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, April 18, 2013

April 18, 2013 Press Release: City Comptroller John C. Liu Criticizes Underfunding and Sell-off of NYC Public Libraries to Private Real Estate Developers

April 18, 2013

Carolyn E. McIntyre, Michael D. D. White
Citizens Defending Libraries
(718) 797-5207
@DefendLibraries on twitter   


On April 18 at 12:30 on the steps of City Hall, New York City Comptroller John C. Liu spoke about Mayor Bloomberg's plans to sell off numerous public libraries in transactions structured to benefit real estate developers, not the public.  Library usage is way up in New York City but real estate industry companies are looking to have these public assets transferred to them, seeking to replace them with luxury condominiums and hotels, shrinking the library system in the process.  Especially considering the benefit libraries provide, libraries cost little to fund but the Bloomberg administration in its last term has been starving them of funds and this underfunding is now being cited as an excuse to deprive the public still further by selling its property.

City Comptroller John Liu has reacted to the Bloomberg administration policies saying, “Our City libraries are civic treasures, and they should be treated as such. Selling our libraries to private corporations trades a small, short-term gain for a big, permanent loss. To be worthy of our reputation as one of the world’s great cities, we must properly support the institutions like libraries that make our communities strong. Privatizing important public assets will not achieve that goal, but investing in their future will. That is why in my People’s Budget I propose investing $350 million over four years to extend library hours.”

Citizens Defending Libraries believes that it is unjust and unwise for the mayor to be deliberately underfunding libraries when usage is way up, the city is bigger and funding libraries is a priority of our community boards.  It is doubly unfair that this underfunding is now being used as an excuse to sell off libraries and shrink the library system to create real estate deals where the focus is on benefitting developers, not the public.

All the publicly owned library system real estate is being looked at for such deals that will transfer these public irreplaceable, often one of a kind, resources into private hands, but the first targets are the most valuable public properties in the hottest real estate markets.  In a proposed transaction that closely replicates the disastrous and secretive closing of the Donnell Library in 2008, the Brooklyn Heights Library, a main system library on the edge of Brooklyn’s downtown, a centrally located transit hub, is slated for sale and shrinkage.

City and library administration officials say they want to enter into a contract with a developer before Mayor Bloomberg leaves office and before there would be an open process of public review and input.  Those library and city administration officials are justifying the sale with claims that the library's air conditioning system needs extensive, prohibitively expensive repairs, problems that manifested themselves after the decision was made to sell the library.  A similar claim was made when the selling of Donnell was announced.

Citizens Defending Libraries, calling for scrutiny, maintains that this repair expense is being offered only as a convenient excuse for a sale that was previously decided upon: “The sell-off of the Brooklyn Heights Public Library is just one in a number of proposed real estate deals where libraries are being sold, the library system shrunk and the whole public library system intentionally underfunded to promote the sell-off of these public assets,” says Citizens Defending Libraries founding member Michael D. D. White, adding, “very time they want to sell a library they claim the air conditioning isn’t working and can’t be fixed no matter how recently the library was renovated.”  In addition, he noted that the decision to sell the library came before any analysis to conclude whether there would be public benefit.  “In fact,” he said, “it is impossible to assure that the libraries would get funds or any real benefit from these proposals.”

Air conditioning problems are also being cited with a similar conjuring up of extraordinary costs as an excuse to sell the historic Pacific Branch in Brooklyn, the first Carnegie library to open in Brooklyn, and to demolish the famed research stacks at the Central Reference Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, decommissioning it as the world class reference library it was intended to be.

The Committee to Save the New York Public Library, which joined in the Citizens Defending Libraries event, says, “We call for a halt to the $350 million Central Library Plan – which would irreparably damage the historic 42nd Street Research Library and sell off both the Mid-Manhattan and Science, Industry, and Business Libraries – until an independent agency can conduct a thorough analysis of its costs, the costs of feasible alternatives, and the impacts which the plan would have on patrons of the branch libraries and the 42nd Street Library.”

In her very last column for the Wall Street Journal before she died, Ada Louise Huxtable said of that library, it’s “the most democratic of institutions, free and open to all.” The essential democratic character of libraries has been noted by many others.  From the Albert Shanker Institute: “Libraries are a symbol of functional democracy and informed citizens - and, indeed, of an enlightened people.”  Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones says the public library, belonging to the public, is “a great equalizer,” but the private benefit driving the plans to dispose of city library assets is the exact opposite of that democratic value.

“It is deeply troubling that we as a City are willing to sell our library spaces rather than renovate and rehabilitate them," said City Council Member Letitia James.  “Every year, the administration practically strips all funding from the public library system-- depending on the City Council to set aside millions for the system's basic necessities. I fully support new, centralized libraries like the one being developed at BAM South. But I don't think that those libraries should come at the cost of small, local libraries which are social and cultural community hubs.”

“I am very concerned about what is being proposed, and what is seemingly not even being considered,” said State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. “One-shot deals have a way of funding everything except what they're supposed to fund. We must think long term.  We shouldn’t be selling our libraries; we should be celebrating our libraries.  We should be creating a dedicated funding stream independent of the whims of any mayor.  It is up to our communities to save our libraries.”

“Libraries are often the most important anchors of New York City’s neighborhoods, but our wonderful library system has been ravaged by underfunding and disinvestment, leaving the systems prey to speculative real estate pressure. We urge the City to take a strong stand for public education and infrastructure by requiring the various library systems to submit actual plans for their maintenance and future growth and committing to substantial funding of the necessary systematic improvements,” says Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council.

The underfunding of libraries has led to the cutback of hours, leaving this important resource  sitting idle.  When libraries close too early children cannot get to them in time to use them to do their homework.  At the same time skilled librarians are being laid off in droves.  Many of those being laid off are being asked to sign “nondisparagement agreements” agreeing not to criticize these plans in order to get severance.  Said Ada Louise Huxtable about the Central Library Plan for consolidating shrinkage, “The library has been less than forthcoming, and sensitivity to criticism has obviously reached a fever pitch.”

“It's hard to believe that anyone would consider selling off the public library system,” said Citizens Defending Libraries member Martha Rowan.  “The city is growing, not shrinking, and public library use is up 40% programmatically, almost 60% in circulation,” she observed.  “What sense does it make to have a larger population and fewer services?”

This underfunding of public resources coincides with a boosting of subsidies for private developers. Sale, shrinkage and underfunding of the libraries, like the selling of schools, hospitals and public housing properties for development, contributes to an increasingly stratified, unstable and unequal city.  The privatizations now being proposed are ultimately for the benefit of only a few, impoverishing the public in general.  One reason Citizens Defending Libraries brought this issue to Comptroller Liu is that, in the past, he has worked hard to recapture misspent taxpayer dollars and it is the job of the comptroller to protect the public finances.

The press conference with Comptroller Liu is the culmination of Citizens Defending Libraries “Library Protection Week,” a week’s worth of events held at the location of various libraries in jeopardy, each event protesting the Bloomberg administration policies that are serving to undermine and dismantle the library system.
Carolyn McIntyre, the proponent of Citizens Defending Libraries petition to halt the sale of libraries and restore adequate funding to the system, said, “Libraries are emblematically a foundation of our democracy.  Treating them with such disregard is an attack on the public’s trust.”  That petition, started in mid-February, which can be found and signed online, now has nearly 10,000 signatures.

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Addendum: Those who spoke in person at the event the above press release was for, were the following speaking in this order:
    •    Carolyn E. McIntyre, organizer and spokesperseon for Citizens Defending Libraries

    •    Girl Scouts From Prospect Heights uniting to save the Pacific Branch library.

    •    Zack Winestine speaking for the Committee to Save the Public Library

    •    Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council

    •    Comptroller John C. Liu

    •    State Senator Velmanette Montgomery

    •    Assemblyman Micah Kellner, head of the NYS Assembly Library Committee who spoke about the possibility of having an oversight hearing.

    •    City Councilman Robert Jackson

    •    Sal Albanese, candidate for mayor

    •    Yetta Kurland, candidate for City Council in the 3rd District, the district most affected by the Central Library Plan.

    •    Ed Hartzog, candidate for City Council in the 5th District.

    •    Historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis
 Michael D. D. White served as moderator.

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