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 31, 2016

Open Letter To Councilman Steve Levin About His Letter To Brooklyn Public Library Demanding Transparency About Library Sales

Councilman Stephen T. Levin
District Office
410 Atlantic Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11217

 Legislative Office
250 Broadway, 1820
New York, New York 10007

Re: Demanding transparency from the Brooklyn Public Library

Dear Councilman Levin,

You are still our city councilman for the 33rd.  You are the one we must work with to get done the basic things we depend on our City Council representative to do in this Brooklyn district.  That puts us in an awkward place to make requests that you do your job given our perception that you betrayed the community with respect to the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library.

That said, this letter is to request that you send a letter, expecting to take appropriate follow-up action, to the Brooklyn Public Library demanding transparency about the sale of the library and the BPL’s plans with respect to other Brooklyn libraries.

We do not ask you to do this because you, at the end of 2014, promised us that you would, at a minimum, insist on transparency, but we remind you that you did make that promise.

We do not ask you to do this because you were promising that you would send a letter to the BPL to demand such transparency in the spring and summer of 2015, but you did at that time assure us that you would follow through in this way.

We ask you to do this because insisting on basic transparency in these matters in a fundamental obligation of the elected office of City Councilman that you hold.

When I spoke to you yet again in follow-up as to this matter on January 6, 2016 after the community meeting to discuss the proposed sale for development of the Pineapple Walk property owned by the 75 Henry Street co-op, you, indeed, said that you would finally follow through in this obligation.*
(* We cannot escape noting, in passing, how indistinguishable in principle from the library sale is the passionately opposed sale of this property to build an another 40 story tower that will similarly shadow Cadman Plaza Park, except for the fact that the 75 Henry Street sale does not involve the shrinkage of a library down to 42% of its previous size or the sale of vluable public property for far less than what it would cost to replace the asset.)
In this regard, you then asked for a draft of the letter we would want you to send, but I reminded you (as you could hardly have forgotten), that you already had such a draft and had been sitting on it since spring 2015.

I am resupplying you below with what is essentially the draft letter that was previously provided to you.  Our previous unpublished communications about your finalizing and sending such a letter have obviously not been fruitful.  As such, I am furnishing this draft to you by open letter as we await your follow-though.  The background circumstances being such as they are, including the backroom deal arranged with multiple parties to the development unveiled at the last minute before the City Council votes, we no longer have any anticipation that as the letter you might send is refined, sharpened or otherwise modified, that you would keep it confidential from others such as the BPL or developer.  (You have noted, and we respect, that any letter you send demanding transparency will ultimately be your own composition.)

You never sent your promised letter, nor have you taken steps to insist on transparency, despite the fact that it has been an inordinately long time.  Accordingly, we have had to speculate on why, especially with consideration of the Brooklyn Heights Library pending, you never followed through to make these requests.  Our best reckoning is that you don't disagree with us that the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library would not have withstood the additional scrutiny that would have ensued from this transparency, or perhaps even the request for it.  That does not prevent you from sending the letter now, nor does it change the fact that it should be your inescapable obligation to do so immediately.

As a matter of history, we certainly do not think that you, the City Council or anyone else should have voted for the sale and shrinkage of the library with such a letter presented and unresponded to.  We also do not think that any such votes should have taken place without a letter such as this first being sent.  Lastly, we do not think that any more such votes should occur without a letter such as this being sent and responded to, and that includes the pending votes with respect to the library sale of the Brooklyn Borough Board and the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

Now so that you will be impelled to finally act, we now publicly resupply you the draft letter below.
Draft For Steve Levin Letter To Send To Brooklyn Public Library Demanding Transparency From BPL
June 15, 2015/January 31, 2016

Linda E. Johnson, President
Brooklyn Public Library
10 Grand Army Plaza
Brooklyn, New York 11238

Re:  Request for transparency concerning the Brooklyn Heights Library

Dear Ms. Johnson:

I believe that we all agree that transparency is important, especially when it comes to something as important and significant to the public’s interest as selling our libraries and deciding whether to shrink them.  I also feel that as it relates to the proposed sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library (Brooklyn’s central destination library in downtown Brooklyn serving all of the borough and the rest of the city as well, including downtown Manhattan) that the Brooklyn Public Library needs to be considerably more transparent about the selling of all libraries than the BPL has been to date.  That greater transparency is also something I understand your spokespersons, and specifically Peter Aschkenasy, a trustee, have led the public (January 2015) to think they also believe is appropriate.

Information has been requested of the BPL and not been furnished in response.  Some of it may likely be required under the Freedom of Information Law.  Virtually all of it is appropriate to furnish under simple precepts essential to maintaining transparency when selling a public asset for conversion like a library for conversion into a luxury condominium tower.

Accordingly, I request that the BPL be more transparent about this proposed sale in all its aspects.  And specifically here are some of the things that I firmly believe you should be furnishing the public:
    •    Information about the true and complete costs to the public of selling and shrinking this library as proposed.  That includes:
    •        The current value, from the public’s perspective, of the recently expanded and fully upgraded library being given up (i.e. not from the perspective of the acquiring developer who sees its value as less than that of a vacant lot).
    •        What it would cost to replace the asset that is being given up (including land and development rights), in total apparently well over $120+ million.
    •        All the costs, including construction and design, associated with moving the Business, Career and Education functions of the library from Downtown Brooklyn and reestablishing them at the Grand Army Plaza Library.  Also please supply the date and details about when those Education functions were moved from Grand Army Plaza to the Brooklyn Heights Library because of, as I understand it, the shortage of space at Grand Army Plaza.
    •        It should also include all the costs of disruptions and what the public must forgo and bear to undergo this transaction.  That should include, among other things, the cost of moving books back and forth as well as storing them off-site.
    •    The “strategic real estate plan” that was formulated going back to 2007.  To date you have released no iterations of this plan, all of which would be valuably  informative in many ways including about similar plans for other libraries.  Similarly, you should release the requested “Revson Study.”

    •    The background communications between the BPL and the Department of Design and Construction based upon which representations about the acceptability and suitability of the air conditioning at the Brooklyn Heights Library were made to this council district’s office, back when David Yassky held my office, before any planned sale and shrinkage of the library.  Information has also been requested and not furnished to the public about the air conditioning repair firm, Performance Mechanical Corporation, that the BPL engaged in an extended multi–year contract for its entire system not all that long before problems with the Brooklyn Heights Library’s and a number of other air library’s air conditioning systems started receiving attention.  Early analysis in this regard about the Brooklyn Heights Library (2007/2008) by Karen Backus and communications regarding the air conditioning have also not been provided.

    •    Information about your communications with the city’s Landmarks Commission about which historic libraries might get designated as such, and which libraries the BPL has indicated it would, instead, prefer to push forward into real estate deals avoiding such likely appropriate designation.
    •    Further, it is my impression that in a time when the scarcity of available funds is cited as troubling, the BPL is spending a considerable amount of money on consultants and lobbyists in connection with its promotion of its real estate plans for libraries.  The requested information about this has not been furnished.  It is a matter about which the BPL needs to be forthcoming.  That includes monies paid to Booz & Co., BerlinRosen, WSP Flack & Kurtz, K&K Property Solutions, Ed Tettemer and Mo (Maureen) Craig for branding and PR advice.

    •    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 (we are not talking about supposed branch sub-component) has historically been, or what it is intended to be in the future.  Information respecting the entire system would be relevant.

    •    All communications with Saint Ann's School respecting development rights and the Brooklyn Heights Library. As you know (to provide perspective on this), what Saint Ann's School will net in income, motivating it to push for this transaction is proportionately more in the scheme of things given that half the city’s development rights were already transferred to Forest City Ratner in 1986. Saint Ann’s, with all its extra development rights still intact, doesn’t have to tear down its own building or incur a loss to cash in. By contrast, the library’s potential sale of its air rights is not such a painless transaction or opportunity.
Without the provision of what is requested above consideration of a sale and shrinkage of this or other libraries would seem premature on anyone’s part.
Thank you for your consideration in this matter.

Stephen T. Levin 

CC:   Peter Aschkenasy, Trustee BPL
    NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer
    NYC Public Advocate Tish James
    NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli
    NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman
    Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director, NYS Committee on Open Government

The above constituted (as of last spring and summer) and still constitutes a good starter list of what you should have insisted on as the essentials for basic transparency.

We note that since we drafted this letter other groups have raised with you additional questions about oddities with respect to the Brooklyn Public Library’ budget and bookkeeping that impinge upon the BPL’s professed motivation of selling the Brooklyn Heights Library to net a small amount of funds (a net perhaps of just $25 million or less).  You may want to add to this letter to address those issues or, to save time and assure that this letter goes out immediately, you may want to refer to your anticipation of sending a supplemental letter specifically in this regard.

We trust this draft will facilitate swift completion of your letter insisting on transparency from the BPL that you committed to send BPL some time ago.

Thank you.


Michael D. D. White
Citizens Defending Libraries

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Below (click to enlarge images) the draft Levin letter to BPL in printable jpg form.

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