Is the Public Getting Swindled By the City’s Short-Sighted School and Library Sell-Offs?

Would a library in a private developer's high rise be the same? Brownstoner

Would a library in a private developer’s high rise be the same? (Brownstoner)

The City of New York, like many other large landowners, has been selling its land for centuries. However, these last few months have brought what many consider to be a disconcerting flurry of real estate transactions as the city, citing a cash crunch, moves to sell off a number of schools, libraries and municipal buildings.

The city and others have lauded the sell-off as a way to bring much-needed monies to institutions that are in dire need of help. Trading in valuable real estate, we are told, will keep the city’s civic institutions afloat. If only it didn’t have the vaguely desperate vibe of a pawn shop swap.

Is the city is making bad—or at least short-sighted—deals in exchange for a little cash right now? As The New York Times, which examined the sudden spate of sales argues: the decision to sell certain properties and keep others is being driven by the logic of developers, not the virtues and the problems of the library branches and schools themselves.

And when private, rather than public interest dictates the city’s real estate decisions, that’s a real cause for concern, even if those sales will ultimately benefit the public, as the city claims.

For example, the 52-year-old Brooklyn Heights branch requires a $3 million overhaul of its air conditioning system, as well as other repairs, but it’s certainly not the oldest or most dilapidated library in Brooklyn, according to The Times. The parcel just happens to be in a posh neighborhood where developers are eager to build luxury housing for the kinds of residents who can afford to do without libraries.

(The Brooklyn Public Library, via a spokesman, has contacted The Observer to say that while it does not dispute that the value of the real estate is a huge factor in the decision to sell the branches, it does feel that the Brooklyn Heights branch is among the system’s most dilapidated and was closed for 30 days last summer because of air conditioning problems.)

The same could be said of the Beaux Arts library branch on Pacific Street, located just steps from Barclays Arena. Library officials say that selling the land would allow the branch to build out a more modern space.

While the Pacific Street branch will increase slightly with the move, from about 15,750 square feet to 16,500 square feet, according to the Brooklyn Public Library, the 60,000 Brooklyn Heights branch will shrink considerably. (The library argues that the part of the library that houses the local branch will remain nearly the same, given that much of the of the space is used for storage and the business library is being relocated off-site.)

“We would deliver two of these libraries for essentially no cost to the library system,” Brooklyn Public Library vice president for government and community relations Joshua Nachowitz told The Times. “It’s a win-win.”

At no cost to the library system, perhaps, but quite possibly at a cost to the community, which gets two newer, in one case smaller library in private developments in exchange for two older libraries on public land. Which sounds more like a trade-off than a win-win.

The middle class are being priced out of much of Manhattan and Brooklyn and so, it seems, are the public institutions that they frequent. Or rather, those institutions are being downsized and relocated to private developments where, regardless of the incentives and benefits the developer is getting in exchange for housing them (in exchange for creating the cultural space that will house the Pacific Street library in its new building, Two Trees will be permitted to create more apartments than zoning would have allowed), will be seen as corporate largesse.

Moreover, there is the pressing question of what putting a civic institution in a private luxury development means for the institution. Will the library be able to remain rent-free forever? Or will the lease be limited and if so, might the city be saddled with high rents in 10 or 20 years? (The Two Trees development’s cultural space will be a condo owned by the city, according to the library, and the library would seek similar deals in other developments.) Perhaps most importantly, will residents be dissuaded from visiting the library by the unwelcoming, closed-off feeling of many private developments—the phalanx of doormen and other security precautions that discourage loitering and the lower classes?

The city is also selling off two municipal buildings in Lower Manhattan that are expected to generate some $250 million in revenue and savings, as well as “a public digital arts and media space.” On the Upper West Side, the city is planning to sell three schools in exchange for bottom-floor spaces in the private developments that would be built on the sites.

Besides the fact that the public institutions are, it seems, to always be housed in the shadowy, light-deprived lower levels of the luxury buildings that replace them—constantly reminded of their lesser standing in the city landscape—there’s also the practical considerations of schools being forced to relocate to interim spaces during construction and the educational disruptions it may cause.

There’s a tendency, in these situations, for both the city and the developers to focus on what is being given, rather than what is being gained by private interests—and what is being gained, rather than what is being given, by the public.

In the case of the Brooklyn public libraries, it’s not all that much—while the two libraries are said to need repairs totaling $9 million to $11 million each, most of the proceeds of the sale would go to building the new spaces out. Moreover, whatever money is gained would be just a one-time infusion, rather than a strategy for supporting an under-funded institution in the long run. There’s a real question as to why, if New York’s economic development during the last decade is benefiting the city as much as Mayor Bloomberg has claimed, such sell-offs are necessary.

The public has been generous to private developers—particularly in the case of Barclays, with city and state subsidies granted on the basis that their developments would be enriching the entire community, rather than just the developer. If that’s the case, why is it that the local public library by Barclay’s can’t afford to stay in its long-time home? What can we expect of even more public-private partnerships that transfer public property to the private sector, relocating to inferior spaces on property that was once theirs in exchange for a one-time windfall?

kvelsey@observer.com

Correction: The Observer previously misreported that the square footage of the Pacific Street branch. It is 15,750 square feet, not 60,000.