With four million square feet, 207 locations and some 40 million visitors a year, New York’s library systems would have an enviable real estate portfolio — if they had the money to maintain it. Collectively, the Brooklyn, Queens and New York public libraries have a billion-dollar backlog of unmet capital improvements.
To close this gap, Mayor Bill de Blasio carved out $600 million in his 10 year capital plan while the systems have resorted to selling property and partnering with developers. The result is a construction boom that aims to make city’s libraries more accessible, more efficient and better suited to do more than loan books.
This Libraryies come up for discussion at the Union League Club in Manhattan. Hosted by the New York Building Congress, the group discussed what they are doing to keep attendance numbers at record highs and how the libraries are preparing for future — strategies that include mass digitisation, overhauled interiors and mixed-use projects that pair libraries with affordable housing.
Wolcott, a former deputy mayor during the Bloomberg Administration and a one-time chancellor of New York City Schools, said it’s not uncommon for his 63-branch system to have as many as 100 ongoing projects, ranging from technology upgrades in Maspeth to entirely new buildings in Hunters Point and Far Rockaway.
Historically, the library systems had to battle for their budgets on a yearly basis, but now cash is flowing more freely, forcing the libraries executives to redirect some of their efforts. As the spaces grow, the staff also has to grow it go along with those spaces, which is a balancing act.
The average library in the city is roughly 65 years old while the oldest buildings sponsored by Andrew Carnegie date back more than a century. Upgrades range from complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act to installing new air conditioners, elevators and, in some cases, entire new wings.
Many of the city’s small, non-descript community libraries are products of Mayor John Lindsay’s administration in the 1960s and ‘70s. These so-called Lindsay Boxes average about 7,500 s/f and lack the technical capabilities to keep up with today’s service standards, which often include classes on computer science and programming.
In 2016, the Brooklyn Public Library System sold its Brooklyn Heights branch to the Hudson Companies. The development firm has since razed the building and commenced work on a 36-story replacement, which will include 134 market-rate condos, 1,000 s/f of retail and a new, city-owned library totaling close to 27,000 s/f. Hudson also agreed to build 114 affordable units offsite as a tradeoff.
Elsewhere, BPL has decided to scrap its ill-equipped Sunset Park branch in exchange for a more modern version with a housing component. However, rather than selling the land to a commercial developer, the library partnered with the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community group focused on economic and social justice. The non-profit will finance the core and shell of the nearly-doubled library space in exchange for the right to build 49 permanently affordable units on top of it.
The New York Public Library, which oversees the libraries in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, is taking a similar approach to the renovation of its Inwood branch, partnering with the Housing Preservation and Development Department and the Robin Hood Foundation to build affordable units on site.