Brooklyn Libraries Are Still In Shambles, and No One Knows How To Fix Them

The Temporary Cooling System in Brownsville's Library Branch. Photo: Invest in libraries

Last June, New York City’s public library system (comprising the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library) was awarded the largest funding increase in the mayor’s annual fiscal budget in the city’s history. The additional allocated $39 million for fiscal year 2016 was met with cheers from library officials, who also praised the de Blasio administration’s proposal of $300 million in capital funds for libraries to be rolled out over the next decade. But for many branches of the embattled public library system, which has for years struggled under threats of enormous budget slashes, de Blasio’s allotment might be too little too late.

Eroding ceilings, crumbling bathrooms and broken air-conditioning systems are all problems that many New York City librarians contend with on a daily basis. For a system that serves 37 million people a year and is the city’s only free and public center of knowledge and education, decaying infrastructure is not helped by a staggering budget deficit.

In Brooklyn alone, capital needs are a “problem that has been growing for a really long time, for decades,” according to David Woloch, Executive Vice President of the Brooklyn Public Library.

“We have about $300 million in unfunded needs, throughout our branches, and we get on average, about $20 million in capital funding from the mayor, from the City Council, Borough President. Last year we got about $18 million, this year we got about $16 million,” he says.

At the core of the BPL’s capital funding needs are the very buildings themselves. On average, BPL facilities are about sixty years old, and maintenance and preservation is costly, if not a constantly pressing endeavor for BPL employees.

“I think particularly in Brooklyn, there’s been an under investment in our physical plan. We have over one million-square-feet of building space, we have sixty branches, the average age is over sixty years old,  and they’re costly to maintain. Collectively, the powers-that-be for decades have not put as much money into them as is needed,” says Woloch.

And Woloch’s sentiments are hard to argue when peering into some of the more shabby facilities that pepper Brooklyn’s library landscape. A report called “Long Overdue: NYC’s $1 Billion Library Fine,” [PDF] published last April by the advocacy group Invest In Libraries, delves into some of the afflicted branches across New York City. The report uses images of branches in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bath Beach and Brownsville to put the BPL’s challenges in especially stark terms.

The report concluded that the Ulmer Park branch in Bath Beach “suffers from chronic leaks and water damage, particularly on the ceiling over the heavily used Chinese language section.” Long Overdue also lists the plight of Brownsville’s chronically broken air-conditioning system, which forces the branch to close down on hot summer days.

“The branch faces chronic HVAC issues and is routinely forced to close on hot days, even though four temporary chillers were brought in to replace the broken AC system,” the report says.

The Ceiling at the Ulmer Park Library. Photo: Invest in Libraries.

The consensus among library employees who serve under-privileged, poverty stricken neighborhoods like these is pretty much unanimous. Crumbling building infrastructure and oppressively hot summers spent without air-conditioning makes it harder for them to do their jobs.

Edwin Maxwell, a librarian at the New Lots branch in East New York, says he’s had to become a stand-in repairman and maintenance worker at times.

“Our job descriptions have become somewhat blurred, because we have to do a little of everything,” he says.

Budget cuts have turned the New Lots branch, which has used the same book shelves since it first opened in 1958, into a facility plagued by leaking ceilings, and one where Maxwell has to wear numerous professional hats.

“Sometimes we don’t have a custodian, so it comes to us doing it or closing a portion of the library… I do a little bit of everything, and I think that’s true of our staff and everyone who works for the library system at this point,” he says.

Maxwell walks around the New Lots branch intermittently pointing out all of the building’s structural decay. He gestures toward a staircase leading up to the library’s learning center, which he says transforms into a waterfall during torrential downpours. On rainy days, like the afternoon I visited, New Lot’s rooftop is draped with a thick, black tarp to insulate the cracked ceiling from further water damage.

“Our roof, it has cracks in it and that damages a lot of things. Every time it rains, water runs down onto the floor,” Maxwell says, adding that he’s had to remove most of the library’s signage because it was so badly water damaged.

The New Lots branch, which was given one of the Revson Foundation’s New York City Library of the Year Awards this year, is reeling not only because of building issues, but because of the services it can’t provide amid chronic leaks and decaying linoleum.

For Maxwell, and for the people in New Lots whom the library serves, the branch can be likened to “a life transformer.”  Maxwell says that “people come here to change the status of their lives.”

“People depend on us for literacy from birth, for their children through grade school and onto workplace development kind of stuff. Really all stages of their lives,” he says.

“When you don’t have the staff to cover that, when you have to cut back on most of those services–that’s what most people come to libraries for” Maxwell argues, reasoning that for the community of New Lots, the library is a kind of “one-stop-shop,” that people depend on for things like resume writing.

Faced with mounting capital challenges, the Brooklyn Public Library has recently tried a new method for revamping old libraries while at the same time making money from an outside source: real estate developers. It’s a controversial issue, and one that’s faced mounting pressure in the form of town hall meetings in the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, where that library branch was recently sold off to developer Hudson Inc. in a contentious deal.

In the case of the Brooklyn Heights branch on Cadman Plaza West, Brooklyn Community Board 2 approved the $52 million sale of the library to Hudson, which will build luxury condominiums on the former library site. The proceeds of the deal will fund BPL’s new outfitting of the Brooklyn Heights Branch directly beneath Hudson’s residential tower, in addition to operating costs of a few other BPL branches like the Walt Whitman branch, the Pacific branch, the Washington Irving branch and the Sunset Park branch.

Library officials, including BPL President Linda Johnson, spoke of the sale as a last ditch effort to preserve a branch that needed $9 million in air conditioning repairs alone. But some community watchdog groups, like Citizens Defending Libraries, are meeting provisions of the sale, like Hudson’s pledge to build affordable housing units in the neighborhood, with more than a hint of skepticism.

“You’re really not getting very much for these affordable housing deals, when you look at what’s being proposed for the Brooklyn Heights library, about half of the so called affordable units are really market-rate units, so it’s a very small return,” says Michael White, a Brooklyn Heights based attorney and co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries.

Although White’s group views library sales as a unilaterally bad thing, other community advocate groups, like Urban Librarians Unite, see things differently. For Christian Zabriskie, an organizer for Urban Librarians Unite, the selling of libraries to developers might not be ideal, but it’s at least something that veers toward a sustainable future.

“It’s not necessarily a good tactic but it is a pragmatic one. The libraries don’t really have any assets other than the buildings,” Zabriskie says of the Brooklyn Heights Branch in an email.

“The main thing that makes this sale interesting for me is the way it will generate revenue to repair other branches in lower income areas. The sale of this one library will benefit many. This will generate the greatest impact to library services for the most people with the resources currently available,” he says.

There hasn’t really been much agreement between library executives, activists,  librarians and politicians on how to procure streamlined funding for libraries after decades of budgetary shortcomings. The one thing that seems clear is the pronounced disagreement between all groups. Earlier this month, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams proposed funneling all of New York’s public library systems into the city’s Department of Education, a plan that would effectively make the issues less confined to the library system and more of a city government concern.

David Woloch of the BPL on the other hand, thinks selling libraries off might be the only way to go. Although he didn’t disclose any information regarding the sale of further library branches aside from some ongoing developments in Sunset Park, he remains adamant that the sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch represents a “game changer.” The deal allows the BPL to “attack this problem that we would never have been able to otherwise,” he says.

Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster 

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9 COMMENTS

  1. The notion of using public-owned library sites as potential “free real estate” for affordable housing developments goes back to the Bloomberg administration, especially so if they are not designated landmarks.
    The original South Brooklyn or Sunset Park branch built with Carnegie funds a century ago would have been so designated had it not been for the intransigence of the Landmarks Preservation Commission(nothing interest in Brooklyn in the old days) and, I forgot, it was torn down when upkeep got pricey. We are at the same point today. An empty site at 51st Street is worth more than the present building.
    How come the Mayor isn’t offering old drafty NYPD & FDNY sites for development? Of course, they are being designated as landmarks as quite a clip now and not available as a result. I’m waiting for the day when we can’t afford or need police or fire fighters at these sites but need to maintain then to LPC standards as the true “white elephants” they are.
    BTW: When BPL is flashing money from the Brooklyn Heights sale around why not ask if they have sufficient funding(ask for numbers) to fully and adequately complete their plans(or local understanding of those plans).

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  3. It would be more correct to say that the Brooklyn Heights Library, Brooklyn’s central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn is proposed to be sold, not that it has been sold. Any sale, including this one accompanied by a drastic reduction in size down to just one third must go through a public approval process (ULURP) and in the case of this library that multi-month process, probably greatly exceeding a year, only just began on June 17th. The next big step for it is a hearing before the Brooklyn Borough President on Tuesday, August 18th, more details at the link provided below.

    It takes a long time and a lot of public investment to create these assets and the Brooklyn Heights Library was just recently greatly expanded (by one-third, building out over two wings) and fully upgraded in 1993 so that it is modernized to support a slew of computers. This was done at considerable public expense and sacrifice. Effectively, the building is five years newer than the adjacent 1988 Ratner building in which Hillary Clinton has chosen to locate her national campaign headquarters. The dollar value of the building to the public is over $120 million, $60 million to replace just the building, plus a value of mor than another $60 million for the land and right to expand public uses there.

    This sturdy building, being sold to net virtually nothing, if not less than that, is one of the ones in best shape in the system (the BPL’s refusal to fix the portion of the air condition that needs repair, plus the BPL’s overestimation so of costs in connection therewith are a false issue), but it is important to note that the postponing of capital repairs in the system is recent, dating back to the formulation of the proposed real estate deals. In other words, the lure of the real estate deals has become a perverse incentive to underfund our libraries. (The creation of Urban Librarians Unite, quoted here, a group backing all the real estate deals and supporting shrinkage of the libraries and vastly fewer books at the libraries, also goes back to and is concurrent with the formulation of those plans.)

    So was the it the “victory” that the NYPL, BPL and City Council officials like Brad Lander proclaimed when only a portion of the Bloomberg era cuts were restored and they still tell us that the libraries are theseadays so underfunded that we have to sell them off and shrink them? Hardly!

    Here is information about the upcoming Brooklyn Borough President hearing asking the public whether the Brooklyn Heights Library should be sold and shrunk.

    Brooklyn Borough President, Eric Adams To Hold Uniform Land Use Review Procedure Public Hearing, August 18, 2015, On Whether Brooklyn Heights Library, Brooklyn’s Central Destination Library In Downtown Brooklyn Should Be Sold And Shrunk

    http://citizensdefendinglibraries.blogspot.com/2015/07/brooklyn-borough-president-eric-adams.html

  4. It should not be thought that’s any appreciable net “proceeds” from the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library will go to fund other libraries. For one thing those proceeds all go to the city which we are complaining about withholding funds from the library. There is no absolutely no way to assure that any funds will come back or trace whether they have. It is true that the BPL has manipulatively said that if it sells the Brooklyn Heights library it will move certain other politically important libraries up to the top of the list for city funding and might not soon fund them if that is not the case, but this is not necessarily fair to all our other libraries. Additionally, the $120+ million Brooklyn Heights library will be sold and shrunk to a fraction to gross only $52 million. Of that, more than $16 million is required to rebuild the tiny replacement. Next, other functions must be crammed into Grand Army Plaza without a space expansion, costing another big ticket amount. There are all sorts of other losses and expenses associated with the deal from moving books around to going without a library for many years to lots of high-priced consultants and lobbyists hired to put lipstick on this pig. In the end the deal that benefits the developer greatly, essentially a boondoggle, will net virtually no cash.

  5. Much of this story is misleading. The Brooklyn Heights Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library has not been sold. It is going through UULURP which is the city process concerning public lands and public buildings, both of which this library is. Also, the selling price is ridiculously low for a building in this location so if the BPL is trying to use this library to get money to fix others, it is going about it in a ridiculous way. this neighborhood is against it because this is public land and the public will not be benefitting in any way. The area is glutted with people and traffic. The trains are overcrowded and so are the schools and yet more people are being brought in. This library which is heavily used both by the neighborhood as well as those who work here needs much less money to be fixed than is now said. I was a trustree of the Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Public Library when we were told the A/C would cost $750,000 to fix. That number then escalated upward to 3 million and on until it is now 9 or 11 million or whatever they want to say. The BPL was also offered money by Councilman Levin and turned it down without ever revealing the offer.

  6. If the developers provided the same or expanded or future-expandable space for the libraries, this might be an expedient but understandable solution. But that is not what is expected to happen. If the affordable apartments were all affordable for, say, nurses and bus drivers, this might be an expedient but understandable solution. But none of this is what’s planned. The libraries will either be shrunken in size and book capacity, or will not be capable of future expansion.. Some apartments will be affordable only for people much richer than nurses and bus drivers, let alone people with lower incomes. So our city officials must look carefully at what’s being promised. “New” and “affordable” have to be analyzed and criticized. Affordable units must be required to be permanently affordable especially for people of lower income. Developers, who can anticipate making millions from these sites, must be required to benefit the public more fully than the city seems inclined to insist on now.

  7. Our Brooklyn Heights library has not yet been sold. Before a sale is approved, the ULURP process must be completed. We are still fighting to preserve it, and good reason stands on our side. The building is not dilapidated or poorly designed, as Linda Johnson claims. It was designed by the famous architect Francis Keally, who was also the architect for The Grand Army Plaza Library. The building is strong and solid, completely renovated between the years 1991 and 1993 with new HVAC, boilers, etc. and also enlarged to accommodate the growing population. At the same time it was completely rewired and updated for modern technology. Any needs there for repairs and their costs have been intentionally exaggerated to provide an excuse to sell it. Johnson admits that she will use libraries for real estate possibilities. Her plan is a luxury condo sitting on top of a new library, only one third the size of what we have now, in other words a state-of-the-art check-out counter, incapable of offering a place where, as the librarian at New Lots says, people come to change the status of their lives. Nor can we net the $40 million Johnson claims will be used to repair other libraries. She refuses to subtract all the expenses from the net gain. It is clear that we will get nothing close to that figure, and may even suffer a loss. If there does happen to be even a small gain, it will go back into the city coffers and not necessarily to the libraries. As for affordable housing coming from this–even at the lowest level of the area median income (60%), only people earning at least $52,000 a year will be able to afford the monthly rent. This is not affordable. And only 27 units of the 114 built in the designated deprived area, a few miles outside of Brooklyn Heights, are big enough for a family. The city has enough in its budget, according to de Blasio, to pay for repairs, but he prefers to keep the money for a rainy day. He likes real-estate deals because in return for the tax breaks he gives these billionaire developers, he gets this so-called affordable housing. He also got a campaign contribution from the developers of the Heights Library while their application was still pending. Linda Johnson calls this deal a last-ditch effort, but she never tried getting the appropriate funds for repairs. Instead, she devised an excuse for the library’s unnecessary sale and destruction. Only those who are uninformed, or who have personal interest in this deal can say that selling our library is a way to solve any existing problems in particular library branches. The city must do its duty toward people needing lifelong education from libraries, toward the equality they drive from that education. Mayor de Blasio has the money in the budget. He must provide it to the public. He should not be lining the pockets of billionaire developers who steal our public assets and give virtually nothing in return. Instead, let the Mayor keep the promise he made during his campaign to save our libraries from greedy developers “lurking behind the curtain” ready to grab these assets.

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