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.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Michael Kimmelman’s: Evolution for Libraries in Brooklyn- Plans for Brooklyn Branches Have Merit- Both RIGHT and WRONG

MISTAKES WERE MADE CONCERNING THIS IMAGE (by the New York Times).  This is the image used to accompany the Kimmelman essay in the physical copy of the Times.  For various reasons this is probably NOT what the building will look like.  PLUS the first time the Times ran this image it inaccurately said that it was an image of building that would be "20 stories." Then it ran a correction saying that this was an image of a building that would be "30 stories." Now in Mr. Kimmelman's piece the same image is used yet again saying it is an image of building that will be "a 38-story tower”!
Michael Kimmelman has a new Critic's Notebook essay for the New York Times: Evolution for Libraries in Brooklyn- Plans for Brooklyn Branches Have Merit, January 25, 2015.

This will review what Mr. Kimmelman gets right and wrong with his assessment which was, we think, too hurried.   We must note that Mr. Kimmelman has in the past done enormous favors for those defending libraries against sale, shrinkage, underfunding and senseless plans, particularly with his article that followed in the footsteps of Ada Louise Huxtable in criticizing the NYPL’s Central Library Plan:  New York Times: Critic's Notebook- In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions, by Michael Kimmelman, January 29, 2013.

Three things to note generally before we get more specific:
    •    As background Mr. Kimmelman didn’t catch on to the following oddity, a formidable anomaly: At great cost (accompanied by substantial disruption) the BPL is proposing to decrease the size of the central destination Brooklyn Heights Library to only 21,000 square feet of which only 15,000 square feet would be above ground.  At the very same time it is proposing that in order to be of adequate size the Sunset Park Library will be increased to essential that same size, 20,600 square feet.

    •    One subject of Mr. Kimmelman’s article is the proposed redevelopment of the Sunset Park Library.  We do not think that Mr. Kimmelman gave due deference to the community’s reaction to that proposal, which was partly a reaction to the fact that this proposal, like so many other Brooklyn Public Library real estate proposals, was the subject of years of secret gestation the result of which was then sprung upon the community.  The proposal, aside from being more disruptive than better proposals that could be generated would also mean that the library could never grow again in the future.  For elucidation on this see:  Proposed Statement of Principles Concerning Any Possible Redevelopment of Library-- Sunset Park Branch.

    •    We think that Mr. Kimmelman has been too credulous in response to recent Public Relations talk about “Libraries of the Future.”  Here’s an article that raises questions in that regard: Monday, January 26, 2015, The Library of the Future Envisioned- "The 21st Century Library". . . And Beyond- Questions Floating In Science Fiction's Crystal Ball.
Here, more specifically, is what he gets right and wrong in his most recent article:

What he gets right:
    •    “There's reason for skepticism. In 2007, the New York Public Library sold off its Donnell site in Midtown Manhattan for what now seems like a song. Library authorities also cooked up a scheme to pool resources and cash in on the property values of the Mid-Manhattan branch and a science library at 34th Street, consolidating both in the 42nd Street building by demolishing its historic stacks. That derailed last year in the face of stiff protests and runaway cost estimates. So did a separate proposal to demolish a century-old branch near Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.”

    •    That it is “a red flag” that “Hudson Companies, the developer, is promising affordable units offsite.[only 114]   Manipulation of the availability of housing subsides are increasingly used as wedges to encourage communities to make poor decisions contrary to their interests.

    •    “Once upon a time, libraries didn’t need to act like real estate entrepreneurs, wheeling and dealing. When Andrew Carnegie donated the branches, beginning in 1899, one of the great philanthropic acts in American history, New York City contracted to maintain them and keep them open 72 hours a week in perpetuity. But it reneged years ago. The branches are now open 43 hours a week, and not on Sundays, when millions of people need them most. With circulation soaring and 36 million visitors using the branches in 2013 (nearly 40 million, if you count the research and main libraries), there’s more reason than ever to renew the city’s obligation.”

    •    “[F]unding for branches is still shamefully below what it was before the crash in 2008.”

    •    “The Bloomberg administration found more than $2 billion for cultural venues and more than $4.5 billion for parks across a decade. It's Mayor de Blasio's turn. He ought to make library repairs a priority “

    •    “[N]eighborhoods are networks of green spaces, schools, cultural attractions, businesses and homes. And increasingly, libraries are their hub.”  Yes, they have always been, BUT we must emphasize, when libraries are shrunk, sacrificed to the creation of a runaway number of new luxury units, their function in that regard is inhibited and undermined.  Among other things, the public school in Brooklyn Heights is sorely overtaxed already and we are shrinking a library that provides ancillary support to educational needs in the neighborhood for the benefit of a private school?

    •    “Whether this [Brooklyn Heights] deal looks reasonable in the end will depend on the quality of the offsite housing and the new branch.”- But we think it can already be discerned that this deal looks very unreasonable, structured for the benefit of, in de Blasio’s words, “real estate developers lurking behind the curtain.”

    •    “Brooklyn's proposals show how hard it is with public-private deals to strike a balance among competing priorities.”  
Here is what he gets wrong:
    •    The idea that the plans, albeit “insofar as City Hall wants to keep leaning on real estate to help pay for basic public services” have merit.  Does this mean we should only get that new school in downtown Manhattan if the developer that says it can provide one as a quid pro quo is allowed, as proposed, to dismantle and sell off the public spaces in the South Street Seaport Historic District?

    •    The implication when Kimmelman says that “as Donnell proved” the logic of such policy seems to “evaporate when the market shifts” that the it was a market shift that made the sale of Donnell “for what now seems like a song” a bad deal.  Donnell was sold at for a song when the market was at it highest peak.  That the market collapsed after that can only be said to have delayed the consummation of that bad deal that could, for years afterwards, have been cancelled.

    •    That the Brooklyn Heights library is “a dilapidated” building.”  We think that anyone who actually visits the library, including Mr. Kimmelman, would question this assessment.  It was last renovated in the 1990s and is extremely solid

    •    That the Brooklyn Heights library is “62,000 square feet.”  Perhaps it’s a quibble, but it is 63,000 square feet.

    •    That it convey an accurate impression to say that the Brooklyn Heights Library includes a “somewhat orphaned business library.”  Any such `orphaning’ of the Business and Career library integrated into the library at large is a tactic by the Brooklyn Public Library to sell real estate and more akin to deliberate infanticide by a hostile and neglectful parent.  Furthermore, once exiled from Brooklyn Heights, we think the truth is that the Business and Career Library will essentially disappear altogether. No space is being built to house it at the Grand Army Plaza

    •    The article's visual and statement that leveling and shrinking the library would “make way for a 38-story tower” is misleading.  The developer has already said that he is `starting from scratch so that the rendering does not apply and there has never been a rendering of a prospective new building at the site that shows use of all the development rights that will be used.  (Also, as noted with a link in the caption the Times has now characterized this image in succession as representing a building of "20 stories," then "30 stories" and now in this article "a 38-story tower”!)

    •    Mr Kimmelman quotes, without pointing out the inaccuracy, that “Library officials say much of the existing branch is unused and that moving the business collection to the main library at Grand Army Plaza rationalizes Brooklyn's holdings. More to the point, they insist the new library will be an upgrade, with stacked auditoriums, a lower-level reading room and a mezzanine that could serve as a children's wing.”    It does not “rationalize” the the BPL’s holding to be moving a central library from one of the most assessable library locations in the city.  The benefit of that accessibility is something that was being pitched to the site's potential luxury housing developers.  Further, a drastically shrunk library is hardly a potential upgrade, and there is no public plan for the replacement library: The deal in almost all respects is still a black box.

    •    That “the library pockets $51 million.”  Not even the BPL says that, because the library will net far less than if it even nets a positive amount.  Had Donnell been replaced by a comparable library of the same size the NYPL when they sold it would have lost money on the transaction that, as it was, netted less than $38 million.  The Brooklyn Heights transaction, closely modeled after the Donnell deal, may similarly likely result in an overall public loss and they certainly will net very significantly less than the figure Mr. Kimmelman gives.  Among other things, it only pays to outfit a replacement Brooklyn Heights (at a probably cost exceeding $16 million) because that it is proposed to shrink the library down to 1/3rd size.

    •    “In effect, the de Blasio administration prevented the library from making a larger bundle by stressing subsidized housing.”  The affordable housing is being done in exchange for a zoning bonus that will let the developer build extra luxury housing.  The developer will likely get an allocation of public subsidies to boot.

    •    “But all these public-private ventures involve trade-offs. This one seems equitable.”   We think that leveling and shrinking an important public library, partly for the benefit of private school in the neighborhood is not equitable or beneficial for the public.

    •    The idea that “a lack of outlets” (and ergo computers) is a reason to rebuild “to help bridge a digital divide.” Putting extra electrical outlets into a building is inexpensive and one of the easiest things to do in the world.

    •    "New York's branches face a $1 billion mountain in capital repairs, the consequence of long neglect."   The record shows that current calculation of capital repair needs is suspect, that capital needs were recently built up when plans were being formulated to sell off libraries and evidence indicates that they were also exaggerated to help argue for those plans.
It is not possible to comment on the Kimmelman  Evolution for Libraries in Brooklyn- Plans for Brooklyn Branches Have Merit at the New York Times site.  . . . If you want to comment on the Times article you can comment on it here on this page.  (Letters to the editor are also possible or, your can respond directly to Mr. Kimmelman via Twitter.) 

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