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, December 10, 2015

Citizens Defending Libraries Statement in Response To Councilman Levins’ Decision To Approve Sale and Shrinkage of Brooklyn Heights Library (stated by BPL president Linda Johnson to be a “model” for future NYC library deals)

Citizens Defending Libraries updated its previous chalk messages to Councilman Levin to note and decry how the Levin betrayed the community by coming out for this prototype for selling and shrinking libraries throughout New York.
We are very surprised that the result of Councilman’s Levin’s last minute backroom deal is so much worse than we expected even when we thought that there might be a last minute so-called “compromise” to dress up what is at bottom a very bad deal and bad precedent for the city in terms of selling off and drastically shrinking an important central destination library.

There is no doubt that the deal is now fractionally better than what was proposed, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are selling off valuable public libraries or, more broadly, how bad a deal this is for the public.  The new bigger version of the smaller shrunken library will now be 42% of the current library’s size.  When you realize that the currently library would cost $120+ million to replace and that we are getting only 42% of that back you realize how much we have lost.  Remember that this is a library that was expanded to its current size (because it needed to be) and fully upgraded in 1993 . . .

. . .  Placed at the bottom of a luxury residential tower that is privately owned, this shrunken library can never be expanded afterwards to correct this mistake or keep up with city growth.

Further, the public will have to suffer through the demolition of a perfectly good, sturdy library, one of the most modern in the Brooklyn Public Library system, waiting years for the rebuilding of its shrunken replacement.

It is ominous that, as BPL president Linda Johnson says, this is viewed as a “model” for libraries throughout the city, not only other libraries in her own BPL system, but also Queens and the NYPL?

Distressingly, there was 20,000 square feet of unspoken for space within this project as currently proposed that could have readily have been added to the size of the shrinking library.  Did Councilman Levin add that 20,000 or even 10,000 as might be expected?  No!: He added only 5,000 square feet.

Not mentioned is that this added space is all underground.  The current library is nearly 38,000 square feet above ground.  Levin is approving shrinking that down to 15,000 square feet.  

We are most saddened by the lack of transparency.  Councilman Levin spent hours last night, this morning and probably the days before talking behind closed doors with the developer.  None of the options possible were presented or previewed to the public, nor did Levin spend comparable time with the public.  What we got was a lot of drama, but no transparency.  The lack of transparency compounds the problem of the utter lack of transparency leading up to this moment.

Over a year ago, Levin promised the community that he would insist on transparency from the BPL with respect to the library sales.  He has never followed through on that promise despite our repeated urging.  We think it is clear that this project would never have survived scrutiny had he done so.  So the question is what was Levin’s intention, who was he serving, when he did not demand the basic transparency the to which the community was entitled.

It is important to discern and bear in mind how many items in the basket of now-you-can have it goodies being trotted out to dress up this deal are being paid for by the public, not the developer.  They are being paid for by the public reaching into its own pocket and budgetary resources, not with money from the developer is paying for this public land.

Ponying up those public purse funds for expenditure now to sell this deal to the public is just a further lavishing of more handouts on the developer and it’s all without public process.  Really?: Should the Department of Education, without public process participation or review, spend considerable sums to buy back formerly public space, furnish and operate it as part of last minute backroom deal to make the developer’s thievery look good?

What’s more, to the extent the extent that the public is now being promised what it should have gotten all along, seven day service and “robust programming” at what has been a central destination library in Brooklyn’s downtown, it represents a cynical example of withholding public services, hostage-taking style, to manipulate the public into real estate deals something that Councilman Levin now seems to be endorsing with his wholehearted participation in these deceptions.

Here are some of the other concerns regarding the overly dramatized last minute compromise:
    •    The proposed new additional 5,000 square foot library in DUMBO, was proposed by the BPL long ago  (2007/2008 the same time the Brooklyn Heights and Donnell sale were planned).  It is exceedingly small for a library and is unfortunately viewed as a template for conditioning the public to accept smaller “Out-Post” libraries in the future substituting for what we currently have.  It was referred to as new library model the BPL was piloting referred to as an “Out-Post.”  We'll see what future iterations of the tiny library model bring.  The BPL first version of what it wished for this model was for the DUMBO "Out-Post" library to be only 1,700 square feet.  (Anything less than 10,000 square feet for a library is considered woefully small.”) . . .  It wasn’t explained whether the city would own this library as is normally the case, or the process that will apply to its acquisition.  Would the property even be owned or would it be leased (as previously contemplated) with capital expenditures involved to outfit a temporary facility.

    •    There is no updated calculation of how little the BPL is netting from this sale.  Based on the BPL’s estimate that the replacement library space would cost $12 million to outfit the now proposed larger shrunken library should now cost $14.9 million to outfit, but based on the Donnell figures we think it will probably actually cost about $20 million to outfit.  Obscuring what should be the obviousness of this, BPL president Linda Johnson made this statement continuing to use her former, now antiquated over estimation of what will be netted from the sale: "We are one step closer to bringing a new, inspiring, state-of-the art library to Brooklyn Heights and a $40 million investment to libraries . . “ (emphasis supplied.)

    •    The “commitment” to seven day service and commitment to “robust programming” are both good, but should be presupposed and should always have been the case for a central destination library which this library has been up to this time.  Why this had not already been so in a time of plenty, of extraordinary city budget surplus, and a time of heavily increasing library use, requires explanation.  There is also nothing to prevent this from being a bait and switch promise if we face lean years in the future.

    •    Because it should have been done before and because it is more easily and quickly done now without demolishing and having to construct anew, it is also just eyewash that the the Brooklyn Public Library will partner with local business and entrepreneurship groups to create a new, 3,000 square foot ‘Technology & Business Services Center’ in the new Brooklyn Heights Library in order to preserve and enhance the technology-rich workspace and business-facing services of the current Business & Career Library and better meet the needs of a 21st Century workforce.

    •    The prettification (a standard ruse) that the developer will contract to a provision that will allow the Brooklyn Public Library to share in any profit above a benchmark rate of return is treacherous and likely to lose meaning in the details.  First the developer’s rate of return is probably set to be substantial anyway.  Then there are the pitfalls of “Hollywood Accounting” style or the kind of creative accounting you can also get in real estate where profit is drained off by the developer’s related companies of which the Hudson Companies has many.

    •    The deepened “affordability” of some of the units so-called “affordable” units, most of them very small, goes in the right direction but does not change the fact that these units are being built “poor door” style more than a mile away in a different neighborhood and less desirable school district.  As Public Tish James wrote about this project: "Supporting affordable housing and preserving public assets like libraries must not be competing imperatives."

    •    The construction unions must decide for themselves whether sufficient concessions were made with workforce safety assurances but we note the Hudson Companies’ bad record respecting these matters.

    •    We will temporarily withhold comment about the square footage that will be set aside in the building for a STEM education labs administered by the NYC Department of Education except to note that libraries support education and with the library shrinking almost 60% there is a lot lost to be made up for in this regard.  One question raised:  How does the promise of this facility square with all the previous representations (designed to forestall public discussion?) from the School Construction Authority to CB2 members and theoretically to Levin himself that this property could not be an appropriate site for educational facilities?  lastly, why should be be forced to choose?: We should not be asked to choose between our need for schools and our libraries.
The language reminding Steve Levin that transparency was importnat had to be changed to note that he never delivered the transparency from the BPL he promised he would insist on and only delivered a backroom deal instaed.


  1. Thank you for your hard work. I feel like throwing up now. :(

  2. As someone who grew up on 7th Avenue and 4th Street in Brooklyn and went to Libraries all the time I am beyond sad and upset about this. Is there anyway we the citizens can STOP this Madness? What, are they going to sell parts of Prospect Park next?

  3. I grew up in this neighborhood, it's a dirty doggone shame of what't happening because of greed, greed. Forget about a major franchise closing..But, when you have a Library a most need asset educational institution such as this one, close!! This where I did my school projects, research and homework...sounds personal, but, what about those people who relies on this institution for most of their life..,:(

  4. Disgusted. Karma has an appointment with Levin.

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  6. I suspect the fix was in on this a long time ago. Was Levin just going through the motions to look like he had an open mind?

    Regardless, the deal will be done and it won't be stopped. It would be better to put all this energy and hard work into lessons learned. Most people are indifferent and view this as a First-World Problem.

    Next step to consider: rally wider citizen support against future bad deals that sell off public land.

  7. Thanks to Michael, Carolyn and all of the thousands of Citizens Defending Libraries supporters who fought for years to stop this sick deal. This was a tough battle in a long war.

    It's painful watching our society take itself apart to feed the 1%. Fortunately, a few great citizens in any crowd will always stand against foolishness and tyranny. That grand tradition continues here.