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.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Open Letter To The Fifth Avenue Committee: Stand on The Side Of Protecting The Community And Our Public Assets

September 12, 2015

Michelle de la Uz
Executive Director
Fifth Avenue Committee
621 DeGraw Street
Brooklyn, New York 11271

Re:  Stand on The Side Of Protecting The Community And Our Public Assets

Dear Fifth Avenue Committee:

Some of us have asked you before, so we know we are asking again, but some things it never hurts to ask for again, even if you are asking over and over: Please stand with us in solidarity against the sell-off, the looting, of our public assets for private benefit.  This letter is solely for the purpose of entreating you on this subject once again, since we are confident that you are already acquainted quite sufficiently with the facts.

You have been asked by us, and we ask again, for you to stand up against sell-off of our public assets like the sale of the central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Heights Library on Cadman Plaza West at the corner of Tillary and Clinton, and Long Island College Hospital.  You have failed to oppose the proposed plunder of both of these public assets by private real-estate driven interests.  The Downtown Brooklyn library was recently expanded, building out over two wings and was fully upgraded, including bringing it into the computer age.  It is now proposed to be shrunk down to just one-third size.  Although public assets are threatened by privatization across the board in this city, these assets, the library and LICH, are each highly emblematic and local to what the Fifth Avenue Committee now treats as its expanding domain.

(More on the sale of our public assets here: Our Public Assets Under Attack- A Calamity of the Commons Unfolding That We Must Act Collectively Against- How best To Express It?)

It is not as if the Fifth Avenue Committee doesn’t side with the community on such matters when it deems doing so is expedient to its political self-interest: The Fifth Avenue Committee opposed the sale of the Pacific Branch Library, first proposed for sale at the same time as the Brooklyn Heights library, and like the Heights library immediately next to Forest City Property.  That means you allied with us in that case.

It is unfortunate that although we have been making these requests of you, the Fifth Avenue Committee has, instead done precisely the opposite and in ways that don’t speak well of the ability of the community to trust it.  The Fifth Avenue Committee tells the community `trust us,’ but should we really do that?

For instance, on June 10, 2015 at a Brooklyn Community Board 7 presentation he was making, Jay Marcus, Director of Housing Development for the Fifth Avenue Committee was attempting to assuage community misgivings about the proposal that had been sprung on them to sell the Sunset Park Library to turn it into a multi-use project of which a replacement library was a proposed part, the rest being a development handed off to the Fifth Avenue Committee without public notice, input or competitive bid.  To quiet community concerns Mr. Marcus told those in a largely skeptical audience that the Fifth Avenue Committee has “as a basic part of our mission that we are from the community and work in the community” and that “as a lot of you know” we are “community oriented and focused” interested in “community driven planning.”  He further assured, “as you know the Fifth Avenue Committee was part of the lawsuit against Forest City Ratner . . . we’re on your side.”

Accordingly, Citizens Defending Libraries’ Michael D. D. White followed up by asking Mr. Marcus:
“The Fifth Avenue Committee says that it represents the community, that it’s gone to bat for the community, that it was against Forest City Ratner on Atlantic Yards: We have asked, and I ask again, will the Fifth Avenue Committee come out with us against the sale of public assets, will it come out against LICH- we have asked about that, will it come out against the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library, which is, when you analyze it, is being sold off at a huge public loss. . .  and Forest City Ratner, on that transaction, stands as a gatekeeper to that transaction, so if you want to stand against Forest City Ratner, here’s another opportunity.  - Will the Fifth Avenue Committee come out with us and oppose the sell-off of public assets?”
Mr. Marcus hedged somewhat politically in his answer, but, nevertheless, assured, “all of us support bigger libraries. .  and we want to make sure that it’s being done that way.”   He said the Fifth Avenue Committee wanted to fight with the community to expand the libraries.  He said the Fifth Avenue Committee would meet with us about any injustice we perceive to be going on, although, at this point, that injustice should be no mystery to the Fifth Avenue Committee.

Mr. Marcus offered another set of assurances that did not bode well: More than once he assured the community that the leadership of the Brooklyn Public Library was, like the Fifth Avenue Committee, looking out for the community as part of their mission.  He did this in the midst of discussion about the abject lack of transparency with which the BPL has been proceeding with respect to plans to turn libraries into real estate deals, including its refusal to produce its long secret “strategic real estate plan.”

Did the Fifth Avenue Committee come out against the sale of public assets, against the boondoggle sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library?   No, you did the opposite.

Days later, on June 17, 2015, the Fifth Avenue Committee sent its representative to Brooklyn Community Board 2 Land Use Committee’s hearing to testify in favor of selling and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library.  We requested that Fifth Avenue Committee not again deliver such testimony contrary to the public interest.  Instead, on August 18th, you doubled down, sending TWO representatives to Brooklyn Borough President's hearing to endorse the sell-off and shrinkage.  Presumably the Fifth Avenue Committee sent TWO representatives because ranks were thin with nobody testifying for the sale except those one way or another on the payroll of the real estate industry or like FAC perhaps seeking to benefit directly from it.

Having assured the community that Fifth Avenue Committee could be relied upon to be on the community’s side FAC proceeded to prove exactly the opposite.  This included fighting for the opposite of principles Mr. Marcus specifically indicated FAC would be on the community’s side in fighting for.

That is an example of our taxpayer money being used in a tragic way directly against the public interest because the Fifth Avenue Committee is so substantially taxpayer financed through grants and subsidies.  Does the Fifth Avenue Committee’s dependency on city largess also pose a problem in terms of the Fifth Avenue Committee’s alignment with the community interest if FAC supposes or knows that Mayor de Blasio wants the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library to proceed?  This is de Blasio who, when running for mayor, stood with Citizens Defending Libraries and criticized the library sell-offs, calling for their halt, this one specifically included, saying that, “once again we see, lurking right behind the curtain, real estate developers who are very anxious to get their hands on these valuable properties,” but then was taking money from the development team for the Brooklyn Heights Library while their application to be selected by his administration was pending.

Certainly, the Fifth Avenue Committee, as a conduit of taxpayer expenditures, has done much good work, especially historically.  And it is to be given special credit for the real courage it showed in opposing Atlantic Yards, a project the city administration wanted and pressed over the objections of the community.  However, precisely because this past good work can have an anesthetizing effect on the critical faculties of our elected officials and community members as they readily trust you, you should feel duty bound to represent the community interest when you say that is what you will do.  Otherwise, when the Novocain wears off, things may be very different and we may all in the future find ourselves flinching and skeptically alert when the name of the Fifth Avenue Committee is mentioned.

We acknowledge that the replacement Sunset Park Library proposed to be part of your multi-use redevelopment would be bigger than the current library, and that at 20.600 square feet would actually be bigger than the BPL specified in its Request For Proposals that developers needed to make a drastically shrunken Brooklyn Heights Library.  We give you credit that, as you tell us, the Fifth Avenue Committee was an influence to increase the library to at least that size, although, as you acknowledge, library design is not really an area of FAC’s expertise.  The Sunset Park Library proposal is the first library redevelopment proposal to surface since Citizens Defending Libraries has been on the scene and we would also like to think the spotlight we’ve brought to these matters also applied pressure to make the library larger.  Still, unfortunately, like the proposed shrunken Brooklyn Heights Library, because that replacement library would be at the bottom of a privately owned residential tower, the Sunset Park Library could never be enlarged afterward, something that would not be the case, for example, if such libraries were located in city-owned commercial buildings.

There are other issues of principle for the Sunset Park community to consider as it debates what is best for Sunset Park.  See:  Proposed Statement of Principles Concerning Any Possible Redevelopment of Library-- Sunset Park Branch - 

Perhaps the Fifth Avenue Committee considers that what can justify its endorsing the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library is assurances it has received that the Fifth Avenue Committee’s Sunset Park multi-use project will be advanced to the head of the list for city library and other government funding if the Downtown Brooklyn library is sold and shrunk (although that doesn’t mean that funds for these things overall will increase- other proposals may just get pushed further down.)   In other words, you view the two transactions, the Downtown Library sale and shrinkage and your Sunset Park project as linked, but that only further sullies the already questionable Sunset Park deal that was sprung on the community.  It is far from clear that with a proper and open debate the community ought to consider the Sunset Park project you wish to advance as best for their interests, but if it is to be considered as inextricably combined with the Cadman Plaza boondoggle, then it is certainly a bad news venture you are promoting.

The fact that you would argue against the public interest in the case of the Brooklyn Heights Library also makes suspect whether you are in good faith arguing for the public interest in the case of the Sunset Park Proposal. It means that the Fifth Avenue Committee, instead of representing the community, is just operating as another insider, expecting to be one of those who, playing on the inside, gets to have their interest come before others.

There is a fight to be fought to preserve our public assets and those who truly represent the community should be aligned with the community in this fight.  As noted, you should long ago have weighed in on the LICH proposal where endowments to the community of significant public assets have been similarly raided.  The Fortis proposal to replace the LICH health facility proposal reveals just how ravenous the forces are that would turn our public assets into private developments.

LICH and the proposed Fortis development that would replace it is just up the hill from where you are involved in the Pier Six Brooklyn Bridge Park development proposal for Brooklyn Bridge Park land so this in all going on turf you stake out as FAC’s.  Even more familiarity with what is going on should stem from the substantial overlap between thoose pushing for development of libraries on the BPL board and those pushing for more development in Brooklyn Bridge Park on board of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation.  

Again, we ask you to join in the defense of our public assets, to stand by the principles by which you are remembered and presumed to have.  It is not too late to do this or to speak out against these projects as you should.  Or, in the very least, don’t be on the other side, especially while saying that you represent the community’s interests.


Citizens Defending Libraries
Friends of Sunset Park
The Village of Sunset Park
Barbara Gartner, Save Long Island College Hospital Advocate
Brenda Pepper, Save Long Island College Hospital Advocate
Robert Pepper, Save Long Island College Hospital Advocate

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