Saturday, February 9, 2013

Libraries That Are Now Supposedly “Dilapidated” Were Just Renovated: And Are Developers’ Real Estate Deals More Important Than Bryant Park?

Foreground: The lion Patience , of Patience and Fortitude fame, in front of 42nd Street Research Library whose research stacks will be sacrificed.  Background:  Mid-Manhattan Library that will be sold in system shrinkage plans
You may be aware that Noticing New York has run a series of articles (this will be another) about how the priorities of running a good city library system are playing second fiddle to a system-wide effort to create real estate deals for developers by selling off, closing, shrinking and consolidating libraries and divesting system assets.  It’s worse than that because to incentivize these divestitures there has been a system-wide strategy of mayoral defunding of the libraries at a time of escalating use by the public, city growth, and increased city wealth, with the public being told that libraries will not be adequately funded unless libraries are sold and the system shrunk.

Libraries “have experienced a 40 percent spike in the number of people attending programs and a 59 percent increase in circulation over the past decade”: That’s from a new report on New York City libraries from Center For An Urban Future:  Report - Branches of Opportunity, by David Giles, January 2013.  These figures for what are some of most important and well-used libraries in the country were achieved despite the fact that, as the report notes, New York is not even funding its libraries well enough to keep them open as many days as the troubled city of Detroit keeps its libraries open.

Part of the argument to sell off assets to create real estate deals is that system assets are “dilapidated” so there is no other feasible choice.  Aside from the fact that mayoral defunding of the libraries does stress the system, running assets into the ground (“demolition by neglect”), the assertions of dilapidation aren’t necessarily true even if library spokespersons are eager to make them.

“Dilapidation” of the Stacks Under the 42nd Street Research Library

Main library at 42nd Street the research collection of which would be be dispersed in city-wide shrinkage of library resources
The research stacks under the city’s main research library behind the lions, Patience and Fortitude, at 42nd Street are so dilapidated that they need to be done away with?  You can find people who will tell you the opposite, but how about this?. . .

. . . . I found the following hiding in plain sight, with just a quick reference to recent history, newspapers that I myself read on the way to work not so very long ago: Just 21 years ago the library completed a project costing over $25 million to bring the library’s research stacks up to the standard they needed to meet.  The project was supposed to be good for at least 30 years, at which time it might be time to, once again, add more stacks. That project, which addressed a backlog of need was actually designed take accommodate 55 years worth of the library's growth of its collection.  It involved building 84 miles of stacks two floors deep under Bryant Park.  (See: Library Starts Road to 84-Mile Shelves Under Park, by Susan Heller Anderson, Published: October 27, 1987.)

Under Bryant Park (skating rink in foreground) there are 84 miles of research volumes (two floors of them) integrated into the 42nd Street Library (in the background) 
The project was important enough to close down Bryant Park over a number of years, The original plan was for that to be two and half years, but there were delays and then more delays and  the park was not finally reopened until April of 1992, four and a half years after the October 1987 groundbreaking.  Part of the cost of the overall project involved restoration of the park, originally estimated to cost $5 million but coming in, instead, at $8.9 million.  It should be borne in mind that big construction projects have a way of taking longer and costing more than initially projected. (See: Shhh! Kids and Scholars at Work, by Bruce Weber, September 23, 1990 and $8.9 million restoration of the park, Architecture View; Bryant Park, An Out-of-Town Experience, by Paul Goldberger, May 03, 1992.)

According to the Times article that appeared in 1987, one reason the project was important enough to spend that money and to close down Bryant Park for so many years was, according to the Times, so that patrons researching in the library would not have to “wait one day for the volume to arrive” when volumes were not on the premises.

Not have to “wait one day for the volume to arrive”?  And now we are proposing to spend more than $300 million to rip out the stack system?  Which will mean exactly what?: That when anyone using the library is doing research there they will have to wait at least a day for volumes they will need to order to arrive.   A day’s worth of research could now be transmogrified into the work of weeks.

Hopefully, the plans to move the volumes for storage in New Jersey will not go worse than planned. . .  The New York City Opera company suffered a huge setback in 1985 when costumes for 69 of the company's productions were consumed in the fire where they were stored in Passaic, New Jersey.  The Metropolitan similarly lost millions of dollars of rarities and sets, costumes for 43 productions in 1973 when what it had stored in a Bronx warehouse burned.  Hopefully there will be no similar conflagration at the remote warehouse sites the library sends it collection off to or the metaphorical analogy to the incineration destroying the collected works of the Ancient World in the Ptolemy Dynasty’s Great Library of Alexandria will be complete.

Of course the best defense is a good offense so,  those selling the 42 Street development deal are conversely arguing the Rose Main Reading Room, that researchers use above the stacks built in 1911, is now in peril (after a hundred plus years) because the stacks below are not properly fireproofed.  (My, of my! What were people thinking during that stack renovation work that ended twenty-one years ago?)  

The Rose Main Reading Room, extolled by the New York Times in 2007, was completely renovated and restored, reopening in November 1998 with a gift of $15 million from Frederick P. Rose, the real estate developer, and his wife, a gift they made in honor of their children.  That’s nice, but it should be noted one problem when charitable non-profit institutions take money from real estate developers is that it gives them influence, sometimes seats on boards, and the real estate community has its own preoccupations and ways of thinking.

Mid-Manhattan Library, across from the 42nd Street Library, one of the many libraries the city library systems slated to sold off in real estate deals as part of city-wide shrinkage of the system
And why do we now theoretically want to spend more than $300 million to rip out the stack system?: So we can sell off the Mid-Manhattan library site across the street and the science library at 34th Street.  How much might these sell-offs net in terms of public benefit?  Sale of the Donnell Library grossed only $67.4 million.  That isn’t a net figure.  It costs money to demolish libraries and then rebuild what needs to replace them.  Developers get paid and make money on the entire package, including whatever portion is just the churn, but what it costs to stay or get back to the same place must be subtracted out in any argument that  attempts to measure cost and benefit to public.  (Also, when libraries are sold the money goes to the city, not to the library system.)

What the site of the Donnell Library closed and sold off in 2008 looked like last week.
Making way for condos and a high-end hotel
Site's future
Meanwhile, the public loses things.  The public has lost the Donnell library closed prematurely in 2008 (and not reopened).  Materials from Donnell was sent over to the Mid-Manhattan library and the developer-deal advocates are now asserting that one reason to do away with the Mid-Manhattan Library is that it is not sufficient to handle some of the functions, like a teen library that the Donnell once very adequately served.

Sale of the Donnell Library site was no doubt inspired by the MOMA Museum tower rising to great heights right across the street
Consider that the public now stands to loose the research stacks that it paid for partly with the closing of Bryant park for all those years. . .

. . . Same-day immediate access to a complete research collection was important enough to close Bryant Park for more than four years, but selling off public libraries to generate real estate deals is more important than same-day immediate access to a complete research collection?  That makes generation of real estate deals more important than keeping our public parks open to the public!  Is the next step going to be to suggest the selling off of the park for real deals?

For those for whom visual assistance in solving this logic puzzle is helpful, see the following visual:

Does selling off parks for real estate deals sound foolish?  I just wrote about William F. R. Ballard, who was New York City Planning Commissioner from 1963 to 1966, and I noted how the Times obituary for Mr. Ballard cited as a highlight of his tenure that he fended off  “a proposal to build public housing in Central Park,” saying it was “patently absurd.”  You see the development industry is actually capable of proposing such sell-offs of the public realm.  Things change and pendulums swing back.  We had once done a lot to addess income inequality in this country.  Just as the country has swung back to a new Guilded Age where wealth inequality is even greater now than in the late 1800s, so too are we having to fend off again the policies of those seeking to rehabilitate Robert Moses and his real estate churning policies, something else I wrote about in that article about events in 1963.

We are about to move on to discussion of a contrastingly different library, a local branch in Brooklyn.

This article is about how those arguing for the sale of system libraries for development are using every conceivable argument they can make and not necessarily honestly.  Arguing for the dismantling of the research stacks at 42nd Street, they are making the case that the research library is, in essence, elitist.  It is an argument to which Michael Kimmelman, architectural critic for the Times, gave a hearty, well-deserved lambasting. 

Kimmelemn acknowledged that “inconveniencing of researchers who might have to wait an extra day for books to arrive at 42nd Street from New Jersey” might be portrayed as a “snobbish-sounding” objection that fuels “the library’s public relations offensive, which has advertised the plan as democratizing a building that many New Yorkers find intimidating” and then went on to make the point:   
But the library, free and open, is already an exemplar of democracy at its healthiest and best, of society making its finest things available to all. Climbing the library steps, passing the lions, rising up to the reading room where anyone can ask for books, enshrines, architecturally, the pursuit of enlightenment. Inspiring more people to reach those heights is the library’s loftiest mission. Peddling “democracy” as if it were a popularity contest is what “American Idol” does.
What galls most about the charges of elitism used to support these sell-offs is that the elitism truly in play here involves the small privileged club that gets to benefit from these real state deals at everyone else’s expense. That will become even more clear as we next move on to discuss the branch library in Brooklyn where it is impossible to accuse those wanting it to stay open of elitism. Quite the reverse.  While the argument of elitism is out of bounds, the familiar argument of “dilapidation” is, however, still being made.

“Dilapidation” of A Local Library In Brooklyn: Pacific Branch

Pacific Branch Library 25 4th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11217, on Pacific Street right near the "Barclays" arena
The following is from Community Board 6's Resource Directory:
Pacific Branch was the first Carnegie library to open in Brooklyn. The building won praise for its 'dignified' design and its first-of-its-kind children's room
Here’s more continuing from the library’s website where the above appears to have been taken from:

Describing the second-floor children's room, the Tribune's writer went on to write that Pacific is the most completely equipped room for children in the country, with tables and chairs built especially for children. Other features included a rotunda with interior semi-circular iron balcony, fine wood work on the banisters, doors, doorways and arches, a tiled fireplace and wood panelling.
The Pacific Branch Library is one of the Brooklyn libraries that the Brooklyn Public Library system has announced is at the head of the line of those it wants to sell because they are “dilapidated.”  See this story in the Daily News about these two dilapidated  branches where a Brooklyn Public Library official, apparently Josh Nachowitz, said, “are in need of crippling repair costs the system can’t afford.”

The other now receiving prominent attention is the Brooklyn Heights Library on the border of Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn’s central business district.  The 62,000 square foot Brooklyn Heights library, constructed in 1963, is actually two libraries housed together, the Brooklyn Business Library and a local branch library.  The Brooklyn Public Library system plans to reduce that space to 16,000 square feet.  I won’t go into the details in this article (this also involves shrinkage of facilities at the Main Brooklyn library at Grand Army Plaza), but I would personally say that the Brooklyn Heights library is actually in pretty good shape given the city’s withholding of adequate funding in the Bloomberg years.

The Pacific Branch Library is the library with respect to which the public has been given the following message: The public can expect to get the library back in a new location if the public tolerates zoning changes to allow a Walentas-developed building into which it would be put to be nearly double the size permitted as of right.

When a similar previous scheme concerning putting a library into a Walentas building fell through in 2008 a skeptical “Steve from Fort Greene” commented on The Brooklyn Paper article about the lack of necessity for such a new library because “there is already one at Pacific Street!” (Referring to the Pacific Street branch.)  (See: June 21, 2008, Kiss the glass library goodbye, by Mike McLaughlin, The Brooklyn Paper.)

Too bad for “Steve from Fort Greene”: This time the system has him headed off at the pass (as they say in Westerns) since the system has announced it is closing and selling the Pacific Branch.

“Steve” was outflanked in another way even earlier.  Preparatory to everything that is going on now the library system “quietly cut branch hours by an unprecedented amount” in the fall of 2010 for this and 25 other locations, “nearly half of the system’s 60 locations,” closing them “for both weekend days”   See: September 22, 2010, Unhappy ending at library as branches are slashed on weekends, by Joe Anuta.
The problem is that the Pacific Branch may not be as dilapidated as you might think when you hear library spokesmen calling it that.  A community activist who lives on the block where the library is located and pays astute attention to matters like this pointed out to me that the library was renovated two years ago.  “It’s tight as a drum,” my activist friend commented.

A constant stream of people are going in and coming out of the library
I wanted to include a link in this article that you could click on to read documentation of the library’s recent renovation.  When I experienced difficulty in finding what I wanted I called the Pacific branch and explained I wanted help with the research I was doing.  The librarian I talked to immediately became exceptionally skittish and told me no librarians there could help me research the information I wanted (I said I was hoping to find, for instance a collection of newsletters that would talk about the renovation) because the librarians had all been directed not to speak to anyone about the renovations: All they could do was give me the name of a marketing person to whom I should direct questions.

I was nevertheless able to verify in my conversation that the librarian had been around when a year’s worth of recent renovations were done.  The marketing person I was directed to call for information on the subject did not call me back.

In the vestibule of Pacific Library:  Library purposes of providing information and community centers
I called Community Board 6 to see if I could get information about the renovations but what I got was a complaint that the library system had shared virtually no information with the board about things it was doing.  I was assured it would not be worth my while to review the on-line minutes of the community board or any of its committees (such as Landmarks/Land Use or Parks/Recreation/Cultural Affairs) because I wouldn’t find anything there.

One thing to note: If the Pacific branch is closed and a new library is opened in a double-size Walentas building, the new library will then be within the boundaries of Community Board 2, not 6.  Overall, I got the impression the library had been rather furtive about letting the community in on its plans.

It seemed that the the best way for me to verify that the library was in good shape as represented by my friend was to go visit it.

Main reading room in Pacific Street
There are those who when they look at a building or a neighborhood to assess what kind of shape it is in will be less inclined to see the actual infrastructure they are looking at than the people who are filling that space.  If the people in that space are of the same socio-economic strata as themselves, or above, they may be more inclined to conclude that the neighborhood or the buildings they are assessing are in good shape and quite serviceable to their purpose.  But if the people inhabiting that environment have less wealth (or are of a different race) that conclusion might not be so quickly reached.
Reading on balcony overlooking the rest of the main reading room
Andrew Carnegie who donated the library believed in enabling people to help themselves. “nothing for nothing. Youths must acquire knowledge themselves.”
Library Chess
Computers throughout the library are well-used by the public
That's pretty much how it turned out that neighborhoods were slated for demolition under urban renewal in the past.  Neighborhoods that didn't get demolished and were then reoccupied by wealthier people were suddenly better regraded as a result.  When Brooklyn Heights was less wealthy even it was in danger of demolition and some of it was torn down.  Now it's regarded as a premier historic neighborhood.

One resource available at Pacific: A collection of video DVDs
My own experience of the Pacific branch is that it is a hardy building that is getting hard use and standing up well to that hard use to stay in good shape.  Its main room has a linoleum floor that appears to have been put down on rock solid, level concrete.   All around there was evidence of intense use.  The place was filled.  As with any space getting a lot of use there was a reasonable amout of superficial scuffing as a result.  I didn’t see any evidence of prettifying financial expenditures but the building didn’t seem to need them to be durably functional.

150 seat capacity public second-floor auditorium
The building also has some beautiful community meeting space that anyone can arrange to use so long as it isn’t for profit.  Downstairs there is a room that will accommodate up to fifty.  Upstairs there is a gracious second floor auditorium that will accommodate a larger group of up to 150.  I am thinking of arranging to use space there to host a meeting to discuss community change.  I asked and was told that everything works perfectly, there’d be no problem with heat, air conditioning (window units in the summer), electricity, or the movie screen.

Public community room available gatherings with a capacity of up to 50
Kids are us!  Library has a children's reading room so you have to handle strollers.
I've spoken to some other people I know who are active in community affairs and they told me they love using the community space for meetings.  They then joked about the idea that if the space weren’t there that  “community space” might have to be found in the deeply subsidized “Barclays” arena a short block away, privately owned by Bruce Ratner’s Forest City Ratner company and Russian Oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov.  Under the bogus provisions of the “Community Benefits Agreement” applicable to the Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly, now being largely unenforced, the arena owners were supposed to provide a form of community space: a “meditation room.”  That has turned out to be pretty much a joke.

Library on right, receiving shallow city funding.  On left, just a few feet down the block the "Barclays" arena is receiving incredibly deep subsidies on the order of perhaps $20.00 a ticket 
The library system is painfully underfunded by Bloomberg and it hurts libraries like the Pacific branch. But at the same time tickets to attend Barbra Streisand or Jay-Z concerts at the "Barclays" arena only a short block away are deeply subsidized to the tune of perhaps $20 a ticket.  Imagine if library patrons could come to the library depositing into the library's till a $20 bill (furnished by the city periodically) to assist operations. . .   the libraries would be strong in their own right and there would be little excuse for Bloomberg's development deals.

One individual in the community fighting to keep the Pacific branch open commented in a communication forwarded to me that as between the Brooklyn Heights library being sold and shrunk (built as part of urban renewal in 1963) and the Pacific branch being closed: “The Pacific street branch building has more historic significance and its closing blatantly discriminates against people of color, the main users of the library.”

Another activist I spoke with told me that there was significant worry in the community that, if the Pacific branch is closed and a new library is opened in the enlarged Walentas building in Community Board 2's district, those in the community now using the Pacific branch would not feel welcome in the new space.

In the vestibule: The tale of the library's previous savoir by community activities when the library system was not working with them, not against them and for real estate deals
There happen to be activists in the community who are old enough to have participated in saving the library once before in the first half of the 70's.  The following is from the library's website.  It is almost the same as what can be read in the vestibule upon entering (see image above):
Problems soon beset the fine new library. In 1914 construction of the BMT subway system caused structural damage, and in 1917 all of the children's books and one third of the adult books were ruined by the water used to control a fire. In the 1930s W.P.A. workers created a large second-floor mural which has unfortunately not survived. After another fire in 1973, the building was slated for demolition, but community activists and the Brooklyn Public Library worked together to save it from the wrecker's ball.

After extensive renovation, the Pacific Branch reopened to the public in 1975. For almost 100 years the Pacific Branch has served a changing community. The branch, which boasts an active Friend's group, looks forward to serving the people of this busy crossroads neighborhood for generations to come through its wide range of information and recreational resources, its video collection and its innovative events and programs.
. . .  “the building was slated for demolition, but community activists and the Brooklyn Public Library worked together to save it from the wrecker's ball” and it was reopened in 1975.  Now community activists are working to save the building, but the Brooklyn Public Library is working against them to create real estate deals.

Historical photo of library in the vestibule
I was told that activists have tried to have the building landmarked in the past but the commissioner of the landmarks Commission refused to put the building up for consideration.  That is an indication that the real estate community wanted the building to remain in play.  I don’t know dates.  I don't know how far back this matter was first being pushed by the community, who was commissioner at the time, or what particular mayor’s bidding the demurring commissioner was doing when not proposing the building for consideration.

Library in happier days when it was not under threat. . . Atlantic Yards Report used this image from library's web site
The effort is ongoing.   The Historic Districts Council is pushing to save the Pacific library, the first Carnegie library to open in Brooklyn, as part of its “Campaign to Preserve the Carnegie Libraries.”  According to HDC’s site:
New York City’s collection of Carnegie libraries is the largest of any city in the country. Of the 67 built, 57 branches are still standing. The 54 that remain in operation make up one quarter of the city’s public library branches. . . . 13 branches have been designated New York City individual landmarks

The suspicion is that when the library closes the city will also close and sell the adjoining parcel housing the Boerum Hill Medicaid Office and offices of the Human Resources administration.

The adjacent two-story building providing city services that people think will be sold and leveled when the library goes to a developer
Perhaps not so coincidentally given arrival of the "Barclays" arena, the community is also struggling to preserve and prevent destruction of the1866 Gothic Revival Church of the Redeemer that is kitty-corner to the library across the intersecting street and avenue.  The church is very like the several churches that have been preserved just west of the Gramercy Park area, helping to give that area its character.  Not surprisingly those eager to make a profit on a tear-down of the church are asserting that the church, like the library, is too decrepit to preserve. 

The essential point to remember here is just one thing: When library system representatives tell you that libraries are being closed and sold off and the system shrunk because they are dilapidated and no longer serving their function, that isn’t true. . .  They are being sold off to create real estate deals for developers.  What make this worse, is that to make these stories more plausible, to provoke these sales that will shrink the system, Bloomberg is withholding funding from the library system at a time when the city is growing, getting wealthier, and library usage is up.

There is now a petition available to sign and pass around demanding that these priorities be rearranged and that the city start funding the library system properly, that real estate deals take a back seat to the needs of the library system.  I will soon write more about it in a coming post.

The petition, with more background on the website where it can be signed is:
Save New York City Libraries From Bloomberg Developer Destruction (click on the hyper-link to get to it)
The petition text: 
 We demand that Mayor Bloomberg stop defunding 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 the wealthy at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity is not only unjust, it is a shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness. 
Reiterating: Here are prior Noticing New York articles in this series followed by three other articles of relevance:
•    New City-Wide Policy Makes Generation Of Real Estate Deals The Library System’s Primary Purpose, (January 31, 2013)

•    City Strategy Of Withholding Basic City Services To Blackmail Public Into Accepting Bigger Development (Friday, February 1, 2013)

•    What Could We Expect Forest City Ratner Would Do With Two Library Sites On Sale For The Sake Of Creating Real Estate Deals? (Sunday, February 3, 2013)

•    New York Times: Critic’s Notebook- In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions, by Michael Kimmelman, January 29, 2013.

•    Wall Street Journal: Undertaking Its Destruction, by Ada Louise Huxtable, December 3, 2012.

•    Center For An Urban Future:  Report - Branches of Opportunity, by David Giles, January 2013


chickenunderwear said...

About once a week my kids go there after school.

chickenunderwear said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Christina Neigel said...

While my views are framed in a Canadian context, I have included the NYPL situation as an example of the dangers in the systematized approach to managing public services. People need to be made aware of the PROFOUND consequences of acquiescence. Have a look at my recent post:


Unknown said...

The Pacific branch unfortunately has no elevators or escalators to reach the meeting rooms on the second floor or the restrooms in the basement. The Brooklyn Heights branch has serious problems with air conditioning in the summer.

Noticing New York said...

The problem with the air Brooklyn Heights library air conditioning may not be so serious. Originally, the costs of a full maintenance repair was estimated at $750K. Somehow, through escalations and miscommunications, the Brooklyn Heights paper managed to report it as costing $9 million while referring to other additional repairs being needed. This article is about how the intentional underfunding of the libraries creates unnecessary problems situations like the need for that air conditioning repair. Adding elevator access to the Pacific branch could be a good thing. And with proper funding it might have been added already.