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Libraries Face Nearly $900 Million Shortfall to Fix Aging Buildings

The Brownsville Public Library has been forced to use makeshift air conditioning units until a new system can be put in, May 9, 2019.
The Brownsville Public Library has been forced to use makeshift air conditioning units until a new system can be put in, May 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A Brooklyn library with a makeshift air conditioner that shoots in mosquitos and blows so loud people can barely hear themselves. A Rockaway library so cold in the winter staffers have to wear gloves. A Bronx library where bricks topple onto the sidewalk.

Those are some of the 220 public library branches in the five boroughs with the most glaring unmet repairs, budget records obtained by THE CITY reveal.

New York City’s three library systems have a total estimated $896 million in unfunded, but much-needed fixes. That covers everything from leaky roofs to defective air conditioning units and boilers to decrepit bathrooms, records show.

Meanwhile, library buildings, on average around 65 years old, deteriorate. Some need a bottom-to-top overhaul or replacement — including four in Queens that were badly damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy.

“I’m here three or four times a week,” said JoAnne Ellis, 65, as she checked out books from the Seaside branch in Belle Harbor, Queens, where it will take an estimated $15 million to build a new storm-resistant structure.

“I love coming here and looking at books. What’s more important?” the retired middle school teacher added. “I’m not sure what I’d do if it was closed.”

The de Blasio administration has earmarked almost $900 million for libraries in the mayor’s current 10-year Capital Strategy plan. City officials note there’s nearly $200 million in capital funding for libraries in the current fiscal year budget.

But budget watchdogs, library officials and book lovers say that doesn’t come close to covering an additional nearly $900 million in badly needed repairs and upgrades.

The New York Public Library system, which covers Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx, has a $418 million capital shortfall. Queens has $251 million in unfunded projects, while the figure for Brooklyn is $227 million, records show. The gaps represent current budget holes and unfunded longer-term projects over the next decade.

“The city ought to be doing so much more than it is to fund the library infrastructure needs,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director for the Center for an Urban Future.

Bathroom Overflows in Queens

Library officials say they try to prioritize work at the most needy spots. But it sometimes takes years for repairs to be completed, thanks to funding shortfalls and red tape.

Take the Seaside branch, one of four near water that Queens library officials want to replace.

In February, the library was closed for two days after the bathroom got clogged with sand and overflowed into the entrance area, according to staffers.

Queens libraries, including the Seaside Branch, have $251 million in unfunded repairs, May 9, 2019.
Queens libraries, including the Seaside Branch, have $251 million in unfunded repairs, May 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

All told, library branches in Queens were shuttered for about 5,000 hours in the past 12 months for both planned and unexpected work.

Brooklyn branches lost 629 hours over the past fiscal year. New York Public Library branches suffered 1,277 hours of unplanned closures from April 30, 2018 to April 30, 2019.

“Unfortunately, we have to make some tough decisions,” said Lew Finkelman, chief operating officer for the Queens Public Library system.

In some cases, problems persist for years.

“There’s a constant struggle to find the extra money for maintenance,” Finkelman said.

Some 18 Brooklyn branches are more than 100 years old, donated by tycoon Andrew Carnegie. The NYPL has 29 so-called Carnegie branches and Queens has four.

In Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of those Carnegie branches has been without a working air conditioner for at least the past decade, according to staffers.

“Patrons complain a lot,” said Khadija George, 26, a technology research specialist at the branch.

“It’s not like I can do anything,” she added, noting the heating system is also constantly on the fritz.

“In the winters, it’s ridiculous,” she said. “I can’t even take my coat off.”

In the summer, the library — next to the New York City Housing Authority’s Howard Houses — is plagued by makeshift air conditioning systems that make so much noise it’s hard to hear normal conversations, according to George and other staffers.

Hurt by ‘Decades of Underfunding’

The Brownsville library is slated for a $22 million overhaul. The work is scheduled to begin in about two years and last for three years, library officials said.

A similar project is scheduled for the New Lots branch in East New York. The building’s roof is in dire disrepair, along with its elevator and windows, records show.

A public library in East New York on New Lots Avenue has a tarp on the roof, May 9, 2019.
A public library in East New York on New Lots Avenue has a tarp on the roof, May 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The condition of our libraries reflects decades of underfunding,” said David Woloch, the Brooklyn Public Library’s executive vice president for external affairs.

In some cases, the lack of capital funds forces library officials to repeatedly shut a branch to do piecemeal fixes.

That’s the case with the Windsor Terrace branch.

The Brooklyn library was closed for a month in spring 2017 for the installation of a “green” roof — and is now shuttered again so a new air conditioning system can be installed.

The Grand Concourse library in Claremont, The Bronx, closed in January for approximately 18 months for Americans with Disabilities Act-related upgrades.

That branch also needs a roof overhaul, but there isn’t money for the project, according to Risa Honig, NYPL’s vice president of capital planning and construction. Over the years, water from the roof has seeped into the building’s facade and bricks began to come off during the recent construction. Library officials were forced to put up a sidewalk bridge to protect pedestrians.

“If we just had full funding, we could take care of all of our critical issues at once,” Honig said. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic to fix the roof right now so when we reopen we don’t have to worry about other issues and close again?”

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