Thursday, October 3, 2013

Michael Kimmelman’s Scary Tightrope Act On Library Design: A Dance With The PR Machine Of Library Officials Intent On Selling Off Libraries

Michael Kimmelman, architectural critic for the New York Times, has a new piece on libraries in today’s paper.  I think it somewhat pulls off his apparent purpose in the end, but it is a nerve-wracking read, embarking on a dangerous undertaking.  He is writing about the “out-of-the-box” (gag me with a spoon) idea of using New York City libraries as “cooling centers,”  “cooling stations” and hurricane/emergency relief centers.  As everyone knows, this old PR meme is something library administration officials have been pushing to confuse the library real estate sell-off debate going on back at least to the announcement of many of those library sales at very beginning of this year, with library sell-off advocates like City Councilman Brad Lander carrying their water on this PR topic with smug, prearranged `cleverness.’

What’s wrong with this kernel of a good idea?  Everyone knows that going back to the sudden secretive sale of the Donnell Library there hasn’t been a library that library administration officials have wanted to sell or destroy (including the stacks of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library) where they don’t blame theoretically problematic air conditioning.  They argue that the air conditioning can’t be fixed, but must be fixed, so they say that the ownership of the real estate must be turned over to developers.  Witness the current shenanigans respecting the intentional overestimation of air conditioning repair costs and refusal to repair the air conditioning with respect to the Brooklyn Heights Library.  The air conditioning `broke down' just months before Brooklyn Public Library officials were about to make public their longstanding (going back to 2008) secret plans to sell that library.

In the end, Kimmelman pulls out of what might have been a nosedive all the way to the very bottom of the NYPL’s PR maw with the following:
Disasters aside, branch libraries are a safe and equitable bet on our social and economic health. Trustees at the always tin-cup-wielding New York Public Library are now pondering a $300 million renovation scheme for its 42nd Street landmark. (Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor, told me recently that if elected, he would take a second look at the Bloomberg administration’s promise of $150 million in taxpayer money toward that renovation.)
In other words, library administration officials promoting these real estate deals are spending public taxpayer money, at least $150 million of it, very foolishly.

Yes, in the end, it’s a reasonably good idea to think in terms of using libraries, or at least some of them, for some disaster-relief functions, even if it is a distracting idea, but . . .  disaster relief obviously isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the primary purpose of libraries.  

Here’s a link to the Kimmelman’s story: Critic’s Notebook, Next Time, Libraries Could Be Our Shelters From the Storm.  More important, here is Kimmelman’s original famous critique of that "Central Library Plan" (CLP), now for PR purposes being rechristened "The 42nd Street Library Renovation Plan" (Said NYPL COO David Offensend on September 25th, the day the new name was launched at the NYPL's Trustees meeting- "It's the same plan"): Critic’s Notebook- In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions, by Michael Kimmelman, January 29, 2013.

While deciding that libraries can double as disaster centers could allow for some sensible efficiencies in facing certain scale disasters, the idea could also be criticized as being a piece with the across-the board, general and extreme reductions of social services and government functions and their sometimes transfer to private ownership or to other, less well-equipped branches of the government.  Like Republican calls for elimination of FEMA, these are notions the 1% are too quick to promote.  Everyone remembers Grover Norquist's expression of his fondest wishto get the government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

In that regard, just as the primary purpose of a library should, first and foremost, be to be a library, we should also be thinking in terms of our disaster relief centers truly being what they ought to be.

Library and city officials wanting to sell off library real estate have ventured into the realm of laughability as they busily make arguments that libraries can be much, much smaller if the use of library space can be conceived of as being infinitely flexible.  See:  Thursday, April 25, 2013, Building a “Murphy Library.”
Murphy Bed to Murphy Library?
We want to shrink libraries down by having them be ever more flexible, but then, on top of that, these shrunken libraries should now take on still another additional function, that of disaster relief?

How does the idea that libraries will be our havens in a storm work if we are at the same time selling off our significant library spaces, selling Donnell, selling Mid-Manhattan, selling the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL), selling the Brooklyn Heights Library (which was designed with a bomb shelter intending that it have a disaster relief function to capitalize on)?  How will the many Manhattanites be accommodated for relief in a disaster when the NYPL's Central Library Plan takes more than 380,000 square feet of library space and reduces it to a mere 80,000 square feet in the back of the Central Research Library 42nd Street building accessible through just one small door?

To conclude on the topic of how library air conditioning is being used as a routine excuse to sell libraries: This past Monday there was a City Council hearing on the subject of selling New York City's libraries.  It was chaired by City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer from Queens who favors the proposed sale of New York City's libraries, thus putting him in disagreement with Citizens Defending Libraries and its petition calling for a halt to these sales. Citizens Defending Libraries delivered much testimony at that hearing which will all soon be up on line.  Here is a piece of Citizens Defending Libraries testimony that dealt with air conditioning as an excuse to sell libraries to developers.   

September 30, 2013

James G. Van Bramer, Chair
Committee on Cultural Affairs,
   Libraries and International Intergroup Relations
250 Broadway, Committee Rm 16th Fl
New York, NY 10017

Re:    Agency Oversight Hearings on capital construction needs and the potential disposal of libraries in New York City

Dear Committee:

We are here to say yet again we need a “cooling off” period. . .
. . .  We need a moratorium on the selling off of the library system’s best and most valuable assets until more is known about the questionable reasons being given for why the best real estate needs to be sold off to developers.

We need a “cooling off” period because every time they want to sell libraries, often recently renovated ones, they seem to find an insurmountable problem with the library’s air conditioning system.  It’s highly suspicious!

Whenever library officials want to push a library out the door as a real estate deal they find air conditioning problems a handy complaint.
    •    The reason Donnell Library needed to be closed, sold and shrunk?  An air conditioning problem!  To sell a whole library?  At a considerable loss to the public because the NYPL netted less than $39 million for the 97,000 square foot library?  By way of reference, much of that library had been recently renovated, the auditorium, the Teen Center, and in November of 2001 a new 14,500 sq ft state-of-the-art media center paid for by the City and State of New York.  That complete and extensive renovation included new air conditioning for about 15% of Donnell’s space. It cost $1 million.  While that much of the building had been so recently renovated for so little (and other recent renovations of more space were in place) the NYPL provided cover for the announcement its announcement of Donnell’s sale in 2007 estimating that renovation of the rest of the building would cost $48 million!  

    •    Why demolish the historic research book stack system at the Tilden Astor Central Reference Library at 42nd Street?   According to the NYPL. . . An air conditioning problem!

    •    Need to sell off and shrink the Brooklyn Heights branch and Business and Career library?   According to the BPL . . . .An air conditioning problem!

    •    Sell the historic Pacific Branch? An air conditioning problem!  Want to sell off a lot of libraries in Brooklyn?  Announce that a lot of them have air conditioning problems and start closing them in the summer!     See: More libraries fall as heat nears 100 degrees, By Mary Frost, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 6, 2012.
Highly suspicious.  We need an audit!

The Brooklyn Public Library announced that it wanted to sell the Brooklyn Heights Library because of the condition of the air conditioning this January but the plan and decision to sell the library go back to at least 2008.  The air conditioning breakdown that `couldn’t be fixed’ didn’t occur until summer, 2012, right in time to announce the library’s sale to the public.

Although the public was told that the air conditioning was the reason to sell the library in January of 2013, library administration and city officials withheld information about exactly what was supposedly wrong with the air conditioning until mid-June, days before an RFP (Request For Proposals) to sell the library (because of the “air conditioning”!) was sent out.  The withheld information finally released was simply a July 12, 2012 DDC Construction Report but even then the requested cost estimates that had been cited in the press all along were still withheld.  When these documents were requested from the Brooklyn Public Library they referred our representatives over to DDC (New York City Department of Design and Construction) and when the DDC was requested to give up these documents they referred our representatives back over to the BPL.  To date they haven’t been produced.

In substitution therefor the BPL has produced another in a series of escalating estimates of the cost of repairing the air conditioning.  A repair that was once estimated to cost $700,000 or substantially less went to $750,000 and from there to $3 million, then to $3.5 million.  The official estimate has now recently escalated to between $4.5 and $5 million (and is apparently at odds with previous engineering assessments).  You know that they are reaching to find costs because both the architect delivering the estimate and Brooklyn Public Library spokesperson are saying that one of the hard-to-meet challenges in fixing the system is all the heat that modern-day computers are throwing off.  These modern-day computers are also being blamed by the BPL for making the library too expensive to repair in another way: It would be far too expensive to supply them with the electricity they need!

Further, the most recent estimate, disingenuous on its face, calls for fixing air conditioning that isn’t broken and for air conditioning more space than actually required. 
We need an audit and we need a “cooling off” period until that audit is completed and the mind-set of library and city officials is no longer one that prioritizes creating real estate deals for developers!  Remember: These breakdowns accompanied by inflated repair estimates only came after the decision to the sell the library.


                            Citizens Defending Libraries

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Let's be realistic : on just how many days of the year is air conditioning really essential? It would have been necessary this last summer on perhaps 10 days. Since it isn't essential, why can't the Heights library stay open without it?