To: Mayor Bill de Blasio, Mayor, The New York City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Speaker, Scott Stringer, NYC Comptroller, Letitia James, Public Advocate, Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President, Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President, Me...

Mayor de Blasio: Rescue Our Libraries from Developer Destruction

We demand that Mayor de Blasio, all responsible elected officials, rescue our libraries from the sales, shrinkage, defunding and elimination of books and librarians undertaken by the prior administration to benefit real estate developers, not the public. Selling irreplaceable public assets at a time of increased use and city wealth is unjust, shortsighted, and harmful to our prosperity. These plans that undermine democracy, decrease opportunity, and escalate economic and political inequality, should be rejected by those we have elected to pursue better, more equitable, policies.

Why is this important?

Libraries, creating opportunity, underpinning democracy, and available to all New Yorkers, are an essential and basic city service. They should always be fully and adequately funded. The cost of funding libraries is a small fraction of the city's budget, an exceptional bargain, given the economic, social and myriad other benefits libraries deliver.

But in 2013, breaking headlines disclosed that Mayor Bloomberg, in his last term, was again reducing library funding at a time of increasing public use. Proposals were presented to close the resulting fiscal shortfall with a self-cannibalizing sell-off and shrinkage of system assets. The proposed transactions were costly, and would include the sale of the most valuable library properties, the focus being the generation of real estate deals.

Citizens Defending Libraries (CDL), a group of concerned citizens, was formed in response to protect the public interest by opposing these wrong-headed and counterproductive plans.. CDL has since worked together with other groups such as the Committee to Save the New York Public Library and Library Lovers League, and has collected more than 17,000 signatures on a petition to stop the sale of libraries.

In July of 2013, Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio joined CDL and other opponents of the library real estate deals on the steps of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library calling for Mayor Bloomberg to halt the proposed sales turning over “public land permanently to private parties”: Such sales include the New York Public Library's Central Library Plan, involving the sale of Mid-Manhattan and the 34th Street Science, Industry and Business Library, and the Brooklyn Public Library's plans for selling the Brooklyn Heights and Pacific branches.

De Blasio joined with critics and other elected officials such as the City Comptroller and City Council Member Tish James, now the Public Advocate, in decrying a lack of transparency. He expressed skepticism about plans that had been pursued, largely in secret and without public scrutiny, by the NYPL and Brooklyn Public Library going back to at least 2007.

Events have proved that skepticism about planned library sales is justified:

• After belatedly responding to repeated calls for an independent audit, the NYPL disclosed that their original Central Library Plan would have cost $500 million, hundreds of millions more than the publicized estimate. Amazingly, they were about to spend half a billion dollars to sell and shrink libraries, demolish the research stacks of the Central Reference Library, exile books to New Jersey, and replace New York's most heavily used branch library, the Mid Manhattan, and SIBL with a much smaller space. When this scheme was abandoned, the NYPL had already spent at least $18 million on architect's and consultant fees.

• The sudden, secretive sale of the Donnell Library in Manhattan, a transaction on which later library sales are largely modeled, netted the NYPL a pittance and space for a much smaller branch library, largely underground. The penthouse, just one apartment in the fifty-story luxury tower replacing Donnell, is on the market for 50% more than the sale netted.

• With a similar lack of public discussion, NYPL sold off much of the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) space for a fraction of the $100 million it had cost to build the facility in 1996. The sale was part of the now renounced Central Library Plan.

• After candidate de Blasio called for a halt to library sales, it was revealed in connection with the proposed sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library, that about half the development rights for the site had been transferred years before, to the developer, Forest City Ratner, which is now in a position to be a gatekeeper profiting from the transaction.

• The number of books in the NYPL and BPL libraries are being drastically reduced, emptying shelves of millions of books as library officials prepare to launch the real estate deals that require them to accommodate reduced collections in smaller spaces.

These events cannot be ignored. While the Central Library Plan has been modified, aspects of it still ominously survive and, in Brooklyn, library trustees and officials continue to express enthusiasm for the proposed sale and shrinkages of libraries, saying that they are assessing “all” the libraries in Brooklyn for such “opportunities.” The Brooklyn Heights and Pacific Branch libraries are still prominently in their sights. Plans to sell the rest of SIBL have yet to be abandoned. The three million research books removed from the stacks of the Central Research Library have yet to be returned.

Transactions such as the sale of Donnell Library, the NYPL's Central Library Plan and proposed sales of libraries in Brooklyn should be subject to a much higher level of public scrutiny than they have yet received, including review from the City Council and the State Attorney General. It is clear, among other things, that library officials and trustees do not always think in the same terms as the public when considering priorities and what is in the public's best interest.

Selling libraries, these shared resources, should not become another chapter in the tale-of-two-cities story of escalating income disparities, with a few of the connected and privileged profiting at the expense of the rest of us. We should be one city standing together to protect the public commons. Libraries cannot be held hostage and traded in for development.

We cannot let our libraries be the victims of privatization, or so-called “public-private” developer-driven partnerships-insider deals that put developers in the driver's seat and render competitive bids impracticable. Normal funding for operations must not be withheld to pressure communities into accepting sales of public assets, resulting in libraries housed in smaller, meaner spaces with fewer services. Isaac Asimov has commented: “Wh...