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For Brooklyn PL, Planned Sale of Branches Promises Opportunity, Provokes Concern

Historic value and cautionary tales

The 109-year-old Pacific Library, however outmoded inside, was Brooklyn’s first Carnegie library and the second in the city. Since 2004, it has been proposed as a city landmark, which would protect it against demolition. (The first and third city Carnegies have gained that status.) It serves a growing population and is near three schools, while its successor, though planned two blocks away, would require crossing one of the borough’s most perilous intersections. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Heights Library, which opened in 1962 on the edge of Downtown Brooklyn, is no candidate for preservation but does boast handsome deco carvings in its facade. Still, activists and even some elected officials wonder if the repair costs have been trumped up to further the sale process. Behind the skepticism looms a cautionary example: NYPL’s Donnell Library in midtown Manhattan was sold without public notice in a 2007 real estate deal that soon stalled, without a replacement. The branch closed Aug. 30, 2008 and a new library is now scheduled to open June 30, 2014 in 2015.

The Pacific Library Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library photo by Norman Oder

Leveraging real estate

In October 2011, BPL head Johnson, who had been named to her post two months earlier after a one-year stint as interim director, told an interviewer, “I’m trying to figure out. how to take the valuable real estate and use it to take care of my other assets. And not to leave that neighborhood, but just to do some kind of interesting project with a developer.” Johnson’s big challenge then was not neighborhood opposition but a threshold legal issue: making sure that the value of the buildings, owned by the city, would return to BPL, formally a city-funded nonprofit, rather than go to the general fund. (Such a memorandum of understanding, promising the library capital funds matching the proceeds from building sales, has since been negotiated but not made public, leading to questions about its enforceability.) BPL’s strategic plan, released in mid-January 2013, described a library in transition, aiming to revisit its service model, re-envision programming, and find new ways to “serve Brooklyn’s unique populations.” In order to “[p]rovide functional, attractive and safe spaces and align the Library’s physical footprint with twenty-first-century service delivery,” BPL would not only continue to renovate the landmarked Central Library, but also “modernize [its] real estate footprint.” As the plan stated, “BPL recently began work on one such project by partnering with Brooklyn-based developer Two Trees to build a state-of-the-art new branch in the heart of the BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] Cultural District in Downtown Brooklyn.” The plan piggybacked in part on a comprehensive, sobering assessment of the local systems, Branches of Opportunity, issued in January by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a local think tank. The report, funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, which has taken a keen interest in New York’s libraries, pointed to increasing use of libraries, especially by those less advantaged, despite a failure of civic leaders to recognize the systems’ value and consequent underfunding for both operating and capital needs. (See chart on p. 32 that indicates rising demand and declining support.) Libraries are less cultural institutions than “a key component of the city’s human capital system,” the CUF observed, citing aid to those seeking jobs, learning technology, gaining reading skills, and looking to assimilate into the United States. “[T]he libraries might consider selling older, underperforming branches that are valuable as real estate and then plow the profits back into the creation of new, more efficient branches,” the CUF report recommended, “at least if the charm factor of the older Carnegie buildings didn’t prove to be too big an obstacle.” For Richard Reyes-Gavilan, BPL’s director and chief librarian, the condition of the branches represents an ongoing institutional headache, compounded by the double whammy of increased use and steady strains on the operating budget. BPL, he lamented recently, hasn’t hired a librarian on operating dollars since 2008.

A coupling emerges

April 18 rally at City Hall featuring City Comptroller John Liu photo by Norman Oder

Unmentioned in BPL’s strategic plan was the coupling of the new BAM South Site branch with the sale of the Pacific Library, one that became apparent in a late January New York Daily News article. The existing building, BPL stated in a fact sheet titled Building a Better Pacific Library, “has a daunting $11 million in capital needs (including $7.4 million in urgent infrastructure repairs) and its layout is antiquated and poorly suited for modern library service.” As Reyes-Gavilan said last month, more than half the library space “is not usable or almost unusable by the public,” built with “warrens and processing rooms” from another era. “Obviously, from the outside, it is a Carnegie branch,” he declared, “but in terms of how a library is used in the 21st century, it really is past its useful life.” So a new 15,000 square foot “Pacific” branch, with more usable space, could be built in the base of “a multiuse cultural and housing complex” scheduled to open in 2017, according to the library. A decade ago, BPL had grander plans for that site; it was supposed to become a wedge-shaped Visual and Performing Arts library designed by Enrique Norten. That proved too expensive for BPL. Today, in a hot real estate market, the city sees the empty lot best suited for high-rise apartments, with cultural facilities in its base. The sale of the Pacific library–no estimate of value has surfaced–would not only remove that $11 million capital deficit but also pay for new collections, technology, furniture and fittings in the new branch. “The South Site project represents an extraordinary opportunity for BPL to deliver a new, larger, state-of-the-art branch for the community at little or no cost to BPL,” the library said. At a hearing last month of the New York City Planning Commission, Josh Nachowitz, BPL’s library’s VP for government and community relations, described the new branch as “a sort of modern, inspiring, and optimistic library facility that [users] deserve.” While creation of a new library is “an exciting proposal,” countered Council Member Levin at that hearing, moving Pacific to another neighborhood–outside his district–“is a mistake,” suggesting the physical and psychological barrier would daunt seniors and schoolchildren. Indeed, the April 18 rally included a Girl Scout troop that meets at the branch. The potential sale of the Pacific branch “should not hinge on your approval of the BAM South project,” Levin said. He asked that the building be landmarked, prompting a commissioner–on a body controlled by development-friendly Mayor Bloomberg–to comment, “you have your work cut out for you.” Jo Anne Simon, former president of the Boerum Hill Association, a neighborhood group, added that BPL’s other Carnegie libraries have “had significant investment,” while “this one has been starved.” (Indeed, Pacific represents 15% of the capital needs of BPL’s remaining 18 Carnegies.) While it bears a greater cost, Simon said. “It doesn’t need to be that way.” Nachowitz–who joined the library last year from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which among other things leverages city properties in real estate sales–offered an olive branch, albeit limited to the deal at hand. Pacific “doesn’t have to be sold purely as a development site,” he suggested. “If there are options to sell the building, either as a landmark facility, or with some sort of a deed restriction that would generate enough revenue for BPL to pay for the fit-out at BAM South, we would be happy to have that discussion.” Then again, the highest value of a library sale–which includes air rights for a ten- to 15-story building on the site–likely would derive from a teardown rather than preservation.

The Brooklyn Heights Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library photo by Norman Oder

The Brooklyn Heights plan

An overheated branch

The Brooklyn Heights Library faces what BPL calculates as a $9 million maintenance bill, mainly from defective climate control. Last summer, the heat became so intolerable the building had to close for a total of 30 separate days. This summer, BPL plans to keep the branch open this summer Monday-Friday, 8 am to 1 pm (and Saturday 9-1), the hours when the building is coolest. Even that required the library union to suspend the working conditions element of its contract, so workers volunteering for the assignments could work despite extreme heat. After Labor Day weekend, said Reyes-Gavilan, the library’s standard 54-hour weekly schedule returns, and “the working conditions contract is back in play.” Local officials have questioned how, for example, a $750,000 estimate for air conditioning repairs at Brooklyn Heights became $3.6 million, both coming from BPL’s capital planning staff. In response, said Nachowitz, BPL has commissioned a third-party engineer to evaluate the capital needs of both the Brooklyn Heights and Pacific branches. “The situation last year with the air conditioning should not be used as a pretext to get rid of the building and replace it with a smaller library,” Council Member Levin told the Daily News.

The larger picture

The replacement library/tower in Brooklyn Heights could come much faster than the new Pacific branch. “Ideally, we’d love to be able to get an RFP out before the summer, designate a developer by end of year, try to get the contract sometime this year,” Nachowitz said. Opponents hope to push it over until the next mayor takes office. Bloomberg has not been generous regarding operating funds for the three systems, but the CUF report identified system deficits caused by very uneven capital support. Over a decade, NYPL raised $215 million in city capital funds, Queens raised $153 million, while Brooklyn raised $101 million–or $62.41 per person for NYPL, $68.79 in Queens, and $40.50 in Brooklyn. “Queens has succeeded in large part because the libraries have been a priority for local elected officials, especially the borough president,” who over that decade spent $24.33 per person on libraries, while her Brooklyn counterpart allotted less than $8, according to the report. (Last year, according to Nachowitz, Brooklyn got $10 million from the mayor, $5 million from Council members, and $1.5 million from the borough president.) An overall increase in general capital allocation, the CUF report suggested, could “reduce the libraries’ dependence on individual elected officials for capital funding.” After that, “an ambitious, long-term capital plan,” along the lines of the bond issues in cities like Seattle, could bolster the systems’ physical plants. Before then, most likely, there will be more conflict over these two Brooklyn branches. Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder is a former executive editor, LJ. He writes a daily watchdog blog about the Atlantic Yards development, which includes the new Barclays Center arena, and has been praised by several in CDL.

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BPL, one of three systems in New York City and the country’s fifth-largest library (by population served), has suffered consistent underfunding of capital needs, with its 59 locations facing a $230 million backlog of deferred maintenance, barely dented by the $15 million annual allotment of capital funding. Their solution: sell two aging libraries that occupy valuable land, and work with real estate developers to include libraries in residential towers. It’s not uncommon for urban libraries to consider mixed-use buildings, though few face the real estate froth characteristic in Brooklyn.

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