standard Pacific Street Library: Not For Sale (For Now), But a Grim Fate Awaits (Updated)

Pacific Street Library (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Pacific Street Library (Photo by Matthew Taub)

UPDATE: a statement from the Brooklyn Public Library indicates that they no longer plan to transfer the library’s operations from Pacific Street to the new “Bam South” or “South Site” location. Instead, this space will be a new location for writers and creative types, funded by private donations:

Two Trees Management Company, a Brooklyn-based developer, is currently building a multiuse cultural and housing complex at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Ashland Place, two blocks from the existing Pacific branch. BPL plans to create a unique writing center that provides a work space for emerging writers in Brooklyn and offers a critical service to Brooklyn’s creative community. The project will build on our hugely successful Shelby White and Leon Levy Information Commons space at Central Library. BPL will be serving the borough’s burgeoning creative community by providing programming and access to space in a way that is far less expensive than a traditional library model. This project is expected to be funded with private donations and will not be a new circulating library or a replacement for an existing BPL facility.”

Emma Woods, of Berlin Rosen Public Relations, offered the following additional statement on the library’s behalf:

“Brooklyn is the creative capital of the world, and we want our library system to be a resource for the borough’s vibrant community of artists and writers. We have an incredibly exciting opportunity to do just that at BAM South, where we are being given a space for the creative community that will be built out with private funds.”

Original story below.

The managers of a Park Slope community space are worried the timeless Pacific Street branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is for sale and will ultimately be demolished, and have even directed concerned residents to an online petition to thwart the effort. Officials deny the allegation, but admit a new branch is ultimately in the works at a nearby construction site, with a plan to transfer the Pacific Street site’s activities, leaving the fate of the property unclear.

Looks like the Pacific Street Library is up for sale again,” says a post for the Brooklyn Lyceum, a non-profit event venue just down the road on Fourth Avenue. The post went on to direct viewers to an online petition protesting the Brooklyn Public Library’s alleged fire-sale of its assets to real estate developers. “It is a bit long and dry but the issues are important,” the online post explains.

Pacific Street Library 4th Avenue

The Pacific Street Library Sits on 4th Avenue at the Northern End of Park Slope (Photo by Matthe Taub)

We demand that Mayor de Blasio, [and] 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,” reads the petition, written by Citizens Defending Libraries, a local advocacy group.

Officials were quick to play down the rumors, while distinguishing their expansion and relocation plans from a “sale” of the property.

“The information is not accurate — the Library currently has no plans to sell or demolish the Pacific branch,” said Emma Woods of BerlinRosen Public Affairs, on behalf of the library.

No, the BPL Pacific branch is not for sale,” said Ames O’Neill, Executive Assistant to the BPL’s President. But Ms. O’Neill then mentioned the “Building a Better Pacific Library” plan, whereby “Two Trees Management Company, a Brooklyn-based real estate developer, is currently building a multiuse cultural and housing complex at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Ashland Place, two blocks from the existing Pacific branch.”

Pacific Street Library, From the Corner of 4th Avenue (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Pacific Street Library, From the Corner of 4th Avenue (Photo by Matthew Taub)

“BPL plans to build a new, 16,500-square-foot branch within this multi use building,” the plan explains. “The new branch would be larger and better designed than the current Pacific Library and would have more space open to the public. Under this scenario, BPL would move its services from the existing building to the new, larger location when the South Site project is complete, likely sometime in 2017. In the meantime the Pacific branch would remain open and would continue to function.”

But what happens to the Pacific Street building after its library services are transferred out? It looks like the concerned citizens may be right about a sale–even if the transaction is not imminent.

“While BPL initially planned to fund the fit-out costs of the new South Site branch through the sale of the existing Pacific Library, it has become clear that the neighborhood highly values the historic building and the services the library provides,” the plan concedes. ” BPL is committed to working with elected officials and community stakeholders… [but] [d]ue to the significant financial issues associated with the Pacific Branch, BPL cannot rule out selling the building, but is committed to working with the community to explore other potential options that would also address the financial concerns.”

Reading between the lines, the onus of the financial costs will be shifted upon local preservationists, who likely won’t be able to come up with a sufficient stop-gap solution. At that point, along with the passage of time, transition of residents and resulting dimming of opposition, a sale of the Pacific Branch is likely (semi-commital language about preserving the structure notwithstanding).

But why can’t the library just stay at its current site in the first place? The “Build a Better” plan cites a “daunting” $10 million in capital needs for the Pacific Street branch as a reason for the shift.

“The Pacific branch faces a significant capital need of over $10 million,” the statement reads. “BPL only receives about $15 million per fiscal year on average to meet over $300 million in capital needs throughout the BPL system. Accordingly, BPL does not have the funding to make these needed repairs.”

Such a “crisis,” caused by arbitrary budget constraints alone, has a chilling similarity to the saga of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, where “extensive repair work” was cited as a justification for the (alleged) preconceived plot to move an art gallery to a downtown location favored by elites, against the wishes of the collector’s original owner.

Here, art is not the prized asset, but prime real estate. In 2011, the City Council adopted the Special 4th Avenue Enhanced Commercial District, allowing 12-story buildings at the library’s location, an area formerly comprised of 3 or 4 story row house apartment buildings. And although the Pacific Library is a Carnegie building, dating from 1903, the structure can be demolished at will.

The Pacific Street Library is not landmarked (although it was the first Carnegie Library in Brooklyn),” the post from the Brooklyn Lyceum said.

In short: there’s a huge profit to be made on gleaming new residential construction, once a modest-height, anachronistic facade cherished only by library advocates and preservationists is out of the way.

MIchael D. White (Photo by Matthew Taub)

MIchael D. White (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Michael D. White, an attorney, urban planner and former government public finance and development official who runs the blog Noticing New York, smells a rat.

The defunding of the city library system [occurs] in order to create a ‘demolition by neglect’ financial crisis and holding out the carrot that it will restore funding to the library system only if the public goes along with the selling off of library sites for the sake of real estate deals,” White wrote in one of his posts on the subject.

White advised that the Brooklyn Public Library is purposefully being hard to pin down about what they are planning to do respecting the sale of the Pacific Branch Library, previously one of their top priorities to sell until community opposition thwarted prior efforts. Though Two Trees management is currently developing the downtown Brooklyn site where the Pacific Street Library will be moved, White sees Forest City Ratner as the most natural recipient of the Pacific Street branch site.

If Forest City Ratner acquires the site of the Pacific branch library, it can extend its contiguous multi-acre Atlantic Yards empire and cheaply obtain extra benefit by also acquiring and closing down a new section of Pacific Street so as to connect the former library site to its contiguous Atlantic Yards acreage,” White wrote. “Forest City Ratner has a long history of obtaining private ownership and closing down public streets.”

Both Forest City Ratner and Two Trees Management did not respond to requests for comment.

Developers’ plans aside, the local advocacy group that started the petition sees boundless public resources squandered for short-term financing and the benefit of the few in place of many.

Selling irreplaceable public assets at a time of increased use and city wealth is unjust, shortsighted, and harmful to our prosperity,” says the Citizens Defending Libraries petition. “These plans…undermine democracy, decrease opportunity, and escalate economic and political inequality.”

  • Michael D. D. White

    Here are some more amplifying thoughts.

    The Brooklyn Public Library is being very hard to pin down about what they are planning to do respecting the sale of the Pacific Branch Library that was previously one of their top priorities to sell. Back then it was because they say they want to sell the most valuable libraries first. “Valuable” for real estate purposes usually also means the most valuable libraries to the public and for public use as well.

    It is not advisable to accept a statement from a public relations firm on this (Berlin Rosen) as such statements are, in the long term, quite deniable by the Brooklyn Public Library itself.

    The Brooklyn Public Library had, at one point, made statements, albeit perhaps a little confused, that they were backing off from the sale of the Pacific Branch, but afterwards BPL spokesperson Josh Nachowitz was very emphatic that the sale of the Pacific branch library was NOT “off the table”.

    More recently the Brooklyn Public Library’s statements about the Pacific Branch are still confused. They make vague statements about having backed off but then. They say that its condition “keeps them up at night.” They say they don’t know what to do with it. When Public Advocate Tish James asks them what libraries they have that they are looking at next for sale BPL president Linda Johnson says that she is looking at all the branches for opportunities and partners in terms of real estate deals and then quickly talks about the BAM South library which they have always considered in connection with the Pacific Branch library. Previously they were saying they wanted to sell the Pacific Branch Library in order to partially pay to outfit the BAM South library which Johnson referred to as a cultural condominium library.

    The Brooklyn Public Library has made a few statements that are firmer about the recognized the value of preserving the Pacific Branch Library building: as the first Carnegie library in the borough, it has great historical value even though it has not yet, after all these years of requests, been landmarked.

    But preserving the building for historical purposes would not necessarily mean that the Brooklyn Public Library would NOT sell it, or that it would keep it in use as a library.

    The fact of the matter is that the Brooklyn Public Library does not like to say in advance what libraries they will be selling, because that does not assist in the BPL’s divide and conquer strategy. They keep their plans secret until the last moment. So, for instance, when the Brooklyn Public decided to sell and shrink the Brooklyn Heights Library in 2008 (or before) they did not tell the public until 2013. They have still not released the list of libraries that they were giving to developers to look at for similar redevelopment in the summer of 2007.

    Similarly, when public advocate Tish James asked Brooklyn public Library president Johnson what libraries might be subject of sale and shrinkage Johnson did not mention the Spaceworks deals for Red Hook or Williamsburg.

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  • notonmywatch

    Just to be VERY clear. The Brooklyn Public Library owns books and table and chairs. The city pays them $86,000,000 a year to maintain and staff the libraries. They do not own ANY real estate/buildings. Why they are being used as a mouthpiece by the city should be questioned aggressively.

    An off the cuff estimate is that there are 600,000 square feet of library in Brooklyn. Per the BLP 2012 annual report (which doesn’t match their 990) they receive $134,000,000 ($97,000,000 is in cash from the city, state and federal government) in support. That $134,000,000 works out to about $225 per square foot per year to maintain/staff the libraries. As they are de-emphasizing books there is even less reason to pay them that amount.

    And what is even the size of the Pacific Street Library? $11,000,000 divided by, say, 3,000 square feet (since they recently rehabbed portions) works out to nearly $4,000 per square foot to “renovate” a space. My guess is that it would take 1/10th of that to renovate the branch and that all of their numbers have been obfuscated/manipulated by a factor of 10. Maybe they need $30,000,000, in total. And that $100,000,000 at the Grand Army Plaza should be $10,000,000 They had net income of almost twice that in one year. Just cut the check and quit screwing your patrons.

    Ms. Johnson must have a tough time keeping that smile from becoming a smirk.

    Buckle up, Chuck. It’s gonna get bumpy.

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