Monday, December 14, 2015

Op-Ed: City Council Poised To Vote On City-wide Model For Library Sales and Shrinkage

The Brooklyn Heights Library, Brooklyn's central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn. Recently expanded and fully upgraded it is two-stories (about 38,000 square feet) above ground and two half-floors with books at the ready underground 
Major things are happening in New York’s City Council with a vote of the full Council expected December 16th.  . . .

. . .  Last month Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson testified that the sale and shrinkage of Brooklyn’s downtown central destination library, the Brooklyn Heights Library, the second biggest library in Brooklyn, was being looked at as a model for deals being worked on by ALL THREE library systems in New York, the BPL, the NYPL and now the Queens Library.

This sweet deal for a developer who will build a luxury tower tucking in a drastically shrunken “replacement” library at the bottom, is far from a desirable model for the future of our libraries.  And, the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library isn’t, actually,  the original model for all this; the sale of the Donnell Library, conceived at the same time and executed first is the first prototype.  The proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library nonetheless charts an unprecedented course in that this is the first time the City Council must vote to approve such a transaction, a test of the council’s mettle.

The sudden, secretively arranged sale of Donnell was announced November of 2007.  The five-story 97,000 square foot library standing on 53rd Street across from MoMA was sold at the height of the real estate bubble to net the New York Public Library probably less than $25 million.  Between Fifth and Sixth avenues, Donnell was on what was documented to be the most valuable block in Manhattan.  The 7,381 square foot penthouse in the 50-story luxury tower replacing it is on the market for $60 million.  Other apartments in the building are selling for more than $20+ million.

We’ve just passed the 8th anniversary of Donnell’s sale announcement.  The priorities here?: Last March, the luxury condominium tower, luxury hotel (for which Chinese investors paid a record-setting $130 million) and luxury restaurants were open, but the planned “replacement” for the library at the site, less than one-third size (28,000 square feet), mostly underground and largely bookless, is nowhere in sight.  It’s new perpetually postponed completion date is now stated by the NYPL to be “Summer 2016.” .  .

. . . While you continue to wait you can dine in one of the luxury restaurants seated on chairs upholstered with coyote pelts.

The beloved Donnell was a central destination library, much of it recently renovated with public money. It had a state-of-the-art media center and a new teen center.

The Brooklyn Heights Library is similarly a central destination library with a special focus on its Business, Career and Education division.  Its location in Downtown Brooklyn at a key transit hub where it’s the most accessible library for a huge number of New Yorkers and Brooklynites.  Its full upgrade in 1993 means it’s one of Brooklyn’s most up-to-date libraries and best in terms of computer support.

Even if the BPL proposed a full scale replacement library it would be a problem, because, stuck at the bottom of a privately owned residential building, the library could never thereafter be enlarged.  This library was substantially enlarged when it was fully upgraded in 1993 so surely it’s a mistake to shrink it now, an uncorrectable one at that.  This research library is one of the highest circulation libraries in the system, in the center of a fast growing business district, neighborhood, borough and city.  Library use is up 40% programmatically and 59% in terms of circulation, most of that being physical books.  The BPL plans to banish an untold number of books, only the merest fraction to remain.

The existing library is 63,000 square feet.  Its proposed “replacement” was proposed to be a just over the 21,000 square feet specified in the developer’s contract.  Pursuant to some backroom maneuvering to push the library sale though announced just last Thursday* it's now proposed to be a slightly larger shrunken library,  42% of the size of the current one. The existing library is about 38,000 feet above ground while its proposed “replacement” would have only 15,000 square feet above ground.
(*  That backroom deal, with a lot of spending on the public's dime to push this deal through, not the developer's makes a major non-transparent raid on the budget of the Mayoral-controlled Department of Education.)
A second hugely awkward problem about considering a full-scale replacement: Selling the library for so little the BPL likely loses money.  So far its it’s costing the NYPL $21 million and counting to outfit the library that’s supposed to replace Donnell.  If it had to outfit a full-scale replacement it would have put the NYPL into an embarrassing hole.

Same thing with the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library.  The library would cost $120+ million to replace, $60 million for the construction and, additionally, the land and the public’s associated right to use it are worth more than another $60 million.

But the BPL isn’t bothering to appraise the library’s current value to the public saying that attention only need be paid to a far lower figure, what a developer will pay for the “tear-down” value of the library.  It’s like saying the value of a heirloom watch is just the puddle of gold it melts into.  Interesting: The hearings have pretty well documented that the developer (not the high bidder), giving money to de Blasio, is not even paying that far lower “tear-down” figure.  The BPL says the sale will net the city $40 million but appears intent on exaggerating the number.

Libraries, emblematically, are democratic institutions offering knowledge and opportunity to all.  They also support our democracy by providing an informed, educated electorate.  Happy coincidence: Libraries are good politics, because the public values its libraries, wanting their proper funding to be a top priority.

Will the City Council vote to approve this as a city-wide model for a retrenching program of future library sell-offs?  That would be bad for our democracy and very bad politics for the City Council.

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The author, Michael D. D. White, a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, is an attorney and urban planner who held a senior policy-level position and, for more than twenty-five years, worked for the state finance and development authorities.
For more about what has been written about the City Council's vote to inaugurate approval and sale of public libraries with this proto-type (including letetr of object written by the NYC Comptroller and Public Advocate) see:
Thursday, December 10, 2015,  Links Respecting City Council land Use and Subcommittee Vote (and Steve Levin community betrayal) Respecting Proposed Sale and Shrinkage of Brooklyn Heights Library As Prototype For Future
PS (BONUS):  Here is video about the decision where you can see:
1.)  BPL President Linda Johnson saying that:
- This sale and shrinkage is a “model” for libraries throughout the city, not just future BPL transactions, but also for Queens and the NYPL
- Councilman Brad Lander (pushing for library sales and shrinkages like this one) is “very clever”
2.)  NYPL president Tony Marx “Shushing” fellow library Johnson about saying that Lander is “very clever”
3.)  Brad Lander saying about these library sale deals that developers “must make a profit.”

Will Steve Levin Save the Brooklyn Heights Library?


Hudson & Beach said...

These guys are not responsive to reasonable arguments, so why bother?get them on corruotion. Where are Scott and Tish in this?

Hudson & Beach said...

These guys are not responsive to reasonable arguments, so why bother?get them on corruotion. Where are Scott and Tish in this?