Plan to sell aged library a battle over Andrew Carnegie’s vision

The Brooklyn Paper
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The future of the Brooklyn Public Library system hinges on a simple question: what would Andrew Carnegie want?

The steel tycoon financed the construction of 21 libraries across the borough more than a century ago, promoting literacy and gifting Brooklynites iconic gilded-age architecture, but as his 18 surviving structures age and libraries transition from halls of books to hubs of technology, the inheritors of Carnegie’s charitable legacy face tough fiscal choices.

The Pacific branch opened on Fourth Avenue in 1904 as Brooklyn’s first Carnegie library, but the building is becoming a threat to the magnate’s vision, according to Brooklyn Public Library officials who want to sell the property just steps from the Barclays Center and use that cash to move into a new, modern facility two blocks away.

“Andrew Carnegie’s real legacy is not necessarily bricks and mortar, but the idea of access to the incredible wealth of information and knowledge contained in a library for everybody,” said Brooklyn Public Library vice president for government and community relations Josh Nachowitz, who wants to put the Classical Revival-style structure on the market rather than shell out $11 million of the $15-million annual system-wide maintenance budget to fix it up.

Cutting the losses by treating the historic Pacific branch as the system’s sacrificial lamb would let the Brooklyn Public Library focus on services and programming at its other 59 branches — helping the library chain live up to Carnegie’s ideals, officials say.

“If Carnegie were alive today he would be very desperate to see the Brooklyn Public Library provide the best services in the most accessible building in the most modern facility,” Nachowitz said.

That modern facility would come in the form of a slightly bigger branch inside a planned 32-story tower developed by Two Trees Management Co., which would be brighter, airier, and better suited to today’s library-goers than the current Pacific branch, according to officials.

“It’s a failing building,” said Brooklyn Public Library chief librarian Richard Reyes-Gavilan, who noted more than half of space in the current Pacific branch is made up of small rooms and chambers not open to the public or usable for operations because books are now processed at a single central location. “It’s past its useful life.”

The sale is expected to generate $10 million or less, which would cover the interior build-out of the new branch that could wind up looking something like Kensington’s newly opened $14.9 million branch, with large multi-purpose reading rooms, plenty of natural light, and cutting edge technology, said library trustees.

Any cash leftover after the new library’s construction would go back into the borough’s library system through an agreement with the city.

But the move would likely be the death knell for the historic Pacific branch, which is not landmarked.

Activists are decrying the plan, saying the red brick building is just as important as the books and programming inside.

“This was truly a gift to the city of New York in an attempt to really create an institution, which is why the Carnegie libraries were designed by some of the premiere architects of the time — they served to uplift through their architecture as well as through their mission,” said Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council.

“The preservation of stand-out pieces of architecture that were gifts to the neighborhood is a really important thing to maintain,” said Bankoff.The Park Slope Civic Council has pushed to have the Pacific branch landmarked — a bid the Brooklyn Public Library says it will not oppose so long as the building’s sale could still generate enough cash to cover the move.

Library officials have met less opposition in their similar plan to sell the 1960s-era Brooklyn Heights branch, which needs $9 million in repairs, and insist they have no plans to put any other Carnegie buildings on the market — claiming they are only considering unloading the Pacific branch because of the confluence of its remarkable location and uncommonly high needs.

But the only Carnegie buildings truly safe from future development are the Dekalb, Park Slope, and Williamsburgh branches, which are protected by landmark laws.

The Carnegie buildings boast large, multi-paned front windows, red brick or limestone facades, stone steps leading to prominent entrances adorned by lampposts or lanterns, and classical ornamentation including columns, pilasters, and pediments.

And they were apparently put up to last: 30 percent of libraries borough-wide were built by Carnegie and a century later they only require 31 percent of the $230 million needed to conduct overdue repairs.

But library officials say many of the old edifices fail to meet the needs of modern-day patrons — and unloading the Pacific branch will help the chain remain a vital cultural institution in a time when city budgets are anything but certain.

“We’ve got to take some control of whatever we can control and this is just one smidge of what we can hopefully control,” said Reyes-Gavilan. “It’s crucial for us to stop being victims and leverage whatever we can so that the library can remain relevant for people for the next hundred years.”

Selling the branch — even if it means demolition for the 108-year-old building — is a move that Carnegie, a businessman above all else, would have wanted, according to author David Nasaw, who penned the simply titled “Andrew Carnegie” biography.

“Carnegie was not terribly interested in the architecture of these libraries — he wanted the local people to decide where the libraries would be,” said Nasaw of the tycoon, who donated $5.2 million — equivalent to more than $2.7 billion today — after his retirement in 1901 to establish a branch library systems citywide. “What was most important to him was that a library be open, be accessible, have books and reading materials.”

Nasaw said that Carnegie was by no means a preservationist who would have nostalgic commitment to the buildings funded through his philanthropy — in fact he was hands-off with the architects who designed them.

At most, he would have wanted passersby to be able to recognize a building as a library from the street, the biographer said.

“He would have wanted the libraries to be a public symbol,” said Nasaw. “But Carnegie is a businessman — he’s going to look at the bottom line and he’s going to say if it costs $11 million to keep this old building up to code and if for $11 million you could build a library that’s twice as big or that has twice as many services then he would go with that.”

Reach reporter Natalie Musumeci at or by calling (718) 260-4505. Follow her at
Updated 10:09 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Mike from Williamsburg says:
Josh Nachowitz is exactly right. Andrew Carnegie built the libraries but did not give them endowments to operate. He believed the communities they are in should figure out a way to operate them and support them.

Over the main branch in Pittsburgh, the message "FREE TO THE PEOPLE" is inscribed. Anything that keeps with that would make him happy.
March 27, 2013, 9:05 am
Michael D. D. White from Brooklyn Heights says:
Those familiar with the issues raised by selling off New York City libraries will recognize that this article, comprised mostly of quotes from a Brooklyn Public Library spokesperson, is largely just a repetition of the real estate industry/library officials talking points. Consequently, it is misleading in big picture terms and includes numerous other important characterizations that are inaccurate.

For instance, the article implies that plans to sell off the Brooklyn Heights Library have met with little opposition. That is coy way of dismissing, without actually mentioning, the fact that Citizens Defending Libraries has an online petition in response to these breaking headlines with well over 8,500 signatures opposing that sell-off (for people without e-mails we also collect physical signatures). While that petition addresses what the New York Times has now recognized to be a system-wide policy of selling off public libraries to create real estate deals, that petition was started in Brooklyn Heights and the local signers of the petition opposing the sale overwhelmingly outnumber any supporters by virtually any measure.

There is good reason so many people are opposed to the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights library with a more than 50% shutdown planned to start in just a few months. Like the Pacific Branch library, the Brooklyn Heights library is immediately adjacent to property owned buy Forest City Ratner, and BPL’s spokesman has said that even though Forest City Ratner is notorious for its history and expertise in abusing developer-driven “public private partnerships,” the BPL will consider entering into such a partnership to sell the property to the Ratner firm. There is no assurance that the RFP process they will use (side-stepping a simple “request for bid” process) will yield a result protective of the public interest and there is plenty of reason to suspect that it won’t.

Furthermore, Mr. Nachowitz has stated that, in addition to that imminent shutdown toward which the library is heading, it is the BPL’s goal to design and specify a much smaller library (booting out the Business and Career library currently integrated there) and sign the property over a developer before December 31st, the last day of Mayor Bloomberg’s term. All of this rush would come before the required public reviews.

The pending closing is being blamed on air conditioner repair complaints that seem highly exaggerated and will probably not bear scrutiny or stand up to audit. The air conditioning broke down AFTER BPL head Linda Johnson said they had it in mind to sell the property. As can easily be discerned from earlier Daily News reporting, the decision to sell both these properties was formulated without the BPL having made arrangements to get any money from these sales, and this article fails to explain that there is, in fact, no real way to say that money will truly be going to the BPL as a result of these sales.

All of the characterization about the condition of, and cost of maintaining, the buildings the BPL is pushing to sell should be viewed with great skepticism given that Mr. Nachowitz told The Observer that the deals being picked to promote are for the properties that can be handed off in the hottest real estate markets.

Lastly, the article doesn’t mention that ever since Bloomberg finished running for his third term he has been intentionally underfunding the libraries, despite the fact that usage is way up and that intentional choice is what is supposedly justifying these real estate deals.

The petition protesting these sales can be found at Citizens Defending Libraries web pages, together with other resources to assist in the united effort to bring them to a halt. It is also available here: Save New York City Libraries From Bloomberg Developer Destruction.
March 27, 2013, 11:43 am
Brooklyn Red from 4th Avenue says:
Natalie Musemeci is to be applauded for digging further into the question of the state of Brooklyn Libraries, especially Carnegie branches, and I (sadly) suggest that her accompanying article, “Repairs Overdue for Carnegie Libraries”, be carefully read as an indication of the next libraries on the chopping block. However, the questions at hand in regard to the Pacific Branch go far beyond “what would Andrew Carnegie do?”, especially as defined by the imaginings of an author of a long (900 page) biography that while commended by both Publishers Weekly and Bookmarks Magazine, was observed by both to “fall short explaining how such an ordinary-seeming person could achieve so much and embody such contradictions” and “at times comes up short in his inability to reconcile Carnegie's contradictory ruthlessness and generosity. To be fair, no author has succeeded completely, and Carnegie's true motivation remains hidden to history”.

Putting aside the Ouija board attempt to infer what an extraordinary complex man would think about selling a building that had indelibly linked his name to philanthropic purpose for over 100 years, what we do know is that the intent of the libraries were to uplift and educate, and that a number of extraordinary architects (including Raymond Francis Almirall, the architect of the Pacific Branch) jumped at the chance to express this vision in architecture. When that architectural vision was successful, as it was in the case of the Pacific Branch, the value of the building to the community increased in time, both in terms of its architectural expression of an idea (free and easy access to books and a place to read them) as well as in terms of strengthening a “sense of place” in a community and the historic continuity of that expression. It seems to me that public recognition of that value is what land-marking is all about.

Nonetheless, the library issues here even go beyond architecture - they includes function in a specific community, and the Brooklyn Public Library’s plan is not simply to tear down the library and build a new one - it is to tear down the library, sell the property to the highest bidder (read “ high rise developer”) and move the library function to a new neighborhood - the Brooklyn Cultural District. Every local elected state and city official representing the current Pacific Branch constituency has expressed concern about, if not active opposition to, moving the Pacific Branch function out of its current location to the BAM South site.

At a recent Community Board 6 subcommittee (4/20), the BPL’s rationale for the sale of the Pacific Branch was greeted with universal skepticism. We have seen far too many proposed deals that promise community benefits, but give us nothing. The proposed BPL deal is not even a swap (land for a better library) - it’s a steal from the neighborhood. In the face of such strong opposition to the sale of the Pacific Library it is the height of irony that Rey-Gavilan would characterize himself in this article as a “victim” - please!

Yes, the library system - throughout the city - is woefully underfunded. Yes, there needs to be concerted action to keep library resources. But the rush to sell valuable public resources, based solely on the property value of where those resources are located, is by no means a strategic answer to the question of how those institutions are supported in the future. (Check out Kim Vesley’s thoughtful article, “Is the Public Getting Swindled by the City’s Short-Sighted School and Library Sell-Offs?” March 18, New York Observer for another perspective).

In deciding the fate of the Pacific Branch we don’t need a séance - we need to do the kind of thinking that weighs all of the variables - where library services are needed, what the values of land-mark worthy buildings are to a neighborhood, and how we can make the wisest use of public resources, remembering that once they are sold, they are gone forever.
March 27, 2013, 2:31 pm
Marsha Rimler from brooklyn says:
I have been to the library on Cadman Plaza twice this week. I call it Cadman Plaza because it seems that the majority of people in the library are not residents of Brooklyn Heights. They are of Brooklyn, and the nearby colleges especially City Tech. Others were either trying to start small businesses, find employment, writing resumes etc.
It seems to me that the BPL has ignored the users of both Brooklyn branches that are at least 50% (perhaps more) people of color.. This can well be seen as a Civil Rights issue. Someone call the NAACP etc.
March 27, 2013, 6:37 pm
Raze Carnegie Hall from Prospect Heights says:
"If Andrew Carnegie were alive today he would be desperate . . ." according to Josh Nachowitz, V.P. for Real Estate Propaganda at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Josh's verbal buffoonery continues beyond mere speculation of the dead industrialist's hypothetical mood to say that Carnegie himself, seemingly speaking to Nachowitz from beyond the grave, wants the BPL to sell his legacy gift to Brooklyn at Pacific St and 4th Avenue -- so the library can instead rent space in a soon-to-bebuilt high-rise.

How soon before Carnegie's desperation rises once more from the grave and tells Nachowitz to also work for the destruction of the other 20 BPL branches Carnegie built? (now that we know from Josh that Carnegie prefers rentals, its only a matter of time)

While we are at it, I am sure Carnegie also wants us to tear down Carnegie Hall as well -- since he was about music, and not the "brick and mortar " that houses it.

A few things that are actually known about Carnegie might be useful here, if only to ghostbust Nachowitz's self-serving seances:

1. Except in his earliest youth, Andrew Carnegie was never "desperate."

2. Carnegie was a ruthless industrialist, when workers went on strike, or even insulted him, his hired Pinkertons (private security army) would shoot them on Carnegie's command. Why be desperate when you can have folks who bother you shot?

3. Carnegie would probably have Natchowitz shot by Pinkertons for his outrageous b.s. and mischarictarization of both Carnegie's mood in 2013, and for trying to sell his buildings.

4. Carnegie WAS about the brick and mortar buildings. Just as any rich guy builds a wing of a hospital, or, say, a library, and puts his name on it: the buildings are the legacy.

Nachowitz is wise to have waited to put lies in Carnegie's mouth until way after his death. He will not be shot. And he might succeed in his irresponsible quest to destroy the gift from the past that is in his trust to preserve.

Ask Nachowitz if he will first even landmark the building, so that it can't be torn down. He will be silent, or he will lie again (it's in his job description). He is not into saving the building at all.

Nachowitz and his inane wordsmithing are part of the continued effort by tye Bloomberg administration to sell off as much social capital as possible before the term ends.

He is far beyond being an irresponsible public steward, destroying the treasures that have been entrusted to him to preserve.

He is a destroyer of our history, and another sad, and effective, tool of the real estate industry that runs New York.

Please don't let people like this give our librarys to the Ratners of this world. When you print his crazy ststements, you are helping him destroy our community assets.

Time to cut this guy off, before Andrew Carnegie gets "desperate" again. Or Whatever Nachowitz will make up next.
April 1, 2013, 6:55 am
Marc Stevens from Clinton Hill says:
Philistines........Leave your filthy hands off the Carnegie Libraries. Nobody speaks today for Carnegie especially not the clowns Nasaw, Nachowitz and Reyes-Gavilan.

His gift whihch included the magnificent structures and the contents themselves should be cherished and embraced and protected.

Don't let greedy developers and real estate speculators and temporary holders of jobs within the Public Library system destroy the Carnegie Libraries in Brooklyn and elsewhere in NYC.
April 1, 2013, 11:21 pm
John Casson from Park Slope says:
The article about “Carnegie’s Library Legacy” (March 29th) asks, “what would Andrew Carnegie want?” He certainly wouldn’t want the Brooklyn Public Library to sell its Pacific Branch.

When Andrew Carnegie decided to provide municipalities with library buildings, he believed that they should accept full responsibility for their operations and maintenance. This is why he refused to pay for anything other than designing, constructing and equipping his library buildings. In a speech on January 14, 1897 at the Academy of Music before the Brooklyn Library Association, he sated that if a millionaire provided a municipality with a library, “its maintenance should be the task and duty of the community.”

Carnegie was so concerned that communities wouldn’t support his libraries that he required their officials to sign agreements indicating the “Rate at which municipality will pledge annual support (with a tax levy) if building is obtained.” He also insisted on the following pledge: “Resolved that an annual levy shall hereafter be made upon the taxable property of said community sufficient in amount to comply with the above requirements.”

The Brooklyn Public Library claims that its problem with the Pacific Branch is that it would cost $11 million to complete overdue repairs and alterations to the building. This isn’t the problem, it is a consequence of the problem. For many years, New York City’s has failed to provide sufficient funds to maintain the Carnegie libraries, thereby failing to comply with the provisions as well as the spirit of its agreement with Andrew Carnegie. This problem of underfunding has forced the City’s three library systems to curtail their operations and cut back on the maintenance of their libraries. As a result of this shortsightedness, the Pacific Branch and a great many of the City’s other libraries are in poor condition. As the sale of the Pacific Branch would result in only a one-time infusion of money, it fails to address the long-term problem of underfunding that brought about the deterioration of the City’s historic library buildings.

The solution to the problem is for New York City to cease violating the provisions of its agreement with Andrew Carnegie and start providing annual appropriations to its three library systems that will fully cover their current operations and maintenance expenses as well as enable them to implement their deferred maintenance projects. This, and not the sale of the Pacific Branch, is what Andrew Carnegie would want.
April 4, 2013, 9:55 pm

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