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.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Report on March 9th “Community Advisory Meeting” About Plans To Sell and Shrink Brooklyn Heights Library, Putting Up A Luxury Condominium Tower

"Community Advisory Committee" meeting about to get underway
This page will be updated and we expect to be putting up video (with links here) on our Citizens Defending Libraries Youtube Channel.

Proposed plans discussed by the Brooklyn Heights Library “Community Advisory Meeting” to sell and shrink the Brooklyn Heights Library were note very well received to the extent that the community had a chance to express itself Monday night.
BPL president Linda Johnson reacted with a strange expression when told by Toba Potosky, president of the board of directors of nearby Cadman Towers on Clinton Street, that "The library is packed with people all the time."

A significant piece of news from Monday night is that URLUP certification has been pushed back, yet again, now until June.  This clearly indicates that we have forced the library administration officials and their developer partner to grapple more realistically with the community’s rejection of this project.  They are now working as best they can to try to make the community rejection appear less obvious.  In September, when the developer was selected, ULURP certification was going to be this month.  Then it was pushed back to April, now it’s two months later.  Originally, the Bloomberg administration initiating these real estate schemes, and pursuing them on multiple fronts, wanted everything to happen many months early with a developer contract for the Brooklyn Heights Library being executed before December 31, 2013, Bloomberg’s last day in office.

But listen to how the new date has been picked to just barely accommodate the timing of a manipulated community “charrette” process.  The charrette will occur two weeks from announcement with small tables of 6 to 8 people that will each include, there to steer things, one representative of the developer’s architect, now anointed as the library’s architect as well, and one representative of the Brooklyn Public Library that, with its transformation into a real estate development company, is also the developer’s representative.   If you listen to the system for input that was described Monday night, it is rife with opportunity for the BPL (with the developer) to provoke and cherry pick input to support its vision which starts out inflexibly with a decision to shrink the library from 63,000 square feet to 21,000, square feet.  (WEEDY DETAILS FOR THE GEEKS KEEPING TRACK: Monday night the architects came up with slightly revised figures a reduced existing library size of 59,149 square feet rather than the 63,000 square feet used to produce inflated air conditioning repair estimates, and a proposed shrinkage to 21,500 square feet, not reflecting what was stated to be the result of the RFP.)

April 20th the Library, working with the developer’s architect, will restate and reformulate what they consider to be the public input for reaction.  Then that will be presented to a stacked CAC (not representative of the public) in May. . . .  just in time for commencing the ULURP process right afterward in June!

A real open and transparent process to determine what the community wants should have preceded any decision to sell and shrink the library or to move the library’s Business and Career Library functions way from Downtown Brooklyn.

On another front, there are developer-serving arguments being promulgated that the “design” of the project can’t be considered in the URLUP process, only whether the disposition of this publicly owned property makes sense.  That argument, if bought into, opens the door to allowing the developer to make radical changes to the project even after ULURP.  It also ignores what one must absolutely consider to make a determination of whether the disposition of this substantial public assets makes any possible sense: You must consider how poorly the design of a drastically shrunken library will serve the public versus what the public has now and could have with some sensible upgrading and perhaps adaptive reuse of portions of the premises.

We asked questions Monday night that Linda Johnson mostly didn’t answer.  The library has overstated what it believes it will net financially by selling the library.  Johnson said that the small amount of net funds will go to certain other libraries, not mentioning the Grand Army Plaza Library where alterations will be necessitated by the transfer and accommodation there of the Business and Career Library functions. .  That’s to the extent that the Business and Career Library continues to exist at all.  It is important to remember that although the Business and Career Library functions are supposedly being moved to Grand Army Plaza there will be no new space created to accommodate those function, so the reconfiguring of Grand Army Plaza, which Ms. Johnson acknowledges will have a cost she will not state, will just be about cramming it in and reducing space for other activities and functions there.

Ms. Johnson says that she will not state, or net out this cost of GAP reconfiguration because she says that it was always the intention to move the Business and Career library way from Brooklyn’s Downtown.  Actually, as you can tell from the BPL’s own minutes that is NOT the case.  The plan to move the Business and Career Library out of Brooklyn Heights in order to sell and shrink the Brooklyn Heights Library goes back to 2007 with the BPL’s “Strategic Real Estate Plan” put together by ex-Forest City Ratner Vice President Karen Backus.  We think the “Strategic Real Estate Plan” should be made public and  have asked for it via FOIL, but Ms. Johnson and the BPL have refused to provide it.  Ms. Johnson said Monday night it was because she doesn’t understand our request.

With the figures released Monday night, between the branch library and the Business and Career Library functions,  the BPL assigned 57% of the space to the branch Library and 43% to the Business and Career Library, and that’s ignoring how the  Business and Career Library has always functioned in supportive synergy and on an integrative basis with the entire library making it one library.  For example: Consider the computer room that is supposed to be part of the Business and Career Library, and not technically, the branch.

While the library is proposed to be reduced from 63,000 square feet to 21,000 square feet, we heard the developer speak of how Saint Ann’s was going to get perhaps 18,000 square feet, and perhaps 20,000 square feet in the building just for an auditorium.- We cannot overlook how the benefits to Saint Ann’s, a private school, are helping to drive this sell-off and shrinkage of public tax-payer-paid-for assets.

Yes, there were a few individuals and entities like the developer-oriented Chamber of Commerce who read prepared statements in support of the sale and shrinkage of the library.  There was also the Downtown Partnership- Check out the relationship between the Downtown Partnership and Forest City Ratner before putting stock in what they say.

Thoughts about the proposed charrettes going forward

Interestingly the Brooklyn Heights Library design charrette isn’t the only one being proposed these days . .  There are a number of others, the 23rd for the Brooklyn Heights Library, the 26th for the NYPL's Central Reference Library, Mid-Manhattan and the sale of SIBL, possibly the 28th for the shrinkage of the Red Hook Library via Spaceworks, and possibly one for Sunset Park in this time frame. 

Probably most people who have the opportunity should decide to, and be supported in, participating in these multiple charrettes (and there will be more).  The question is how to do so while bringing along an appropriate level of refusal to being channeled into a narrow set of parameters and a buy-in to their stilted terms and preconceptions about where they want to steer the public- The question is how do you attend, maintain that, and communicate out to other participants so they can become similarly conscious and operate with that conscientiousness?

Brooklyn Public Library finally produces floor plans for the existing library.

Citizens Defending Libraries has been after the Brooklyn Public Library to make a great deal of information public for a long time, including producing floor plans.  Monday night the library finally produced floor plans (although not a full explanation of why it is considering so much of its space inside and outside of the building as having essentially no value.)

In the floor plans, which the public will now need to study and consider, between the branch library and the Business and Career Library functions, the library assigned 57% of the space to the branch Library (blue) and 43% to the Business and Career Library (green).  The 63,000 square foot library is four stories in all, with the great majority for its space being in the two floors above ground and more space in another two stories below ground, currently used (17,527 square feet or 28% of the total 63,000 square feet) for books and materials (similar to the research stacks of the NYPL's 42nd Street Central Reference Library).  Asked about the library's responsibilities in keeping materials Linda Johnson responded only vaguely although she seemed to acknowledge some possible responsibilities. She also said, when asked by Carolyn McIntyre, she could not give information about the number of book previously at the library vs, how many were still remaining.  Ms. McIntyre suggested that this was because library administration officials were focused on real estate deals, not on the management of the public's tax-payer paid for assets.  The library, in Downtown Brooklyn, is a central destination library. In these drawing the architects have, through rounding or by switching between net and gross calculations or whatever, reduced the previously stated size of the library down to "59,146" square feet.

There's more review of what the floor plans show in terms of relative measurements here: Floor Plans of the Brooklyn Heights Library Considered In Light of the Library's Proposed Sale and Shrinkage.

The Charrette begins with the premise that the public will input will be about how to shrink the Library down to the size already predetermined by the BPL’s RFP agreement handing the library site off to the developer.  That agreement calls for reducing the library from 63,000 square feet to 21,000 square feet with no more than 15,000 feet of the new library above ground.  Based on the figures and floor plans the BPL only just released in response to our agitation, the current library has approximately 37,703 square feet of above ground space. 

Press coverage

Here is coverage of Monday night in the press (comments possible at those sites).

•        Brooklyn Heights Blog: Brooklyn Heights Library Meeting Reveals Schedule; Much Still to be Resolved, by Claude Scales, March 10, 2015.
Last evening's meeting of the Community Advisory Committee for the Brooklyn Heights Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library had few surprises. The final design of the proposed structure is far from complete, although it has been decided that it will be "taller and skinnier" than earlier renderings showed. The footprint of the library space within the building has at least tentatively been fixed, but the specifics of what goes into it and where remain . . .

* * *

. . . Committee member Robert Perris, Administrator of Community Board 2, noting that the new Sunset Park Branch will have 20,000 square feet, said, "If Sunset Park gets 20,000, I want 30,000."

* * *

Several attendees expressed concerns about the interim facility that will serve the community during the demolition of the old library and the construction of the new one. This will be in the Social Hall of Our Lady of Lebanon Church, at Henry and Remsen streets and with entrance-which according to Ms. Johnson will be accessible under ADA requirements-on Remsen. This is a 7,000 square foot space; much smaller than the corresponding space in the present library. Special concerns were raised about programs for children during the interim period.
•        Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Library officials met with blunt questions, cautious support at Brooklyn Heights meeting, by Mary Frost, March 11, 2015.
. . .  A number of local residents expressed scathing criticism of the plan, however, and urged the library and its Community Advisory Committee (CAC) to consider the impact of yet another residential tower on Brooklyn Heights' already-overcrowded elementary school, P.S. 8.

* * *

BPL's Johnson said, "All of us are committed to delivering a building to the community that improves the skyline," raising some titters from audience members opposed to the development.

She added, "When we're ready to show the building, we'll show the building. If it's ready by the next meeting [in May] that would be great. And if all of us are not happy with what the building is looking like at that point, then we're going to keep working on it until we are satisfied with it."

* * *

The first of several open workshops will be held on March 23 at 6:30 p.m., "allowing the community to be heard" in the design process, he said. "It's a listening moment."

After each workshop, "We'll be collecting and analyzing the information, putting it into matrices, giving it back to the community as pie charts and percentages so you can see where the general tone is," Marvel said. "This is almost a foolproof way of coming up with . . .  a 21st-century library that really does represent the larger vision of this community."

* * *

Robert Perris, district manager of Community Board 2, pointed out that the new Sunset Park branch is being redeveloped, and "they're getting 20,000 sq. ft."

"I know that I shouldn't covet my neighbor's library . but I do covet my neighbor's library and if Sunset Park can get 20,000, then I want 30,000," he said.

Doreen Gallo of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance was one of the few CAC members to express outright skepticism. "I don't know if a 30-story building is really improving the skyline," she said to applause.

* * *

Larry Gulotta, president of Independent Neighborhood Democrats, scoffed at BPL's cost estimates for library repairs. "The numbers that are thrown around are not transparent. We're skeptical, and the club is skeptical. The executive board of the IND passed a resolution, and it says we don't believe this is a viable plan."

* * *

Ansley Samson, co-president of the P.S. 8 PTA, was one of several attendees calling for more attention to the neighborhood's need for more school space. Residential units at the site are expected to add about 70 children to overcrowded P.S. 8, already at 142 percent capacity, and the broader area is also at or above capacity.  "That's a big impact."

* * *

"SCA did not want a school at this site because the feeling was that school buses would clog the whole area all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge," Halen said.
•        Brooklyn Downtown Star: Residents discuss controversial Brooklyn Heights library, by Holly Bieler, March 11, 2015
Locals voiced oft-repeated reservations about the decision to raze the current site only to be left with a smaller library, instead of renovating the current building.

"There's something great about this place," said Doreen Gallo, who sits on the Community Advisory Committee, a group that meets with the developers and local library officials every six months. "I'm not saying it couldn't use a couple more floors, but luxury housing doesn't have to pay for it."

* * *

"This is a difficult one," said Councilman Stephen Levin at the meeting's end. "On one hand you have a library that doesn't have a functional air conditioning system, on the other hand what they're proposing is smaller. But there is a need for funds. I'm trying to hear every side of the argument, but this is a hard one."

1 comment:

  1. Interesting observation about the March 23 charette at bpl as opposed to the March 26 at NYPL.

    The March 23 is scheduled from 10 am to 5 pm so working people doing the normal 9 to 5 shift cannot make it without taking a day off whereas the march 26 is held in the evening. Couldn't the bpl be done on a Saturday and why is the NYPL so short in time only two hours as opposed to the BPL which is 7 hours?

    Something gives here as it appears that they want to exclude participants. Any comments from the floor?,