Monday, March 18, 2013

In Times's sunny report on selling library (and school) sites, REBNY head gets definitive word on arena impact

It's front-page news in today's New York Times (both local and national editions), Saving Schools and Libraries by Giving Up the Land They Sit On, describing plans to see buildings like the Pacific (pictured) and Brooklyn Heights branches of the Brooklyn Public Library:
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.
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's missing

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?

A "win-win"?

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.

“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.”
His general point is inarguable. The question is how much the administration, and the process, can be trusted.

3 comments:

  1. What percent of the City is pavement/streets?

    Perhaps 30%?

    Let the City sell its streets, not its buildings

    George L

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    Replies
    1. Norman,

      This discussion is weak on urban design, civic art and the making of the public realm. The public realm is the space between the buildings. It is where democratic life has flourished since recorded time began. The Greeks talked about the importance of "the polis," which described both the citizens and the totality of all the buildings that made up the city, as well as the spaces between them. For Plato, the form of the city was first of all a political act, because it was where the good life took place. Polis gave us many words like "political" and "polite." Under the Romans, "civitas" took on similar importance.

      Important to the experience of any good city are civic buildings, like courthouses, schools, train stations, theaters and libraries. Grand Central Station, the old Penn Station and the New York Public Library on 42nd Street are great examples of civic buildings that make urban life better and ennoble public life. Vincent Scully famously said about Penn Station, "You used to enter the city like a god, now you creep in like a rat." The late, great Ada Louise Huxtable had a wonderful column about how the experience of the 42nd Street library made her childhood better and taught her lessons about urban life, democracy, and learning.

      Note that none of that was for or about the 1%. When it came to building schools and libraries, the New York elite imposed a top-down vision on the city, but it was a democratic vision of a city for all. What we have learned during the last few years of Mayor Bloomberg, a man I voted for three times, is that the city is for sale to the highest bidder, and that the profits from those bids go to making the 1% richer.

      I don't think the Mayor is a bad man, but I believe his model for development—big deals for big investors and big profits for the few—is frequently bad for the city. Most of the New York we love was built in smaller pieces, with multiple builders and developers working on separate lots on the same block, in a less expensive process that many could participate in to build wealth. On top of that process, the city built civic buildings, schools and libraries that were "public adornments" at the hearts of neighborhoods all over the city. Physical manifestations of the city's values, they produced generations of well-educated New Yorkers who often went on to do great things.

      Putting these great institutions in the bases of mediocre, glass-skinned buildings that do not tell us where the public institution begins and the private apartments end degrades the institutions and thereby civic life and democracy. And it's worth pointing that although many of the libraries being torn down were designed by McKim, Mead & White, who also designed Penn Station and the New York Municipal Building, the Mayor himself lives in a McKim, Mead & White house, and recently renovated another McKim, Mead & White house for his foundation. Since he is our richest citizen, this is a strong statement about the 1% versus the rest of us, especially when even the apartments above the school are for the 10%. Once McKim, Mead & White was for everyone, but now only the super-rich can afford their buildings.

      When we built all these great civic institutions a hundred years ago, New Yorkers were not richer than they are today. We have phenomenal wealth in the city, equal in every way to the wealth of the Gilded Age, and we could do as much as they did. That makes it all the worse that we choose to cry poverty and sell off our civic institutions.

      John

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    2. This raises a question: how much, if at all, will the mayoral candidates articulate this approach?

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