot or will not furnish CB2 and its committees with information requested about its plans within the time frame that it will be needed and they are likely to act, as they do with us, as if this is perfectly acceptable.

There are also appropriate actions that CB2 can consider and take now.  For instance, we have distributed our Citizens Defending Libraries letter of support at the CB2 monthly general meeting and most recently brought copies to the last Land Use Committee meeting where Mr. Perris said he would pass along the copy we gave him then to CB2's members (a committee member was even that night suggesting action to support us).

Signing on to the general principles expressed in that letter, including that NYC libraries should be funded at a level appropriate to obviate the need for any forced self-cannibalizing sales of library properties, is an action that CB2 could appropriately take now without any specific matters having to be already before it.  It would be consistent with how libraries are typically set forth as one of the top priorities of community boards; boards often generally adopt statements to that effect.  The advantage of this letter of support is that its signatures collectively help amplify that sentiment.  One last thing to keep matters in overall, big-picture perspective: Libraries costs a relatively miniscule fraction of the city's budget especially when evaluated against other things.

Although Citizens Defending Libraries has been able to inform the board that it has had significant successes we clearly face a great deal of work ahead to protect our libraries and ensure that they are adequately funded.  We look very much forward to working with you, hoping that, as we expect, CB2 will find that its concerns align with ours.


Michael D. D. White
Citizens Defending Libraries

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