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PEP Nov 2013
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Public Employee Press

Communities and DC 37 mobilize to stop library sell-offs

Stiff community and labor opposition has hit two of the city's library systems over their plans to cope with budget shortfalls and fund capital projects by selling off valuable properties.

When citizens groups filed lawsuits, the New York Public Library had to put a hold on its plan to peddle its Mid-Manhattan Library and renovate the majestic landmark building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

The Brooklyn Public Library is under fire for its proposal to sell the Brooklyn Heights and Pacific Street branch libraries. Queens Public Library hasn't announced any plan to sell off property.

"Selling libraries and the land they occupy is just bad public policy," said state Assembly member Joan L. Millman, who holds a master's in library science, at a Sept. 30 City Council hearing. "Selling a library building is a one-time fix for a recurring capital need."

Critics say the sell-offs are unnecessary and irresponsible and amount to handing over public gems to real estate developers without guaranteeing the public any improvement in library services.

They point to the 2007 botched sale of the Donnell branch in Manhattan as an example of what can go awry when public services are needlessly subjected to market forces.

The new, mostly underground branch promised for 2011 at the 53rd Street site won't open until 2015, because the purchaser, Orient Express Hotels, ran into trouble in the 2008 financial crisis. The library got $59 million for the building, but much of that will be eaten up by the $20 million cost of the replacement, which will be less than one-third the size of the original. While NYPL will no longer own the space, the new owner could take in up to $60 million for a luxury penthouse atop the building.

"The experience with Donnell is a warning that the library systems are venturing into potentially turbulent waters," said Valentin Colon, president of New York Public Library Guild Local 1930.

Colon told the Public Employee Press that the New York Public Library system, which serves Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, would be better off renovating the Mid-Manhattan Library than selling the building.

The NYPL's Central Library Plan calls for shuttering Mid-Manhattan and closing the seven stories of underground stacks at the famous 42nd Street facility, which would undergo a major renovation. The new facility would house the collections of Mid-Manhattan and the Science, Industry and Business Library, which is 10 blocks away and holds half a million items. DC 37 has not taken a stand on the plan and will be discussing it with the NYPL soon.

Nearly a year ago, renowned architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, now deceased, blasted the plan to alter the 42nd Street Library, which she described as "an architectural masterpiece."

By carrying out the $300 million renovation, NYPL would "undertake its own destruction," she wrote, demolishing the stacks below the two-block-long Rose Reading Room. Scholars have complained that the plan will limit access to research materials as NYPL sends the contents to a New Jersey warehouse. They question library management's claim that it will be able to meet requests for materials within 24 hours.

Brooklyn Public Library faces opposition over its plan to arrange the sale of the Pacific Street and Brooklyn Heights buildings to private developers.

At the Sept. 30 City Council hearing, Brooklyn Library Guild Local 1482 President Eileen Muller charged that the sales would disrupt services for years.

"This approach is short-sighted, and it doesn't get at the root of the problem: the inadequate and haphazard way we provide capital funding to our libraries," Muller said.

"We can solve the funding crisis without selling our cultural heritage."
—Eileen Muller
Local 1482 President

A need for steady funding

"It doesn't have to be this way," Muller said, noting that San Francisco and Seattle have dealt with capital funding problems by bond sales that voters have repeatedly supported for library capital projects.

One of the benefits of the "baseline" funding legislation supported by DC 37 is that it would ensure that the city's three library systems have steady funding, which would allow for better planning on capital projects, said Cuthbert Dickenson, president of Quasi-Public Employees Local 374, which represents blue-collar workers at NYPL. The three library systems need an estimated $1.5 billion for construction projects, including hundreds of millions in deferred maintenance costs.

In written testimony submitted to the City Council, New York City Comptroller John C. Liu said the library fire sales reflect Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's policy of selling off public assets, including schools and New York City Housing Authority property, to wealthy

"This trend of parceling out what rightfully belongs to all New Yorkers must come to an end," Liu said.

Thousands have signed an online petition to "Save New York City Libraries from Bloomberg Developer Destruction" sponsored by the political action group MoveOn.

"New York's libraries, the lifeblood of a democracy, have contributed to making our city economically vital and a cultural powerhouse," the petition says. "We must not sacrifice it to shortsighted planning and the interests of powerful developers. We demand protection for public libraries, the city's trusted place to learn, grow, be inspired and connect with great minds."

To sign the petition, go to
http://pac.petitions.moveon.org/sign/save-new-york-city-libraries/?source=search and click on "Open Hyperlink."

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