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 to make sure the agencies are financially secure.What's missing
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.
There are a couple of things missing from that capsule description. First, the sale of the libraries would not leave the Brooklyn Public Library "financially secure," as both its operating and capital budgets face deep deficits. It's by no means clear that the sale of the prime Brooklyn Heights site--perhaps worth $100 million--would be plowed back into the system.
Second, those protesting--see Michael D.D. White's Noticing New York blog and associated petition--have expressed concerns not only about proximity and esthetics, but also whether the library sites would indeed be sold, to quote the Times's breezy shorthand, "to the best bidder."
Moreover, elected officials like Council Members Steve Levin and Letitia James have expressed wariness about the process.
After all, there is a history of not selling sites--such as the Vanderbilt Yard--in an open and fair process.
The Atlantic Yards reference
But the Atlantic Yards saga gets turned into this:
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 — had revived a sleepy quarter of Brooklyn and made a place like the nearby Pacific branch library suddenly ripe for a lucrative land deal.The sleepiness was caused significantly by the developer's decisions to purchase and empty property. And what about those "bitter accusations"? Why not follow up on some calculations, like the uncounted savings on property like Pacific Street?
The last word in the article goes to a neutral expert, author of a worthy report (Branches of Opportunity) on libraries that advocates getting the most from library real estate:
But David Giles, research director of the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit urban-affairs institute, said there was wisdom to the approach.His general point is inarguable. The question is how much the administration, and the process, can be trusted.
“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.”