April 15, 2014

Brooklyn’s First Carnegie Branch Gets a Reprieve, but Fate Remains Murky

PacificLibrary 300x224 Brooklyn’s First Carnegie Branch Gets a Reprieve, but Fate Remains Murky

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

The Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) first Carnegie Library, the Pacific Branch, has been spared from sale and demolition after all—but perhaps only for a brief while. Then again, new political leadership in the city may make a difference, regarding not only this building but libraries in general.

Council Member Letitia James, who represents the area where a new library to replace the branch would have been located, secured an agreement to decouple the sale of Pacific from a mixed use plan. But the library’s response does not rule out a sale in the future.

The Original Plan: Trading In Two Branches

As LJ reported in April, BPL originally aimed to sell both the Pacific branch and the Brooklyn Heights branch, both located on valuable plots in gentrified neighborhoods. The goal was not only to escape major repairs needed in both outdated buildings, but also to raise tens of millions of dollars toward a capital backlog of some $300 million.

Both plans, however pragmatic at a time when BPL gets only $15 million annually in capital funding, generated significant criticism from neighbors who want to preserve the historic Pacific branch, which opened in 1904, and who worried that the library would make an unwise deal with a private developer to develop the Brooklyn Heights site.

While the Brooklyn Heights site would incorporate a new library, the closing of Pacific was to have been a trade, wherein the money raised by the sale would have been used to fit out a new 16,500-square-foot branch in the base of BAM South, a 32-story tower adjacent to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

Though BAM South is located only a few blocks from Pacific, it would require visitors to cross a major, and potentially hazardous, intersection. Thus, those aiming to stave off the sale included not only admirers of the building, but those who fear the new location would deter kids and seniors. (A Girl Scout troop made a charming video to advocate that point of view.)

Both Council Member Steve Levin, who represents the Pacific branch, and Council Member James, who represents the BAM South site, expressed opposition to the sale.

James secured the agreement to decouple the sale of Pacific this week, as part of the Council approval of the BAM South plan, which includes mixed-income apartments and other cultural space. But while her press release stated “BPL Pacific Branch Spared from Sale, Demolition,” the resolution leaves some wiggle room.

“The administration has committed to working with elected officials and community stakeholders to formulate a plan for service through an open process,” stated James. “A potential future change regarding the status of the library would require City Council approval.”

The deal “was just another example of privatization by the [Mayor Mike] Bloomberg administration,” James told LJ. She’s running for the citywide position of Public Advocate, in part on her challenges to his policies.

BPL responded to the change by saying, “While we initially planned to fund the fit-out costs through the sale of the existing Pacific Street Branch, an aging facility two blocks away that fails to meet modern library needs in many ways, it has become clear that the neighborhood highly values that branch and its historic building,” the library said in a statement. “BPL is committed to working with elected officials and community stakeholders to develop an appropriate plan for the Pacific Street building through an open community process.”

Such a plan “could include maintaining some or all of the Pacific Street building and continuing to provide library service and programming for children in the community.” But the library, as noted in the New York Times, won’t rule out selling the branch at some point.

As one resident commented, “The BPL statement, if looked at carefully, doesn’t really say anything new–and is chock full of escape clauses.” The commenter pointed to the fact that the library’s Friends group in Brooklyn Heights supports the sale of the branch.

“A truly open community process would be to have representation from elected officials, the local civic organizations, community board members, and the users,” Peter Bray of the Park Slope Civic Council told the Brooklyn Paper.

“Citizens Defending Libraries wants to see the Pacific Branch saved as a historic building and to continue as a library,” stated Carolyn McIntyre, a cofounder of the new group, which has held rallies and launched a petition to stop the sale of library buildings. “So long as that happens we were not, per se, opposed to a new library in the BAM South building.”

Hearing from All Sides

 BPL’s plans, together with New York Public Library’s plan to renovate its flagship library, will be under scrutiny on June 27, when Manhattan Assemblymember Micah Kellner holds a public hearing “[t]o examine the practice of selling public library buildings to private developers and the impact that sale has on the library and the services it provides.”

Kellner, who’s running for City Council, has already spoken at a Citizens Defending Libraries rally. (The New York City Economic Development Corporation just released an RFP for the Brooklyn Heights library site.)

The fate of the Pacific branch, however, may rely significantly on Council Member Brad Lander, who, after a change in boundary lines, will have that library in his district. He has not been as vocal as fellow Council Members James and Levin regarding Pacific, but said he’s working on a broader statement regarding library issues.

“I very much want to save the Pacific Street branch, and I hope that the BAM South agreement helps in that effort,” Lander told LJ. “I’m certainly relieved that nothing will move forward before the end of the Bloomberg administration, as I hope that the next mayor will be a much better steward of our public libraries than this one has been.”

“But I also really hope that we will use this crisis not just to focus on one building, but on the much broader challenges facing our Brooklyn Public Library system,” he said, citing capital needs, operating funds, and how to “create the 21st century library system that the Brooklyn public deeply wants and needs.”

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Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder is a former LJ Executive Editor.
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Comments

  1. As you know Citizens Defending Libraries wants to see the Pacific Branch saved as a historic building and to continue as a library.  It is our understanding Council Member Tish James has gotten a commitment from the administration to ensure Pacific stays open which we hope will be honored.  So long as that happens we were not, per se, opposed to a new library in the BAM South building although we looked with disfavor upon the manipulations that turned that project, which started with an RFP for a “parking garage,” into a very different, much larger project delivering too little public benefit. Just because a library is sold does not mean that money goes to benefit libraries otherwise the NYPL would have seen more from the sale of Donnell Library in 2008. Furthermore, libraries are being sold off at prices so far below market value that it is increasingly clear the sales are not for the benefit of the public who owns them. The close participation of the current NYPL, BPL “strategy group” with the mayors office in effecting the sales quickly and without public input makes it difficult to trust the library leadership as guardians of these sacred public spaces.
    Thank you for providing an accurate and balanced reporting of the City Council vote and those involved.

  2. Carol F. Yost says:

    I am shocked at the temerity with which city authorities push the sale and private, for-profit development of public buildings that have always existed for the benefit of both rich and poor–but which the poor have relied upon as desperately needed resources. This includes hospitals, libraries, post offices. The New York area is becoming one big luxury condo complex with fancy stores attached, while prices of those condos soar into the mega-millions and there are few facilities to meet the needs even of those wealthy occupants of the condos (although it may be assumed that many actually live far away and treat their New York apartments as investments to be resold again and again for even higher prices). Every building is looked at as the site of yet another luxury condo tower. This is clearly not healthy in any sense of the word, and outrageously cruel to the many who are not rich. Where is the logic? Where is the long-term planning for a vibrant city that takes care of its residents? And where is the concept of a home as a place to settle in and live out your life as well and happily as you can, with a neighborhood that has all the things that traditionally neighborhoods have–a library, a post office, a hospital? The only things that seem to be safe right now are schools–or am I wrong about that? A home should be a home, not an investment, not a bank vault, not an asset to be played for all the money you can get while you spend your days on some tropic isle and feast on exotic fruit or whatever.

    The library being discussed in this article does seem to be housed in a beautiful building, and I certainly hope it, along with its original function, is saved.

  3. Hi – I’m a member of a group in Liverpool UK trying to save a small Carnegie Library built in 1905 from the local council – who are doing same old things as your US council/city looks to be doing (a) mess up communities, prevaricate and do nothing (b) board libraries up – because they think they can (c) wait for them to rot away then demolish them as health hazards and redevelop the site….BUT..and from my side of the pond I’m not sure of this ..but here goes.

    Didn’t Carnegie split up the control of the libraries he funded into ‘separated powers’ – (1) the property bit (the library itself – the building) and (2) the management of the library WHICH WAS HELD IN TRUST FOR THE COMMUNITY – by a board of trustees who had to uphold the rights of the community to a library service?……In some cities the council eventually got both.(1) & (2)..but they still had to have Trustees looking after the community bit

    Some US libraries ( eg PITTSBURGH) seem to still have Trustee Boards

    Whats going on!!?

    Let me know by mail anything you know about this

    Cheers
    Ian

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