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.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Report on Tuesday, February 24th City Council Hearing On Supporting Public Libraries in the City's Ten-Year Capital Plan Plus Testimony of Citizens Defending Libraries

Citizens Defending Libraries' Carolyn McIntyre testifying about a BPL representative informing people that shelves in the Brooklyn heights Library Children's section were "fully stocked and overflowing" while the photo she held up in  poster form (see also below) showed that was clearly NOT the case.
More about this photo (click to enlarge) and misrepresentations that these children's sections shelves are "fully stocked and overflowing"  available on this  Citizens Defending Libraries web page: "Fully stocked and overflowing shelves of children books"?- The Brooklyn Heights Library According to BPL's Taina Evans. Really?
This page will be updated.

About 85% of the hearing consisted of statements, often very eloquent expressed, that we at Citizens Defending Libraries is perfectly in agreement with about how libraries should be properly funded.  Unfortunately, we are afraid the budget dance continues and never really abated, meaning that libraries are likely to remain funded at inexcusably low levels with those low levels cited as an excuse for selling and shrinking them and doing development deals. . .

. . .   Within that big picture, the question is what is actually being done.  In that regard Linda Johnson was pushing and promoting the Brooklyn Heights sale and the Williamsburg Spaceworks shrinkage in the same sentence, and also pushing hard on the Sunset Park library development plan.

Familiar "Budget Dance" Still Haunts Library Funding Discussions

Although there was been some lip service given, in this hearing, and particularly in recent past hearings that the "budget dance" abated with the arrival of the de Blasio administration, at this hearing none other than the NYPL’s President Anthony Marx asserted that to be false.  The de Blasio administration has increased library funding from the very lowest levels at the tail end Bloomberg administration, funding has never been restored to pre-Bloomberg administration cut levels and have not been restored to funding levels before funding was cut in anticipation of selling of and shrinking libraries.

Marx also said, and we agree, that having to come to testify that the libraries deserved more funding we were all being forced to advocate for things we should not have to be forced to advocate for.  It was noted during the hearing (with gasps of amazement from the audience) that the the city funds libraries at a lower level and at a funding amount drastically less than seven other funding categories, including funding for cultural affairs, even though:  "More people visited public libraries in New York than every major sports team and every major cultural institution combined."
Paul Ness, center in grey sweater, testifying against selling SIBL
It's Up to Public to Raise Objections to Proposed SIBL Sales Other Proposed Library Sales

Throughout the entire hearing there was no mention of the NYPL's proposed sale of the Science, Industry and Business library or the folly of selling it until the concluding public testimony segment when Paul Ness and Veronika Conant both made strong statements opposing the sale.
Proposed for sale: The Science, Industry and Business Library at 34th Street and Madison.  We are told that we have to make our libraries the subjects of real estate sales and redevelopment because they don't have enough electrical outlets and aren't modern enough, but this very modern library is well equipped with electric outlets, computer and everything the public needs and wants   
Maria Roca from Sunset Park also spoke against the redevelopment currently proposed and promoted at the hearing for Sunset Park Library by BPL President Linda Johnson (it `needs new air conditioning')and hearing Chair Jimmy Van Bramer.  Carolyn McIntryre and Michael D. D. White of Citizens Defending Libraries also testified against the sale and shrinkage of libraries.  (We hope to have pertinent video up in a while.  Video of the entire hearing is already available for the City Council.)
Library heads testifying
BPL President Linda Johnson's Strange Formulation About "Leveraging" Real Estate to Be Worthy of Private Partnership Dollars

At one point there was discussion where both NYPL president Tony Marx and BPL president Linda Johnson concurred that when the city is subtracting out money from the system with low funding for libraries it discourages private donors who worry that whatever they donate may be subtracted out again with reduced city funding.  Ms. Johnson came up with a strange formulation about how assurances could be provided to private donors through the BPL's real estate deals to sell and shrink libraries.  Asked by a city council member what Ms. Johnson though she could do to send a message to private donors about how it can partner with the government for the library to procure funds Ms. Johnson said (emphasis supplied):
One of the biggest challenges of raising money for the public library is the notion that for every dollar, for every private dollar of philanthropy, that goes into the library is a dollar less that the city- um- needs to give to support the library.  We all know that's not the case, but it's the argument we need to overcome.  And I think that- um- the current environment- um- that we are trying to create shows that- ah- we are being really innovative, that we're looking at ways we can leverage our assets to take care of them and that we are, in fact, deserving of the private dollars that- um- some of private donors can afford to donate.
When asked by the city council member to elaborate Ms. Johnson had been speaking of the BPL doing its "own part" in order help raise these private partnering dollars.  Whether expressed well or not, what Ms. Johnson said about collecting private dollars in connection with "leveraging" the BPL's assets (from the beginning "leveraging" has been the BPL's standard catchphrase for its real estate deals) sounds highly reminiscent of of the description of things given by Stephen A. Schwarzman, head of the Blackstone Group, when he said he transferred $100 million to the NYPL understanding that it would be for the Central Library Plan's sale and shrinkage of libraries.   (Blackstone is, among other associated businesses, the world's largest real estate investment firm.)

NYPL's Central Library Plan

Many are worried about how aspects of the now-derailed Central Library Plan still ominously survive.  Vera Conant testified (see the chart below for elucidation) about how $14.252 million of the Bloomberg era $151 million for the CLP has been spent (squandered). Fourteen Million Dollars! (This money came from these sources: $125 million from the Mayor, $25 million from the City Council, $ 1m from BP Stringer). The sums shown in the FY2015 column are what is left. These funds are generally rolled into the next year if they are not spent. You can see that Mayor de Blasio has added no new funds for the Central Library Master Plan - Mid Manhattan Campus, but that the City Council has added $ 5m (over the next two years).

Ms. Conant asked for an accounting of these $14.252 million dollars in taxpayer funds and asked why an additional $5 million was being budgeted for a project that has not been publicly presented or even described.

Councilman Brad Lander Tweets, Entreats and Leaves

City Council Member Brad Lander who, starting very early on, has pushed energetically for library real estate deals like the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library arrived at the hearing with BPL president Linda Johnson and the other library heads.  During the his stay at hearing he tweeted the following image-containing Tweets.
Proud to be part @NYCCouncil that consistently champions libraries. Thx @JimmyVanBramer @Costa4NY @JulissaFerreras

The capital needs of @BKLYNlibrary @nypl @QueensLibrary are nearly $1.3 billion. It's (past) time we stepped up.

Council Member Lander left after staying about 23 minutes and left moments after appearing to ask that his presence be formally noted with an announcement (which it was).

Councilman Levin Asks About a "Fairly Aggressive and Unorthodox" project  

At the beginning of the hearing, before the library heads testified, Councilman Steve Levin asked First Deputy Director Larian Angelo from the Mayor Office of Management and Budget about selling libraries and the plans in that respect for the Brooklyn Heights Library in his district.

LEVIN:  . .  there's a plan underway to do a development scenario where the Brooklyn Heights Library currently stands, and allow for development and then plop a new library branch in the base of that building.  The scenarios has been awarded in an RFP [a Bloomberg era RFP] through BPL and wil go through ULURP process, giving opportunist for public input at the Community Board level, the Borough President level, the City Council level. . so I don't want to put the cart before the horse. . .  But I want to ask:  This is a fairly aggressive or unorthodox way of looking at out infrastructure, talking about our aging infrastructure.  This is where we are essentially monetizing the development rights on a particular parcel.  Can you opine on, you know, where that's appropriate, where that's not appropriate?  How does OMB look at this issue?  We have a lot of city-owned land, a lot of city-owned buildings in New York City, a lot of them are are aging, a lot of them have development rights on top of them.  Right?  I mean, you could look at. . . there are probably development rights on top of City Hall.

ANGELO:  Would you want to sell them?

LEVIN:  Sorry?

ANGELO:  Would you want to sell them?  [Levin did a prolonged double-take, apparently surprised he was asked that question and wondering whether it deserved a response.  The audience twittered with laughter.]

LEVIN:  No.  I think that's the question I have.  Is it a question of whether it is landmarked, whether it's not landmarked, whether there is adjacent property where you can sell the air rights, or whether you build on top of it?  This is one where the Brooklyn Public Library has decided that that they want to proceed on this, and I've heard a lot of people against it, I've heard some people in favor of it, but I am just wondering: As the city looks at this, as the adminstartion looks at this where's the line here and why should this be incorporated, but, you know, any number of city-owned buildings throughout the city might not be?

ANGELO:  This is the Brooklyn Heights redevelopment project?

LEVIN:  Correct.

ANGELO:  The Hudson Companies is the developer? [Levin confirms.]  I think that where- I don't want to speak for the entire administration on this, because this is obviously something way beyond something that the director of OMB should -  . But you understand that the use of public-private partnerships in many ways helps get the job done without putting an additional burden on the capital budget.  Then again, from the beginning, the aging infrastructure helps. .  Sometimes they work out very well, and sometimes they work out less well. . .  Private developers are private developers and they, generally, are not doing a project because they are motivated by good will. . ..

LEVIN:   Some, probably never.

ANGELO:  So they're usually getting something out of it and on a project-by-project basis it depends on how the private developer is getting as opposed to how much the library or government institution is getting and then how the community views it.

So I certainly don't have any overarching position on this and I am not sure that the administration does either, but I think that's how you look at it. . . . on a project-by-project basis.
The next two City Council hearings on the library budget will be on March 4th and March 20th.

Below is written testimony of Citizens Defending Libraries prepared for submission at the February 24, 2015 New York City Council Oversight hearing on Supporting Public Libraries in the City's Ten-Year Capital Plan.

* * * *

February 24, 2015

James G. Van Bramer, Chair
Committee on Cultural Affairs,
   Libraries and International Intergroup Relations
Council Chambers
City Hall
New York, NY 10017

Re:    Oversight – Supporting Public Libraries in the City's Ten-Year Capital Plan.

Dear Committee:       

Since March 2013 we at Citizens Defending Libraries have been testifying at City Council hearings raising issues about proposed library sales and shrinkages, the elimination of books and librarians and the underfunding of libraries as an excuse for plans that benefit the private real estate industry, but not the public.

We have raised many still unanswered and important questions.

We have, I think, in multiple ways, proven ourselves ultimately to be right as facts were disclosed.  The Donnell sale and the fact that the Central Library Plan was finally estimated to cost more than a half billion dollars, more than $200 million beyond what the NYPL had previously publicized are just two examples.  I don’t think that any facts show us to ever have been far off the mark.

In connection with the June 3rd-June 9th hearings of this committee on these subjects we furnished City Council members and made publicly available (now on the web) many specific questions that need to be asked about these matters.  Yet, aside from a few questions asked by the Public Advocate, whose time was restricted, most of those questions were and now remain unasked.  (We incorporate into our testimony here the record of our submission and testimony at that June 3rd-June 9th and those previous hearings.)

There is serious lack of transparency on the part of library administration officials and the city real estate officials who are directing themselves to selling off libraries.  We have requested, by FOIL, documents to which we are entitled, but have been stonewalled and furnished with nothing but meager and obfuscating information. Where is the BPL’s Strategic Real Estate Plan hailing back to 2007, or the Revson Study calling for turning libraries into real estate development?  Where are the facts and book census information about how many books are disappearing from our libraries?

Since June a “study” by the Center for an Urban Future and the Architectural League of New York about “Re-Envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries” has been promoted, but whatever good ideas were mixed into it, we could not help but hear during the presentations how libraries were to be considered tools for development with the public “placatingly” told that they would be able have better libraries if consent was given to increased density, development, and upzonings otherwise likely to be rejected. . .

. . . . Study architects also spoke of plans to reduce books according to the advice of two librarians, one of whom expressed favor for removing books from the libraries, saying that eight-year-old children should be scolded if they came into the library to research Black History Month or women’s history, looking for related biographies without first calling to say they desired such books to be at the library.  That librarian, who said that professional researchers should be treated the same way, doesn’t seem to understand how research is really done.  These kinds of “studies” are in no way a substitute for the investigation it is incumbent upon the City Council to pursue.

It is exceedingly troubling that we have not yet restored library funding to pre-Bloomberg, pre-library sell-off plan levels.  By contrast, Austin, Texas, one of the nation’s preeminent tech-based cities, is doing what its voters want: They are properly funding libraries which means enlarging them and increasing the number of books.  It is a shame that we in New York are not similarly doing what the voters want and deserve.


Michael D. D. White
Citizens Defending Libraries

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