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Read it and Weep: Libraries Face $1 Billion Gap for Repair of Decrepit Buildings

One library repair project has been in the works for nearly 14 years, THE CITY found.

SHARE Read it and Weep: Libraries Face $1 Billion Gap for Repair of Decrepit Buildings

“See you in 2025,” reads a sign on the closed library in Red Hook, Brooklyn, June 23, 2023.

Marcus Santos/THE CITY

Broken air conditioners. Clogged toilets. Leaky ceilings. 

Those are just some of the much-needed fixes at the 217 public library branches citywide that add up to more than $1 billion, according to budget documents obtained by THE CITY. 

That’s up from $900 million in 2019.

The ballooning costs to maintain and repair the aging facilities present another challenge for the city’s three library systems as the Adams administration seeks to reduce library spending by $36.2 million before the city’s executive budget is due June 30

“Few things are as important to local communities as their library projects, whether it’s a new HVAC system, new doors or roof, or an expansion,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, a former City Council member from Queens who chaired the Committee on Cultural Affairs and Libraries.

At the same time, library buildings, on average around 65 years old, are deteriorating.

Stacks of Repairs

Some need a total overhaul or replacement — including a LeFrak City branch damaged by Hurricane Ida in 2021.

Some funds have been allocated for major repairs in the city’s capital budget, which is separate from the city’s expense budget and addresses long-term and large construction needs like infrastructure and major repairs.

The Adams administration has earmarked $760 million for libraries and their broader needs in the mayor’s current 10-Year Capital Strategy plan. City officials note there’s $198 million in capital funding for libraries in the current fiscal year budget.

But budget watchdogs, library officials and book lovers of all these institutions offer — much more than just books — say those sums don’t come close to paying for all the repairs that buildings need.

The Muhlenberg Library on West 23rd Street is closed, with no date listed to reopen, June 9, 2023.

Marcus Santos/THE CITY

The New York Public Library (NYPL) system, which has branches in Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx, has a $536 million capital shortfall. Queens libraries have $160 million in unfunded projects, while the figure for Brooklyn is $383 million, records show. 

The gaps represent current budget holes and unfunded longer-term projects over the next decade.

Library officials say they try to focus on the most run-down facilities.

But fixes can take years, thanks to funding shortfalls, changes to projects and bureaucratic red tape, especially when it comes to following through on the capital budget. 

“Absolutely, let’s restore the cuts from the mayor’s budget to libraries,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director for the Center for an Urban Future, a policy research group. “But let’s also save the libraries hundreds of millions of dollars by reforming this ridiculous capital process.”

The Center extensively documented library needs nine years ago and has tracked related issues since. Its report noted that costs cited are “just to bring the branches into a state of good repair.

“Bringing them into the 21st century would require an even greater investment.”

Way Overdue

At the New York Public Library’s Muhlenberg branch in Chelsea, a project to install fire sprinklers is running with delays of more than a decade — it has been planned since October 2009.

The project has gone on so long that city officials involved in the repairs no longer remember how much it was initially supposed to cost. The current price tag was not immediately known for the work at a building that opened in 1906 as one of the city’s “Carnegie libraries,” donated by Andrew Carnegie in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The construction-safety saga at the Muhlenberg branch — 163 months and counting — makes it the longest outstanding construction project at any city library, according to a list obtained by THE CITY via a Freedom of Information Law request from the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC).

DDC officials predict it will finally be finished later this month, but the branch is closed.  

At the closed library, a sign describes the work that drags on, June 9, 2023.

Marcus Santos/THE CITY

Four of the five most-delayed library fixes are part of the NYPL system as of April 19, records show.

They include facade repairs on hold since December 2011 at the three-story Aguilar library in East Harlem, exterior renovations to the Upper East Side’s 96th Street branch that started in June 2012, and interior door upgrades planned since July 2012 to make the West Farms library in The Bronx compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We, too, are concerned about the pace of these projects,” said NYPL spokesperson Amy Geduldig. “The delays unfairly inconvenience our patrons and end up costing taxpayers more money.”

The NYPL says it can do the building repairs cheaper and faster without relying on DDC. 

Cutting Red Tape

Shortly after taking office, the Adams administration launched a Capital Reform Task Force “to overhaul the capital process, reduce red tape and ensure faster and cheaper project delivery.”

Lorraine Grillo, the former DDC commissioner during the de Blasio administration who was appointed deputy mayor by Mayor Eric Adams, played a lead role in the reform push, according to people involved in the process. But she stepped down as deputy mayor at the start of the second year of the Adams administration. 

Four days later, the task force announced a set of reforms including a pilot program to allow libraries to self-manage small projects. Some of the major proposed changes require new state laws that failed to get traction in Albany during the 2023 legislative session. 

Created during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration to streamline city construction projects, DDC has long argued that the decade-long delays are outliers that wouldn’t happen under new reforms implemented over the last several years. 

“We meet regularly to talk about challenging projects to try to resolve them,” said DDC spokesperson Ian Michaels. “We are constantly trying to troubleshoot.”

Still, after years of failed reforms, the Adams administration wants the agency converted into a state authority with fewer regulations and bureaucratic hurdles. A proposed new authority would also allow projects under $100 million to move forward without approval of the city’s Public Design Commission. 

“DDC’s projects are subject to layers of approval and oversight that were originally designed to protect the public interest,” the agency’s Blueprint 2022 report states. “However, these measures have often become redundant with our own business practices, while adding months to delivery timelines.”

The conversion to a state authority requires approval from state lawmakers. The proposal didn’t get enough backing during this year’s legislative session. 

Meanwhile, NYPL branches had to be closed for 6,000 hours of planned and unexpected work last fiscal year, said library reps.

Queens locations were shuttered for 10,144 hours from March 31, 2022 to March 31, 2023, per library officials. Brooklyn branches lost 2,371 hours over that same time period.

Officials at each of the three library systems are worried the closures may worsen if the Adams administration goes through with proposed budget cuts. 

In Brooklyn, that would translate into the loss of Saturday service at 20% of branches, $1.5 million less for new materials, and the elimination of 78 jobs, according to Brooklyn Public Library President and CEO Linda Johnson. 

If the budget cuts are enacted, the NYPL plans to close the eight branches that are open on Sundays, as well as reduce some hours of operation on weekdays.

NYPL officials also will delay reopening two of the five spots that are currently closed as they undergo renovations. 

In Queens, the cuts would also force the elimination of all Sunday service offered at three locations. The proposed spending reduction would eliminate Saturday hours at up to half of its locations and lead to fewer new books and e-content.

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