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.

Friday, February 17, 2017

BPL Plans To Move The Brower Park Library To Children’s Museum (The First Public Presentation To Brooklyn’s Community Board 8)

BPL's David Woloch and Children's Museum's Stephanie Wilchfort present plan to move library at CB8 meeting.
The Brooklyn Public Library and the Children’s Museum jointly presented a plan last night to Brooklyn’s Community Board 8 to move the Brower Park Library into the Children’s Museum.
Brower Park Library
The presentation last night probably came when it did last night because Citizens Defending Libraries put an alert out last Sunday that Brooklyn Public Library and Children’s Museum trustees were congratulating themselves about making this deal.  (In fact, the BPL’s press release on the subject, dated Valentines’ Day, Tuesday, February 14, 2017, “Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Children's Museum Announce Innovative Partnership to Bring Family Library to Crown Heights,” came out only after we had given advance warning to some community activists and conferred with reporters about our alert earlier in the week.)  If were the cause of the presentation and press release, we are glad to have provoked the furnishing of more information to the public sooner than planned.  It is always good for the public to know what is going on as early as possible, before the cement for the fixes behind the scenes is dry.

There will be another CB8 meeting devoted to the proposed move on the library on April 4th (7:00 PM at the Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, 727 Classon Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11238- people are urged to bring their questions).
CB8 board members last night.
Video of the presentation is available on our YouTube Channel (click through to YouTube for best viewing): Plan To Move Brower Park Library To Children’s Museum Presented To Bklyn CB8.

[ADDENDUM (to the analysis below, added 2/19/2017): The article that appeared in Patch about the proposed move of the Brower Park Library into the Children’s Museum (Patch: Brower Park Library Relocation: New Details Released- The Brooklyn Public Library wants to move its Brower Park branch to the Brooklyn Children's Museum, by John V. Santore, February 17, 2017) included an additional representations by the BPL of the Children’s Museum, apparently obtained by reporter John Santore in interviews after the presentation.  While the analysis below is based on the dangled possibility that, with 11,000 square feet of potentially available museum space, a replacement library could be a larger, perhaps adequately sized library of 10,000 square or more, Patch writes of the replacement library as being just 6,000 square feet, even smaller than it is now.  Spending capital dollars to shrink what is already the “smallest library” in the BPL system while at the same time shrinking (recently expanded) space at the museum must be categorically rejected as indefensible.  Also, as Patch printed, and we missed focusing on, it is represented that the BPL would pay the Children’s Museum “about $230,000 per year in rent.”  In the presentation Children’s Museum president Stephanie Wilchfort said: “The Library is paying us slightly below market rent for this space, and that would be per square foot $37; it’s a total of roughly $230,000 a year.”  She appears likely to be saying the library is paying $37 p/s/f, which would mean the replacement library space is already sized and would be very tiny, just 6,216 square feet.  Or, Ms. Wilchfort could be saying, as interpreted by Patch, that $37 p/s/f is the market rate, but the library is paying below market and therefore below $37 p/s/f, in which case the library would be larger, but we don’t know by how much.  Another thing to think about: Given that the BPL would spend at least a probably underestimated $3 million upfront anyway, the $19K+ monthly payments mean, that at the low tax exempt borrowing rates available it could easily be cheaper for the library to buy suitable space to occupy. Apparently, DNAInfo was also told outside the room after the public presentation that replacement library could be a teenier shrunken down 6,000 square feet.  See: Brooklyn Library Details $3M Plan for 'Family-Centric' Museum Branch, by Rachel Holliday Smith, February 17, 2017.] 
First off, let us say that the proposal is not necessarily bad and might even constitute a thing to be desired.  But that is a significant "if." The devil is in the details and what we have found is that when the priorities of the real estate industry drive deals that might sound generally like good concepts, the public tends to wind up being shortchanged. . . . A lot depends on doing the numbers.

And, as for those devilish details and doing the math to ensure the public isn’t shortchanged, we notice that some of those important and potentially elusive details are problematically fugitive.

Here is why subjecting the Brower Park Library to a real estate move could, if the details are right, be a good thing, unlike some other situations where libraries have been converted into real estate transactions to please the real estate industry:
    •    The replacement Brower Park Library could, as it should be, be a bigger library than the existing one, bigger than the recommended minimum size for a NYC library of 10,000 square feet.  The Brower Park Library, built in 1963, is one of the system's teeniest libraries, only 6,285 gross square feet.
    •    The replacement Brower Park Library could be expandable (as it should be).  We say this because it was represented that the museum property is, itself, further expandable (we have not checked zoning restrictions or whether they would need to be overwritten).  Such future expandability of the library is not possible in the case of the new libraries proposed for Brooklyn Heights, Sunset Park or Inwood because such expansions are not possible when libraries are in the bottom of privately owned buildings, not possible in the bottom of residential buildings (vs. commercial ones), and not possible when all the development rights are conveyed away.  It was explained that the Children’s Museum building and underlying real estate is city owned.
    •    The replacement of the Brower Park Library in the museum would be close by, just a little more than one block (.2 miles) away, actually located next to the park for which it is named.  The library is currently at:  725 St Marks Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11216.  The Children's Museum is at: 145 Brooklyn Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11213.
    •    The replacement Brower Park Library could be (and should be) built and in place before the old library is closed so there is no need for the expense and extra disruption of a temporary library and little possibility of a bait-and-switch.  (Unlike Brooklyn Heights, Sunset Park, Inwood.)
    •    The existing Brower Park Library is one of the few NYC libraries that is not owned either by the city (as is typical), or by a library system (i.e. like Donnell and Mid-Manhattan).  The BPL has never acquired it through eminent domain and thus still pays rent to lease it.  Therefore, vacating the premises, is not exactly the same kind of reduction of the publicly owned realm that you see when other libraries have been transformed into real estate deals (although it does reduce the ultimate ability of the Children’s Museum to expand in the very long term and although it also does give up a building that invested city capital expenditures made suitable for its use as a library.)  The BPL’s representative said that it would cost the BPL (a low-sounding) $3 million to purchase the current Brower Park library site, so the BPL may be forgoing (or transferring) an option in the lease to buy at below-market.  Alternatively, the public realm would be expanded if the BPL bought the existing site through negotiation, eminent domain, or any possibly existing option.  The BPL represented (and when they are intent of real estate deals we don’t trust their figures- once again involving HVAC costs) that it would cost $8 million to buy and fix up the existing small library.
    •    The replacement Brower Park Library would have a separate handicapped accessible method of entrance, thus obviating any problems from the fact that the museum charges admission while the library does not, and the library is open longer hours than the museum and should be open even longer hours than it currently is.
There are likely problems with the proposal indicated by details that look like they might not necessarily add up or make sense and indicated also by the way that information and answers for the public last night were hedged:
    •    There is a question whether there is truly enough room available in the Children’s Museum to accommodate a properly sized replacement for the Brower Park Library.  We understand that museum trustees think there isn’t really enough space, but that with some tight squeezing the deal (that who wants?) can be accommodated.  The representative for the Children’s Museum, president Stephanie Wilchfort, said that it could readily give up 5,000 square feet of publicly used museum space for the library (“empty space at the back of the building”) while adding that there is another 6,000 square feet “in the front of the building” (“a little more than” “empty offices”) the museum uses for administrative space.  The implication that came across from saying this in the presentation was that if the museum vacated administrative space (to administrate from off site) there could be an 11,000 square foot (thus suitably sized) library housed in the existing space. Giving up just the 5,000 square feet of public museum space would usurp 10% of the Museum’s 2008 expansion (of about 51,000 square feet).  The entire 11,000 square feet for the library would usurp 20%+ of that 2008 expansion which cost $46 million, almost all publicly paid for at the time.  Did the Museum not actually need the amount of space it expanded to back then? Similarly, how does representing that there is now sufficient space available square with the museum representing that it is looking at, and intends to further expand, in several ways the public was told about last night: A new auditorium with money coming from the city, into the garden and building (“about 20,000 square feet”) upward?  Lastly, the public was told that museum was hoping to get back something it had before in the 60s and 70s: a planetarium.
    •    There is a question about whether the true cost of relocating the library is being acknowledged. The BPL’s representative aid that it would cost $3 million to build the replacement library in the museum.  $3 million seems like a depressingly inadequate amount, less than half of what you would expect to need, for properly outfitting a library that is properly sized at more than 10,000 square feet.
    •    There is a question whether the BPL truly intends to build a replacement library that would be of adequate size. That would be unfortunate if major capital improvements are going to lock in the future.  When I asked more specifically about the size of the replacement library and its cost, the BPL’s representative David Woloch seemed, ominously, to hedge and back off saying that there isn’t any minimum size a library should be, even though BPL President Linda Johnson told an audience at the Municipal Art Society on February 26, 2015 that libraries that are “7,500 square feet” are “woefully small,” and even though the Center For an Urban Future issued a report (endorsed as representing the BPL’s thinking, by Ms. Johnson) lamenting as inadequate branch libraries that are less than 10,000 square feet.  David Giles, the author of that CUF Report, has gone on to work at the BPL hired by Ms. Johnson.
    •    There is a question of for whose benefit this deal is being structured.  When I asked who was getting to walk away with the real estate of the Brower Park Library’s existing site specifically given that the BPL had previously entertained development proposals respecting the site, the BPL’s representative David Woloch said that the BPL had not such entertained any development proposals.  Going by the BPL minutes that is inaccurate.  Furnishing only the inaccurate information as his response Mr. Woloch neglected to answer the basic question: Who gets to walk away with the real estate at the site of the existing library?   The BPL minutes of September 18, 2007 say “The Landlord has proposed the following to BPL: demolish the building and build a 7-floor residential condominium; a new library would be on the ground floor; the library space would be available for purchase by the City; BPL has expressed interest in this opportunity subject to further due diligence, board approval and the availability of capital funding.”  The December 18,  2007 minutes say: “Brower Park Branch-  Developer has agreed to submit to BPL a proposal outlining an offer for a new branch library on the site in a more formal and detailed manner.”  As outlined in our previous post about this possible transaction the boards of both the BPL and the Children’s Museum have all sorts of individuals with real estate and other agenda not necessarily consonant with the best interests of library patrons.  At the presentation, the museum’s representative said that this proposal had been made to the museum “about a year ago.” That may be true, but it is interesting to note that David Offensend used to be on the board of the Children’s Museum. David Offensend, as Chief Operating Officer of the NYPL, was the master overseer initiating the NYPL library sell offs like Donnell, SIBL, Mid-Manhattan.  Meanwhile, his wife, Janet Offensend, was a key trustee placed on the board of the BPL structuring similar conversions of libraries into real estate deals like the Brooklyn Heights shrink-and-sink deal replicating the Donnell Library shrink-and-sink deal. . . . Will we ultimately finds out that this is another situation where somebody like the Fifth Avenue Committee is stirring the development pot?  We would all know more if, for instance, the BPL had provided Citizens Defending Libraries with the "Revson Study" and its "real estate strategy" requested by FOIL long ago.
    •    Question: If NYC/BPL have rights to the current site, like a below-market purchase option, how will those rights be used?   If the city/BPL has some economic control over the library’s existing site how will it be used?  Will that control be disposed of via proper bidding?  For instance, it could be wonderful if the site will be used to create housing that is truly affordable.  However, it would not be so wonderful if this is another city-controlled site that is turned over to the Fifth Avenue Committee without bidding and proper community consultation.
Clearly, while the presentation vaguely dangles as a lure an available (and likely acceptable) 11,000 square feet for a replacement library in the museum, the BPL seems to be toying with the idea of shortchanging the community with an unacceptably teeny replacement library (based on the fact that, as Woloch said, the library is currently the "smallest in the system"?-  The Crown Heights Library, over a mile away, is 11,119 square feet).

There are other things to think and wonder about.  As owner of the Children Museum’s real estate and a significant provider of its funding, the city of New York obviously has carrots and sticks with which to influence the museum's decisions: Remember that hoped-for planetarium (a funding request is in to the federal government), the city-funded auditorium, and the hoped for museum expansions?  And the intertangle of finances can be confusing.  The museum said that it expected to charge the library a “slightly below market rent” ($37 p/s/f) because of its fiduciary responsibilities.  But libraries on city owned land don’t normally pay rent.  Shouldn’t this instead be resolved more appropriately with some abatement of obligations of the museum to the city?  Otherwise the city library budget winds up being inflated by an amount that flows through to subsidize the museum, an unusual situation and not necessarily a good precedent either.  (Stephanie Wilchfort, the museum representative said, however, about the payment of rent that it was important to do it "just exactly that way."  Really?)

There was also a question raised at the presentation about whether services that the library now importantly provides adults would suffer if, as was talked about as a goal, the new library became more `children and family' focused in its offerings. 

Library officials have been taught by recent experience to say when presenting real estate plans for libraries that “It is not a done deal.”  They now carefully say that they seek and will respond to `valued’ public input.  Is that in fact true?  Lip service doesn’t make these promises sincere.

One thing is probably true: The sooner the public finds out about these kinds of plans and the more it knows what to watch out for, the more likely it can exert influence to get a better deal.  And that mean getting a deal where the needs of library patron are appropriately paramount.

Hopefully, if this transaction goes through to fruition it will only be because it is a much better transaction for the public and for library patrons than what has happened in prior situations where NYC libraries have been turned into real estate deals that were tortured to meet the priorities of the real estate industry.

We have a petition telling Mayor de Blasio and our elected representatives to properly fund libraries and not turn then into deals catering to the real estate industry-  Mayor de Blasio: Rescue Our Libraries from Developer Destruction.
(Signing the petition with you email also puts you in the loop for more information about selling off public assets and turning libraries into real estate deals.)

For more information about the Children’s Museum Trustees (and similarity to the BPL trustees) see our original post alerting the pubic about this transaction.  For more information about the trustees of the BPL (and the agenda which they might serve) see: Brooklyn Public Library Trustees- Identified + Biographical and Other Information Supplied.
The meeting was well attended
Below is contact information for the elected representatives responsible for the Brower Park Library:
Council Member (For the location of the Children's Museum and the Brower Park Library)
Robert Cornegy (D)
1360 Fulton Street
Ste. 500
Brooklyn, NY 11216
phone: 212-788-7354
fax: 212-788-8951
email: Rcornegy@council.nyc.gov
website: http://council.nyc.gov/district-36/

Brooklyn Borough President
Eric Adams
209 Joralemon St.
Brooklyn, NY 11201
phone: 718-802-3700
fax: 718-802-3522
email: askeric@brooklynbp.nyc.gov
website: http://www.brooklyn-usa.org/

Brooklyn Community Board 8 (for the current location of the Children's Museum and Brower Park Library)
Chairperson- Nizjoni Granville
1291 St. Marks Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11213
phone: 718-467-5574
email: info@brooklyncb8.org
website: http://www.brooklyncb8.org/

NYC Comptroller (Investigates and audits waste fraud and abuse including NYC libraries)
Scott M. Stringer (D)
The David N. Dinkins Manhattan Municipal Building, One Centre St.
5th Floor
New York, NY 10007
phone: 212-669-3916
fax: 212-669-2707
email: action@comptroller.nyc.gov
website: http://comptroller.nyc.gov/

NYC Public Advocate (charged with looking out for the public interest)
Letitia James (D, WF)
The David N. Dinkins Manhattan Municipal Building, One Centre St.
15th Floor
New York, NY 10007
phone: 212-669-7200
fax: 212-669-4701
email: GetHelp@pubadvocate.nyc.gov
website: http://pubadvocate.nyc.gov/

Brooklyn District Attorney (for criminal investigation purposes)
Eric Gonzalez
(replaced Kenneth P. Thompson)
350 Jay St.
Brooklyn, NY 11201
phone: 718-250-2001
fax: 718-250-2210
email: da@brooklynda.org
website: http://www.brooklynda.org/

NYS Attorney General (for criminal investigation purposes and oversee charities including the BPL and Children's Museum)
Eric T. Schneiderman (D, WF, I)
120 Broadway
New York, NY 10271
phone: 212-416-8000
fax: 212-416-8139
email: eric.schneiderman@ag.ny.gov
website: http://www.ag.ny.gov/

Diana C. Richardson (WF)
NYS State Assembly District 43
1216 Union Street
Brooklyn, NY 11225
phone: 718-771-3105
fax: 718-771-3276
email: district43@nyassembly.gov
website: http://assembly.state.ny.us/mem/?ad=043

State Senator (for the site of the Children's Museum and Brower Park Library)
NYS State Senate District 25
Velmanette Montgomery (D)
30 Third Avenue
Room 207
Brooklyn, NY 11217
phone: (718) 643-6140
fax: (718) 237-4137
email: montgome@nysenate.gov
website: http://www.nysenate.gov/senators/velmanette-montgomery

NYS Comptroller (oversees authorities and adequacy of local audits such as by the NYC Comptroller)
Thomas P. DiNapoli (D)
59 Maiden Lane
31st Floor
New York, NY 10038
phone: 212-383-1600
fax: 212-383-4468
email: contactus@osc.state.ny.us
website: http://www.osc.state.ny.us/index.htm

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