New York Libraries Turn the Page on Public Control

(Photo: AP/Mark Lennihan)

People sit on the steps in front of the New York Public Library's main branch on October 5, 2016.

It’s about 11 o’clock on a Wednesday morning, and all of the computers are taken at the small library in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Even so, with many local residents at school or work, there’s plenty of space elsewhere: Empty chairs remain at the long tables and only a handful of children occupy the kids’ section. But over the next few hours, schools will let out and offices will close and the heavily used library will return to its usual atmosphere: overflowing with patrons vying for computers or elbow room, and under-resourced by the city.

Years of inadequate funding for New York City’s three library systems—Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), Queens Library, and New York Public Library (NYPL), which covers Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island—have led to massive capital budget deficits. David Woloch, BPL’s executive vice-president for external affairs, estimates that the Brooklyn system’s current unfunded capital needs alone total about $280 million. As neighborhood branches fall into disrepair, with leaky roofs or broken heating and air conditioning systems, the libraries say they cannot keep up with maintenance costs, not to mention bring the branches up to date with new technology.

At a loss for solutions, the libraries began looking for options beyond city funding. The BPL and the NYPL systems have come up with a formula that involves selling the land on which the libraries sit to private developers, who will then construct new libraries—still owned by the city—with housing above, all on top of newly privatized land. Unlike cities like Santa Clarita, California, where control of the libraries has been outsourced to a private company, these New York neighborhoods are not seeing their public libraries privatized. Yet they are losing public assets.

In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, the library’s valuable land has been sold for a hefty sum; in its place will be a luxury condo tower with a new city-owned library—increasing concerns over gentrification but providing BPL with much-needed profit to make repairs at other branch libraries. Farther south, in Sunset Park, the library’s land is being sold to a developer that will construct a new library with affordable housing above and then sell the library back to the city. There, the worries include adding people to already over-crowded neighborhood schools. And across the East River in Manhattan, the city plans to sell the Inwood neighborhood library to a developer that will also build affordable housing on top of a new city-owned branch. Residents wonder if the housing will be sufficiently affordable for those people most in need. In all of these cases, some community members lament the loss of public land and have felt excluded from the decision-making process.

Sitting at a table in the Sunset Park library, María Roca, founder of the Friends of Sunset Park community organization, assessed the situation this way: “Let’s look at why the library doesn’t have the money. I think you have to be really blind not to see a correlation between this underfunding and creating the vulnerability to then say, ‘Well, this is the only way we can handle this.’”

The libraries are not fully funded by the mayor’s preliminary budget. But the City Council members and borough presidents can also put forward their own funding proposals to assist organizations that need help filling in their funding gaps. The mayor, the City Council, and the borough presidents then hold hearings and reconcile their various proposals. In a 2014 report, the Center for an Urban Future, an independent public policy organization, wrote, “Compared to other agencies, a much greater percentage of the libraries’ capital funds are generated through individual City Council members and borough presidents. Between fiscal years 2004 and 2013, 59 percent of the libraries’ capital commitments came through this discretionary process, while only 41 percent came from the mayor.” It’s a process that, according to the report, requires the libraries “to shop their projects around to individual elected officials” each year.

Despite being seen as public institutions, New York libraries are technically independent entities, not government agencies. This hybrid public-private system dates back to 1901, when Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million to construct the neighborhood branch libraries, provided that the city supply the sites and funding for both maintenance and operations. Mayor Bill de Blasio included $43 million for the libraries’ operating funds in his 2016 budget, as well as $300 million for a ten-year capital budget. But this commitment still put the libraries $22 million short of their 2008 funding level of $65 million. In his 2017 budget, de Blasio baselined $43 million for improved library services, including permanent six-day service.

“We have started to get better over the past few years at articulating the extent of our capital problem and I think the government funders have been responsive to that, but that’s only going to take us so far,” argues Woloch. “It shows that even with more government funding than we had been getting before, we still need other solutions, otherwise we’re in an unsustainable position.”

The piecemeal funding scheme has left the libraries with a tough choice: leave repairs undone and technology outdated or look elsewhere for money. BPL did just that when it agreed to sell 280 Cadman Plaza West, the location of its Brooklyn Heights neighborhood branch, to Hudson Companies, a developer that will construct a 36-story luxury condo tower—with a new library on the first floor—in its place. After the sale, the city will own the library as a condo in the building. BPL will get $52 million, about $12 million of which will go toward the new Brooklyn Heights branch, leaving about $40 million for other branches in need. Hudson will also build 114 units of affordable housing in a nearby neighborhood as part of the deal.

Some community members expressed opposition to the plan from the get-go. Their City Council representative, Stephen T. Levin, ultimately supported it but he still understands the lingering concerns. “The downside is that it’s selling public land,” Levin says. “Then adding more market-rate housing units has its negative aspects in any circumstance.” But, he continues, “the benefit was yielding funds to help address whatever percentage that is of the overall capital budget deficit for the BPL. It’s still actually pretty sizable.”

With a $40 million profit after refurbishing the Brooklyn Heights branch, the transaction will cover a little more than 14 percent of BPL’s $280 million capital deficit. The sale, however, has not been finalized, even though Hudson already has permission to begin demolishing the space.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney and the Manhattan District Attorney have launched separate investigations into the city’s decision to select Hudson. Critics suspect that de Blasio’s ties to Hudson CEO David Kramer, a friend and fundraiser of his, might have something to do with the choice.

 With that Brooklyn Heights profit in sight, BPL turned its attention to the Sunset Park library, one of the borough’s busiest locations. Library officials plan to sell the branch to the Fifth Avenue Committee, a nonprofit private developer, that intends to construct an eight-story building with about 50 units of affordable housing and a library on the ground floor. The developer will then sell the library space back to the city for $1, but will still own the land.

Here, too, some community members met the project with skepticism. According to Roca, that the small library could use upgrades is far from controversial, but the sale of the land itself bothered residents, as did the developers’ failure to consider other options for the space.

Roca argues that a neighborhood with overflowing schools needs an educational center, not more housing. She puts it this way: “49 units versus the thousands and thousands of families that would be impacted in a positive way.” But the plan is well on its way to fruition, having been approved by the community board and the borough president in the final days of 2016.

This tactic of selling library land and combining an upgraded library with housing is now spreading beyond Brooklyn, all the way up to Manhattan’s northernmost point. On a drizzly March afternoon in Inwood, about 100 local residents poured inside the auditorium of Good Shepherd School, where a banner reading “Northern Manhattan Not 4 Sale” stood in front of the stage. Outside, a woman handed out flyers with large block letters that spelled out “Save Inwood Library.”

In January, NYPL and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development had announced a plan to redevelop the Inwood library branch in partnership with the Robin Hood Foundation, an anti-poverty nonprofit. The city will sell the land to a private developer, who will construct affordable housing above a new library, which will remain under city ownership.

Inside Good Shepherd School, organizers from Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale, a coalition fighting for affordable housing and against gentrification, spoke out against the proposed rents (which, they argue, may not be affordable for the poorest people in the neighborhood), the potential height of the new building, and the sale of public land. Although the city and the library held a series of public workshops and used an online survey to get community input, residents believe that the idea had already been fully developed before they could weigh in.

“The question is why are you pairing affordable housing with a library?” asked Denise Rickles, a member of Uptown Progressive Action, a group seeking to build a grassroots movement for progressive change in northern Manhattan. Although all sides agree that libraries are indispensable, the line has been drawn between those who think that selling public land is an unfortunate, but viable, option and those who think it is never an option—even if it means more affordable apartments.

Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, falls into the first group: “We want to see the city invest a lot more money in rebuilding and renovating libraries, but if we can get a handful of branch libraries to be renovated or rebuilt as part of an affordable housing development, that sounds like an amazing thing.” In the center’s 2014 report, it even suggested co-developing libraries with affordable housing and cited Brooklyn Heights, Sunset Park, and Inwood as potential locations.

Meanwhile, at the Inwood forum, organizers struck a nuanced balance: they would support the plan if the housing units were deeply affordable, if an interim library were set up during construction—as has been done in Brooklyn Heights and will be done in Sunset Park—and if the land remained public. They hope to set up a community land trust so that taxpayers can retain ownership.

“What has happened historically is that public land changes hands into private hands and then whoever becomes the new owner can eventually change what’s on the site. When we found out about the eventual sale of the land from public ownership to private ownership, that was already a deal-breaker,” explains Nova Lucero from Metropolitan Council on Housing, a member of the Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale coalition. Unlike Bowles, she does not see the trade-off as worthwhile: “The fear is that we’re losing control as a community.”

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