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.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Testimony and Report on Hearing Before Eric Adams, About Proposed Sale/Shrinkage of Major Public Asset, A Brooklyn Library, First Ever Such Borough Preseident Hearing

This page will be updated.

The air conditioning in Brooklyn Borough Hall was not working leading some testifying to suggest in jest that Borough Hall should be sold since the BPL's refusal to fix the air conditioning is cited as a primary reason for selling off the Brooklyn Heights Library.  You can share this on Facebook here. R U A FAN OF THIS THIS IDEA?
This gives an idea of the upstairs crowd.  Downstairs there was another crowd in the overflow room.
Important:  Borough President Eric Adams is still taking testimony, the sooner the better.  See:
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams Still Taking Testimony On Whether Brooklyn Heights Library, Brooklyn’s Central Destination Library In Downtown Brooklyn Should Be Sold And Shrunk
The great news is that Citizens Defending Libraries and the opposition to the sale and shrinkage of this recently expanded and fully upgraded central destination Downtown Brooklyn library were out in force.  The bad news is that we pro-sale side had in their arsenal the ability to do longer more highly produced presentations with superior audio/visual resources available, plus the ability to pay people to testify on behalf of the real estate industry and against the community interest.

When Citizens Defending Libraries checked in advance we were told any initial presentations by the BPL and developer would be more restricted, not the 30 to 40 minutes that they got to "sales pitch" the project at the beginning of the evening before the rest of us started to get our chance to speak. We also asked about our ability to use PowerPoint or video aids (we were prepared), and we were told we couldn't, we'd just be able to use placards with pictures to make our points, but that the pro-project side also wouldn't get to do a PowerPoint Computer slide style presentation like they eventually did.

The remarkable thing is that virtually all of those who testified in favor of selling and shrinking the library were in one way or another salaried by the real estate industry, many having an actual interest in the transaction. We are unclear whether we could detect a single legitimate resident of the community who testified in favor of the project. Although the BPL tried bringing some duped people from Sunset Park to assert that their library would move to the head of the list for city funding if this central downtown library is sold, we had more residents from Sunset Park who spoke against this form of so-called "charity" buy-off.

And in the end, even with all those salaried individuals testifying (BPL trustee Hank Gutman works for the law firm representing Blackstone, the world's largest real estate investment firm++, headed by Stephen Schwarzman who at the NYPL is pushing library sales like and including Donnell), we still had them soundly outnumbered because, in the end, there was no alternating testimony anymore because there were only more and more of us speaking against the transaction. And that's with some of our people who had to wait longer and unable to stay till 10:40 PM leaving without being ever able to testify.

Borough President Adams, who has acknowledged how he needs to be better informed about and to better understand the proposed sale and shrinkage and the way that funding has been pulled back from the libraries preparatory to launching the plans for these sales, left soon after the hearing began, but has vowed to view the testimony on video. We should applaud state assemblywoman JoAnne Simon for being there throughout the evening and listening all the way through attentively. It's what she should have done (because what is more important than selling off a $120+ million asset like this central destination library), but she wasn't required to.

Our new Masterpiece Video? 

If Citizens Defending Libraries had been granted equal access to the audio/visual equipment resources at the hearing we might have run this 3 minute 49 second video we've just released:

Selling Our Libraries!
Here is press coverage of the evening (comments are possible and valuable to read too):
•    Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Impassioned debate continues at mobbed Brooklyn Heights Library hearing, by Mary Frost, August 19, 2015.
Resident Lucy Koteen said the developers would receive the Brooklyn Heights assets, which she estimated to be worth $120 million, "at a very low price," roughly $52 million. She accused the developers of providing "talking points" to the library board members. "It's all a charade, smoke and mirrors," she said.

Michael D.D. White, co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, pointed to the "extreme lack of transparency" from Brooklyn Public Library. "There's much we don't know, and it ought to be freely-available information," he said.

Dr. Jane Lee Delgado said that out of 20 library trustees, seven were connected to banking or real estate, "and at least one is an officially registered lobbyist." Offering the site of the Heights branch to developers was like "throwing chum into a school of sharks," she said.

Maria Roca, founder of the Friends of Sunset Park said the proposal "raises many serious concerns. It ignores the needs of fast-growing Downtown Brooklyn. These needs are: schools, hospitals, infrastructure and transportation. These continue to be ignored, and the building frenzy of ever more expensive housing continues."

Carole Raftrey, of Build Up NYCCarole Raftrey, of Build Up NYC
Retired mechanical engineer Norman Savitt called the library "a deeply flawed project that will benefit the few."

Rob Solano, speaking for Churches United for Fair Housing, said he felt uncomfortable with the idea that the affordable housing would be placed in Clinton Hill. "Separate but equal is not right," he said.

* * * *

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York said the good government group was "concerned with the process around how this decision to sell the library's assets was made from the inception, and whether the ramifications of the public steward - BPL and the city - no longer having control of the land was explored in full."

Since the public will no longer own the land, "the new library will be vulnerable to the future whims of the condo developers," she said. "There are ways of structuring the library's interest that would not only protect the public's use of a library facility but guarantee the library an income stream in the future."
•    The Brooklyn Paper- Critics: Heights library housing plan separates rich and poor, By Max Jaeger, August 20, 2015
"The proposal calls for building apartments for the poor in a poor neighborhood a mile away from Brooklyn Heights," said Cobble Hill resident Donald Fleck, one of several residents who spoke against the divided housing during a public hearing on the plans for the library development at Borough Hall on Tuesday. "This proposal perpetuates the two-cities model by keeping the poor with the poor and the affluent with the affluent."
•    Capital NY/Politico: Debate continues over Brooklyn Heights Library redevelopment, By Kelly Weill and Sally Goldenberg, August 19, 2015
•    The Indypendent: Turning Libraries Into Condos, By Peter Rugh, August 5, 2015
    "Shut not your doors to me proud libraries," Whitman wrote. We in present-day New York would do well to listen. Libraries, like other bastions of the public sphere - our parks, hospitals, schools, public housing - are under siege from a real estate industry that sees the finite space of our city as a bottomless cash cow.

      * * *

    In a July 15 roll call vote nearly drowned out by chants of "Not for sale!" from the audience, members of Brooklyn Community Board 2 in Brooklyn Heights voted 25-14 with four abstentions in support of Hudson's plan. Under city law, the proposed luxury condo tower still needs to be reviewed by the Brooklyn Borough President and the City Planning Commission and then be voted on by City Council.

    * * *

    "We used to fight about getting enough funds to build and expand our libraries," said Michael White a former city planner and co-founder of the activist group Citizens Defending Libraries. "Now we're fighting about not getting enough money so that we don't have to sell off and shrink our libraries."

    * * *

    The defunding of New York's libraries has come at a time when their popularity has been surging. From 2002 to 2014, annual attendance at programs put on by libraries increased from 1.7 to 2.8 million people per year. Checkouts of physical and e-books and other items have increased by 30 percent. Altogether, the city's libraries receive 37 million visitors per year, a number that exceeds the combined annual attendance at New York's major professional sports events, performing arts centers, museums, historical sites, botanical gardens and zoos.

    * * *

    "They've let things deteriorate," said Tom Angotti, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College and author of New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate, remarking on what he describes as the New York's pervasive neoliberal development model, "So now they can turn around and say, `You see, this is not working. We'll give it to a private company and they'll know how to use it.'"

     * * *

    The sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library is the latest in a series of transactions with developers involving New York's libraries. These privatizations began under Bloomberg and have continued with de Blasio. Two prior dealings between the libraries and the real estate industry offer a glimpse into what the public can expect from such activity. It doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

    * * *

     "It's a matter of community," said Angotti. "Libraries are one of the few democratic places left in the city. You go to a local library, people are reading, going to events, socializing, people of all ages. They are places where people can go for advice and look for information, using a variety of different media. It has a value that goes beyond the dollar value. It's a value to people."

    The proposed deal is now under review by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. He will hold a public hearing on the proposed sale at Brooklyn Borough Hall on August 18 at 6pm. In a recent interview with The Brooklyn Paper, Adams said he envisions book-free libraries in the future.

    "We no longer need shelves of books in libraries to look impressive," he commented.

    On the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library, Adams remains officially non-committal.

    "I look forward to reviewing Community Board 2's recommendations and hearing from local residents about the proposed plans for the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library," Adams said in a statement released by a press spokesperson.

    The fate of the highrise and the life of the library underneath it might just depend on the pressure that comes from below, which critics like White vow to supply.

    "We'll be talking with the borough president," said White, who, along with other members of Citizens Defending Libraries, plans on attending the hearings Adams is holding on the sale in August. "You cannot sell off a publicly owned library like this without going through a public process, and we're still at the very beginning of that process."
The Brooklyn Paper, link and excerpt above, covered a very important aspect of what is being proposed.

About half of these so-called "affordable" housing units that the developer is providing off-site "poor door" style are really more like market rate units. Of the lower income units (not all that low) only a few are big enough for families.

In truth, these so-called "affordable" housing units, pathetically located so far away, are just window dressing for a boondoggle hand off of a very valuable public asset, a sturdy, central destination library that we just recently expanded and fully upgraded to make it state-of-the-art for the computer age. That expansion was at considerable public expense and sacrifice. (Essentially, that complete upgrade makes the building five years newer than the adjacent Ratner building where Hillary located her national campaign headquarters.) Now we want to shrink the library to just one-third size, making it considerably smaller than it was in the first place?

Meanwhile, any possible benefit of this window dressing is wiped up by our elimination of 14,000 truly low-income NYCHA public housing, with NYCHA being attacked much the way libraries are, with targeted underfunding as an excuse for sell-offs to the private sector. Does this, or does this not, sound like a shell game?

Video of Brooklyn Borough President Adams Library Sale and Shrinkage Hearing

Here's the official video on YouTube from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams:
One Brooklyn- Unified Land Use Review Process Hearing (ULURP), August 18, 2015

We may put up some highlights, but if you want to comment on what you thought were the highlights and where (minutes and seconds) they can be found, let's put them up.

Testimony of Michael D. D. White:

August 18, 2015

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams
Brooklyn Borough Hall
209 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, New York 11201

Re:    Proposed sale and shrinkage of Brooklyn’s central destination downtown library, the Brooklyn Heights Library on Cadman Plaza, corner of Clinton and Tillary

Dear Borough President Adams:      

One of the great glorious things about libraries is that people come to them wanting to know things.  I think that is also why there is a long history that civilizations that dismantle their libraries fail.

I think that you as Borough President also want to know what you need to know, one of the reasons for holding this hearing.  Because of the extreme lack of transparency on the part of the Brooklyn Public Library in formulating and rolling out its real estate plans, there is much that you, and we as the public, don’t know about this transaction that ought to be freely available information.

That includes much that is just plain embarrassing not to know yet.  Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think you know whether a private school, Saint Ann’s will be taking home more free and clear cash from this transaction than the city and the BPL will net from selling and shrinking this valuable library.  Do you know the answer to that question?

Similarly, the idea that BPL was secretly planning to sell this library going as far back as 2007 or further, but didn’t publicly reveal it until 2013 is appalling. Similarly, the fact that the BPL continues secretively, refusing to respond to Freedom of Information requests to furnish its “strategic real estate plan,” the “Revson Study” and other documents that could reveal which libraries are next on the list.

Do we really know what the cost of repairing the mysteriously broken air conditioning in this library is?  Not one of the Community Board 2 Members who voted (either way) on the proposed sale and shrinkage of this library for a pittance ventured that they knew the answer to this question even though that is a primary reason the BPL cites to sell the building.  We have made FOIL requests that would shed a lot of light on this question, but the BPL has improperly stonewalled.. .  But who after all would be so silly as to sell their home because their air conditioning was on the fritz?

Some other things we don’t know:
•    The true and complete costs to the public of selling and shrinking this library as proposed.  This recently enlarged and fully upgraded library, a sturdy building in good shape, would cost at least $60 Million to build from scratch and the land and right to expand the public uses on the site is assuredly worth at least another $60 million, over $120 millin all together, but the BPL may net virtually nothing or even wind up in a financial hole selling it.
•    Information about the historic nature of the building, including BPL communications with Landmarks.
•    How much the BPL is spending on high-priced lobbyists and PR firms to push for the sale of libraries.
•    Information about book counts: what they have been, what they are now and what they are intended to be in the future.  For instance, the BPL and the architect representing it and the developer in this regard have not been able to state what the book shelf capacity of the entire Brooklyn Heights Library is or what it will be reduced to in the future.
I know that as Borough President you have been thinking about what your constituency wants.  In that regard you have been wondering about whether the Brooklyn public would prefer more expensive digital books in place of physical ones for which circulation has gone up.  I think you’ll find the answer is that the preference is the reverse, it’s strongly for physical books, and I offer you (attached) the resource of a Citizens Defending Libraries web page with a lot of links to study up on that subject.  It is also surprisingly expensive and less beneficial to keep books off-site from the libraries.

There is a lot more to study on the subject of these proposed library sales and so I will also submit to you as an attachment hereto prior testimony from Citizens Defending Libraries given before the City Council.

Are our libraries underfunded right now?  Yes, and that underfunding dates back to the plans to convert our libraries into real estate deals.  Libraries cost relatively little to fund, but the lure of these deals has become a perverse incentive to underfund libraries as an excuse to sell them off.  That said, it is the ultimate in short-sightedness to sell off irreplaceable long-term capital assets to deal with short-term funding deprivations.

Mr. Adams, we have written to you before, but it is worth saying again: Selling, shrinking libraries, putting their resources out of reach, leads to a vicious cycle of decreased democracy and opportunity, leading to greater political and wealth inequality.


Michael D. D. White
Co-founder, Citizens Defending Libraries

Physical Books vs. Digital Books 
Previous testimony at City Council Hearings

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