Selling Off New York’s Public Libraries

When I was a teenager I used to skip class, nestle under a desk in my high school’s library where the school administrators wouldn’t find me and open up a tattered copy of Leaves of Grass. The way Walt Whitman wrote about America was so blithe and idealistic, operatic and direct that I had to read the words aloud, which I did in a low voice so no one would overhear me.

It is this opportunity to lose oneself in a world of new ideas and discoveries while communing with the past that renders libraries endearing. Not to mention that this most communal of civic institutions serves as a neighborhood social hub, an after-school gathering place for children of working parents, a vital resource for job hunters and English language learners and an air-conditioned oasis for members of New York’s homeless population.

“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.

Whitman grew up in Brooklyn and later worked in a print shop in the area where the predecessor to the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library was first opened during the 1850s. Rebuilt in 1962, the library is now at the center of a dispute over the latest sell-off of public space.

The Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) board agreed last year to sell the library for $52 million to Hudson Companies, a real estate development firm that is seeking to build a 36-story residential tower on the site. It will contain 139 units of luxury, market-rate housing and loom over the adjacent Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. In return, the company has pledged to build 114 “affordable housing units” two miles away in Clinton Hill — although 24 of the units will be priced 165 percent above the area medium income.

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.

To win public support for the sale, BPL has pledged that $12 million will go toward building a new branch library on the ground floor of the luxury development — but at only one-third the size of the existing facility, down from 62,000 to 21,000 square feet. In what critics of the sale see as a cynical attempt to pit the users of cash-strapped libraries against each other, BPL has also promised to use the remaining $40 million from the sale to renovate BPL’s Pacific, Washington Irving, Walt Whitman and Sunset Park branch libraries, which, like the Brooklyn Heights library, have fallen into disrepair over the years.

“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.”

Defunding the Libraries

Data collected by the Center for an Urban Future  show that operating subsidies for the city’s three library systems — Brooklyn, Queens and the New York Public Library (NYPL) system, which encompasses Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island — declined by 10 percent from 2002 to 2014, under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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.

Support for the libraries has begun to increase under Mayor Bill de Blasio. However, the neglect of the Bloomberg years has left the three library systems with capital improvement needs of $1.4 billion to repair and update aging facilities, many of which lack the resources — such as outlets to plug in computers — one expects in the 21st century.

At Brooklyn Heights Library, for instance, the building’s 30-year-old heating, ventilating and air conditioning system has been broken for about four years — a fact often cited by proponents of the library’s sale. Instead of investing in repairs, which, according to the city’s Department of Design and Construction, would cost between $3.3 and $3.6 million, the library has cut its summer hours, opening in the morning six days a week when the heat is less oppressive and then closing at 1pm.

“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.’”

While backers of the Brooklyn Heights Library sale are touting it as a win-win collaboration between the public and private sectors, the final outcome may disappoint library supporters.

Michael White, the former city planner, points out that the $52 million from the sale will go into the city’s general coffers. For the money to be spent on Brooklyn libraries will require authorization from a city council and a mayor who have any number of other projects they may want to see that money go to.

Contradicting White, Madeline Kaye, a spokesperson from the public relations firm Berlin Rosen, speaking on behalf of BPL, insisted to The Indypendentthat the $52 million will be spent as promised. Kaye cited a May 2013 memorandum of understanding between the city’s Office of Management and Budget and BPL that states the proceeds from the sale will go toward meeting the library system’s capital needs. Memoranda of understanding, however, are not legally binding.

Other Library Sales

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.

Plans to sell two Manhattan branches to developers — the Mid-Manhattan Library at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, and the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison Avenue at 34th Street — and use the funds to convert the NYPL’s iconic flagship library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue (the one with the lions out front) into a much smaller lending library were shelved last year due to public outcry. The scheme involved moving some 3 million books into storage at an expense to taxpayers of at least $300 million dollars.

The sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch most resembles a deal struck in 2007, at the height of the real estate boom, between NYPL and Orient Express Hotels. NYPL sold its Donnell Branch Library, located across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on West 53rd Street, to a luxury hotel chain for $59 million. The property now belongs to the Starwood Capital Group, which plans to build a 46-story luxury hotel that will feature 151 hotel rooms going for upwards of $800 per night and 61 high-end residences. The building’s penthouse comes with a $60 million price tag, a million dollars more than the whole property sold for. The building will also feature a crystal boutique shop with items costing up to $10,000.

“We’re going to marry Louis XV with the modern era,” Barry Sternlicht, Starwood Capital’s chief executive officer, told the Wall Street Journal. “We will be catering to high-end couples and business travelers who may be shopping on Fifth Avenue.”

The Donnell Library’s replacement is expected to open this winter. It will be located in the basement of the hotel.

‘Ringing the Dinner Bell’

Library defenders like Michael White worry that the deal Community Board 2 backed on July 15 sends a signal to developers that public resources are now up for bids across the East River in the city’s most rapidly gentrifying borough.

“This is setting the banquet and ringing the dinner bell for developers,” White said. “It signals that we are willing to sell off any kind of public asset and we are willing to sell it off cheaply.”

BPL spokesperson Madeline Kaye disputed White’s claim that the property is being sold at a bargain-basement price after what she described as “a very competitive bidding process.”

Seeking to distance the Brooklyn Heights sale from the Donnell library deal, Kaye said that BPL has a contract with Hudson Companies and “if the contractor exceeds the amount of time permitted by the city, 30 months to build the new library and 36 months to build the whole building, there is a reversion provision that would allow the city to take back title to the land and keep any and all proceeds already paid by Hudson Companies.”

Under the terms of its contract, Kaye said, Hudson will sell the city back its new library, built into the bottom floor of the luxury tower, for $1.

Assuming construction deadlines are met, Angotti observed, the new value realized by the luxury condo tower will ultimately go into the pockets of the developer, while most of the space that is created will be reserved for the wealthy.

Comparable apartments to those Hudson plans to construct in Brooklyn Heights are listed in the millions of dollars. Libraries, however, have an intrinsic value that markets can’t tabulate.

“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.”

BPL and Hudson hope construction will begin on the tower by next year. After Adams weighs in on the development deal, it goes to the City Planning Commission, followed by the City Council, before ultimately falling on Mayor de Blasio’s desk — a clear test of whether the current mayor will continue in his predecessor’s footsteps, auctioning away public space to private interests, or whether he will listen to the voices of book-loving Brooklynites seeking to preserve it.

This article originally appeared in The Indypendent.

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Peter Rugh is a writer and activist based in Brooklyn, New York.

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