POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 18, 2013
NEW YORK » The Brooklyn Heights library is neither the oldest nor the most dilapidated branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system. But the 52-year-old limestone building is nonetheless ripe for demolition.
It sits on land that developers crave, in a fashionable neighborhood where housing is in high demand. And so the Brooklyn library system, desperate for money to pay for $230 million in long-deferred repairs for its 60 branches, has embraced a novel financing model that is increasingly being used around New York City as a way to pay for government services.
The library, on Cadman Plaza, along with another library near the Barclays Center, would be sold to developers, torn down and then rebuilt at no public expense on the ground floor of a new apartment tower.
Government-financed agencies, seeing a way to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in a weak economy, are looking at the land right under some of their own institutions and offering it to the best bidder, who will build new, modern libraries or schools in the base of new developments. In the process, they will also erase the stout civic buildings now there, in effect leveling public facilities in order to make sure the agencies are financially secure.
The strategy has been embraced in Brooklyn, where the two libraries need repairs of $9 million to $11 million.
"We would deliver two of these libraries for essentially no cost to the library system," said Joshua Nachowitz, the Brooklyn Public Library's vice president for government and community relations. "It's a win-win."
But the approach has provoked growing protest in the affected communities.
Most pressingly, residents are concerned about how far they will have to go to reach a library, and where their children will go to school, during the years it will take to erect the new towers. But they are also worried about the aesthetic and cultural price of replacing local institutions to which they are deeply attached, neighborhood landmarks if not official ones, and having them swallowed up into stacks of concrete, steel and glass.
"What makesa placeinteresting is different kinds of architecture and a school looking like a school," said Laurie Frey, a member of the Community Education Council inDistrict 3, a board that represents public school parentson Manhattan's Upper West Side. "There's afeeling of, ‘Oh please, not another high rise,' anda feeling that, since we're already getting used to an increased density in our few blocks, do we really need more?"
The city's Educational Construction Fund is reviewing proposals for construction of high-rise apartment towers on the sites of two public schools near Lincoln Center — P.S. 191 and P.S. 199, which was designed by the modernist architect Edward Durell Stone — and another school on East 96th Street, the School of Cooperative Technical Education. In each case, new schools would occupy the lower floors of the new buildings.
Officials have mingled private development and schools before — the new High School of Art and Design is a prime exhibit — but the pace is accelerating. Three projects have been executed since 2008, and the latest proposal would sweep up three schools at once.
"We anticipate that we will be able to bring this successful model to other high-density zoning areas of the city," said Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, pointing to the success the department has had creating new classrooms on the Upper East Side.
Frey said she worried that "kicking students out of their home school is not a gentle process" and that "there will be an immediate negative impact on learning."
Meanwhile, the New York City Housing Authority, facing the biggest deficits in its history, has proposed letting developers build private, mostly market-rate residential towers on parking lots alongside eight housing projects in Manhattan. The authority would use the resulting lease payments — as much as $60 million a year — to pay for badly needed repairs in the 179,000 apartments it manages.
And this month, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the city was selling off two municipal buildings near City Hall. City Hall officials boasted these "well-positioned properties" would generate almost $250 million in revenue and savings and also lead to the creation of a public digital arts and media space inside one of the buildings.
The New York Public Library, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, capitalized on the strategy when it sold the Donnell branch on West 53rd Street for $59 million. The library was vacated in 2008 and after some stumbles, a new library is expected to be built by 2014 inside a 46-story hotel and condominium tower, meaning that a popular library will have been shuttered for six years.
The real estate industry, of course, is delighted with this growing trend. Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, pointed out that the Barclays Center arena — itself the result of an eminent domain effort that prompted bitter accusations that the city was enriching a private developer — has revived a sleepy quarter of Brooklyn and made a place like the nearby Pacific branch library suddenly ripe for a lucrative land deal.
"Brooklyn is booming and the library system doesn't want to sit on the sidelines and not use it as a chance to upgrade its branches," said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning at New York University. "At a time when people don't want to raise taxes, taking advantage of the value of the property is one of the more intelligent ways to invest in the library system while getting new revenue."
The Brooklyn Heights branch was closed for 30 days last summer because its central air conditioning kept failing; replacing it alone would cost $3 million. But the city gives the entire Brooklyn system only $15 million a year for repairs and construction, Nachowitz said, with the rest of its funding coming from private donations and other sources.
The Pacific branch is a beaux-arts building that opened in 1904 and was the first library in Brooklyn financed by Andrew Carnegie, who eventually built 1,689 libraries across the United States. Its 10-step entrance has no ramps for wheelchairs and strollers, and officials say the interior is leaky, overcrowded, poorly air-conditioned and honeycombed with small office spaces librarians no longer use.
It was never declared a landmark, which means it could be demolished. Patrons will eventually be steered to a new library two blocks away squeezed into a 32-story skyscraper that Two Trees Management is erecting across from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Two Trees is carving out cultural space, including the library, in order to create more apartments than zoning would otherwise allow.
The Pacific branch would remain open until the new library was completed, then it would be torn down, with a new building put up by the winning bidder. Howard Kolins, president of the Boerum Hill Association and a parent whose two children regularly used the Pacific library when they were in middle school, said the new location would require Park Slope and Boerum Hill families to cross heavily trafficked Flatbush Avenue.
The Brooklyn Heights branch, which will be rebuilt in the same spot, will have to close during the two or three years of construction, and residents have yet to be told if there will be an alternative place to find books and use computers.
"My concern is that it not get lost in the shuffle and that the whole library system is not sacrificed to the interests of a private developer," said Pearl Hochstadt, 82, who has lived in the Heights since 1953, before the current branch opened, and holds book club meetings in the library.
But David Giles, research director of the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit urban-affairs institute, said there was wisdom to the approach.
"They can rebuild a new branch for the neighborhood and add money for other branches as well," he said. "That's clearly part of the calculation there. It's property values."