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.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

NYC Comptroller's Office Letter to Deputy Mayor Glen on the Brooklyn Heights Library

Citizens Defending Libraries is very pleased to have a letter from NYC Comptroller Scott M. Stringer's office to the the Mayor's Office, Mayor de Blasio's Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development expressing concern that the proposed sale of the Brooklyn heights Library does not maximize public value and fails to address the needs facing the Brooklyn Public Library.

As seen in this video, at NYC Comptroller Stringer's December 3rd Brooklyn Town Forum Comptroller Stringer heard expression of concerns from the community and responded with his own expression of concerns about the proposed sale and drastic shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library, Brooklyn's central destination Business, Career and Education library in Downtown Brooklyn.


VIDEO:  Stringer: Serious Concerns w/Brooklyn Heights Library Plan (click through for best view)


Here is the letter:

* * * * *

City of New York
Office of the Comptroller
Scott M. Stringer


ALAINA GlLLIGO
First Deputy Comptroller
Executive Office


December 9, 2015

Alicia Glen
Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development
City Hall
New York, NY 10007

Re: One Clinton Street- Brooklyn Heights Library- C 150399 PPK and C 150500 PQK

Dear Deputy Mayor Glen:

I am writing to share several concerns regarding the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library (BHL). The proposal would dispose of city-owned property, currently operated by the library, in exchange for off-site affordable housing, $40 million for the library's capital needs, and a new library valued at approximately $12 million.

Libraries are vital resources - enriching our lives through education and connectivity and providing ladders of opportunity for New Yorkers of all ages. As a result, it is essential that government ensure the sustainability of these anchor institutions for future generations.

However, there are serious questions regarding whether the proposed sale of BHL is the most effective way to reach this goal in line with the needs of the community. Of particular concern are the following:

    •    The lack of a comprehensive public plan to address the capital needs of the library system;
    •    Questions about whether the plan secures fair and full market value for the property;
    •    The potential loss of services at this branch, both temporary and permanent;
    •    The siting of affordable housing offsite; and
    •    Questions over whether the project will produce good jobs and a safe work environment.

I believe that the Brooklyn Public Library has a responsibility to speak to these concerns prior to moving forward with the proposed project.

Capital Needs

City-owned authorities, non-profits, and agencies are increasingly leveraging the value of real estate to fund capital needs. While these strategies can be a useful tool to support public facilities and neighborhood needs, communities have a right to understand and participate in the development of these plans when they involve publically owned properties.

As a result, it is critical for entities to create and disseminate comprehensive long term plans prior to the disposition of their properties. These plans can help entities chart a path toward financial stability by exploring various methods-- including long-- term leases-that generate consistent revenue.

BPL has stated that it has $300 million of outstanding capital needs across its system, which includes the Central Library, Business Library, and 58 neighborhood branches. I strongly support efforts to find creative solutions to meet those needs. However, to date, BPL has not provided the public with a comprehensive capital plan that explains how the one-time revenue from the sale of BHL will fix those needs. Indeed, the projected revenue from the BHL plan will cover less than one-fifth of the stated need and will not increase revenue to the library over the long-term.

It is simply unsustainable for the City to rely solely on the disposition of property to cover capital needs without fixing the systematic causes for the capital gap.

As a result, the library's comprehensive capital plan should include:

1.    Which real estate strategies it considered from full disposition to long term leases;
2.    The financial gaps this plan intends to fill and how the revenue will prevent these gaps in the future;
3.    Additional properties (if any) that it intends to sell; and
4.    The amount of development it anticipates in these neighborhoods.

Only through this public disclosure can the community and elected officials understand the potential benefits and pitfalls of this plan.

Value

In many communities, there is a dearth of available publicly owned land that can be used to fulfill neighborhood needs. It is therefore essential that any sale of public land must be in the public's best interest and that the public receives the highest value possible, in both use and dollars.

Some groups have expressed concern that the City is selling the property for significantly below market value, even after taking into account BPL's estimate of the value of the new Brooklyn Heights Branch ($10 million) and the interim library ($2.7 million).

For major developments across the City, like those in Hudson Yards, the City has engaged independent appraisers to value properties in order to price complex issues like air rights.

The City should take a similar step here to ensure that BPL is getting full and fair market value for this public asset.

Services

Finally, I share the concerns expressed by many stakeholders concerning the potential reduction in the library's usable space and the shift of essential services to less accessible locations.

While the proposed plan includes a new library, the total space available for public use is being reduced. Currently, the Brooklyn Heights branch and the Business Career Library has approximately 32,000 SF of library, office and circulation space. As proposed, the new branch will have only 21,500 SF, with at least 18,500 SF open to the public. This reduction in size will limit the volume of services that can be provided at the site and limits flexibility for new or expanded services in the future.

The reduction in space will also require the relocation of the Business and Career Library to the Central Branch. While these services won't be discontinued, their relocation will have a detrimental effect on many members of the Brooklyn community. Unlike the Brooklyn Heights Library, which is 0.2 miles from the accessible subway station at Borough Hall, the closest accessible station to the Central Branch is approximately 1 mile from the nearest accessible stations at Atlantic Terminal and Prospect Park.

Given the greater accessibility of the Brooklyn Heights branch, BHL should be considered for more services, not fewer.

Conclusion

Our public libraries are essential to the well-being, education, and advancement of our populace and we must do everything in our power to ensure that they are maintained in sound fiscal health. At this time, I remain concerned that the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library does not maximize public value and fails to address the ongoing capital needs facing BPL.

Thank you for your consideration on this matter.


Sincerely.
Alaina Gilligo
First Deputy Comptroller

* * * * *

On the whole it's a good letter for which Citizens Defending Libraries is very grateful, and we know the Comptroller's Office faced a deadline producing it.

We have a few quibbles we must raise and at least one thing to add to the concern list.

On the subject of getting "market value" we have been straining to remind people that "tear-down" market value (which we are apparently not getting) is far less than value of an up and running asset to the public.  The first in regard to this sale is somewhere in the $52 to maybe $60 million neighborhood, the second in the case of this library is, we think from the public's point of view, far closer to the library's replacement cost in the vicinity of $120+ million.  The BPL has been particularly assiduous in side-stepping assessment of the latter. . .

. . .We think the letter does say this when its says any sale "must be in the public's best interest and the the public receives the highest value possible, in both use and dollars." nonetheless, this is something that we are seeking to be ultra clear about given the consequences that could flow from not bearing the difference in value in mind.

We also find the BPL's disregard for books, core to its mission, frightening, and something that echoes problems at the NYPL and its inability and unwillingness to provide straight, correct and non-misleading information about its book counts (per the recent New York Times article).  Further, as the NYPL's slowly emerging 990s are showing, there is a huge unpublicized expense to keeping books off-site.  In that regard, space for books in the Brooklyn Heights Library is important, including the two underground half-floors that also enable the library to fulfill its qualifications as a Federal Depository.

Ergo, we are not quick to dismiss the value of much of the space at the library, including the two underground half-floors that are very comparable to the seven floors of stacks at the 42nd Street Central Reference Library (with capacity for 3 million books) that are very controversially empty at present.

So, in terms of space valuable to the public we include the underground book storage space.  The above ground space at the library is just under 38,000 square feet and we areloath to par it down to to any 32,000 subcomponent as if nearly 6,000 square feet of it (or the underground space) might not be quite valuable.  We know that BPL president Linda Johnson disparages the space saying that the staircase is too large (like in City Hall?), but space has a way of being used: Today, we counted (and photographed) about eight strollers and one scooter tucked away into the stair space that would have to have gone somewhere.  Upstairs, the stairway area, with a window, was a nice place for one young woman to make a phone call about her notes (away from disturbing readers) while looking out the window beside the display case.

The fact that we are taking the time to be exacting about these issues of public value at stake should not detract from the fact that we think this is an excellent letter expressing especially profound insurmountable concerns and it encourages us as we look forward to working more with the Controller's office in the future.  We especially like the inclusion of the handicapped accessibility issue.

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