As New York Weighs Library Cuts, Three New Branches Show Their Value

None of the three new libraries was built by the Department of Design and Construction, the agency ostensibly in charge of erecting New York’s public works. The Brooklyn and New York Public Library systems opted to oversee construction themselves. During the Bloomberg years, a rejuvenated focus by City Hall on the quality of public architecture produced dozens of new and refurbished firehouses, parks, emergency medical stations, police precincts and, perhaps most conspicuously, public libraries, many in long-neglected neighborhoods. The city also instituted a program called Design and Construction Excellence to entice gifted New York architects willing to suffer the city’s bureaucratic swamp, squabbling agencies, broken procurement processes and notorious late payments.

But then Michael Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, made clear he had little or no interest in design excellence, leaving the city only with its morass. Mayor Adams has just appointed a public realm officer, which is a good sign, but he is meanwhile proposing budget cuts to libraries and parks. The mayor ran for office in 2021 promising to double the Parks Department’s budget and plant 20,000 new trees a year. Now facing a possible $3 billion deficit, he has explained that it would be “irresponsible” for the city not to slash park and library spending while cutting education and health.

That sounds sensible, but the city now spends only 1 percent of its roughly $100 billion budget on parks (some $600 million) and libraries (some $400 million), arguably a pittance considering the outsize roles they play in public health and safety, real estate and economic development, and the welfare of millions of residents, as the pandemic reiterated. It’s a question of recognizing value.

This may be the usual political theater: New York mayors sometimes cut funds for libraries and parks knowing City Council members will restore the funding, so everyone can take a victory lap. But Mayor Adams’s intentions remain a mystery.

New Yorkers rely on library branches not just for books, but also for access to computers and free broadband, employment services, English-language courses for immigrants, after-school programs for teens, de facto child care, havens during extreme weather, free events and safe spaces for latchkey children, the unhoused and older adults.