The Downtown library desert News

| 05 Jan 2016 | 11:54

Downtown officials want to know why there are no libraries or community centers in the Financial District east of Broadway, where 60 percent of the population in that district lives.

“I wish I knew,” said Ro Sheffe, chair of CB1’s Financial District Committee, who noted he and others on the board have been pressuring city government for the past decade to provide more community facilities in an area of Lower Manhattan that has seen a steep increase in population over the same time period.

Sheffe said when referring to libraries he means facilities in the New York Public Library system, the closest of which are the New Amsterdam branch just west of City Hall on Murray Street, and further west, the Battery Park City branch on North End Avenue. Community centers, he said, are either non-profit entities like Manhattan Youth Recreation, like the center on the west end of Warren Street, or facilities like Asphalt Green at Battery Park City that are private and for-profit, but offer free or low-cost community programming.

Those types of facilities, claims Sheffe, do not exist in the eastern half of the Financial District: from Broadway down to South Street, up past the Seaport to the Brooklyn Bridge, and back west to Broadway. While there’s no concrete reason for the dearth of community facilities in that chunk of Lower Manhattan, there are two contributing factors that may help explain the circumstance.

The first is an apparent lack of good data at the official level for just how many people live in the district.

In 2010 the U.S. Census Bureau found that the population in Lower Manhattan, comprising the Financial District, Tribeca, Battery Park City and the Seaport, had grown 77 percent to 61,000 over the previous decade. Those figures were contested by the city and CB1 as being too low, which resulted in the U.S. Census Bureau revising them upward. Sheffe said despite the revision the city did its own count, which the board felt was still too low.

A study commissioned by the board in 2011 found the population in Lower Manhattan nearly doubled since 2000, and that the population in the Financial District has more than tripled. A board-commissioned study from 2008 predicted population in the Financial District alone would triple to almost 28,000 from 2000 to 2013.

But those are figures that are used by CB1 in assessing needs in the district, not city officials who make decisions on where to allocate resources. Sheffe said the city’s failure to grasp just how many people live in the Financial District, and how many have moved there in the past five years, has led to the belief that the area is adequately served by existing community facilities.

He did note that in recent years the Dept. of Education has sited three new schools in the Financial District, an effort he lauded, but one he said is still not enough to match demand from the growing population.

When reached for comment, officials at City Hall did not address what population figures they work off of in Lower Manhattan, and specifically in the Financial District. A City Hall spokesperson said the city’s most recent budget included $46 million in new operating funds for the NYPL system, bringing the total to $358 million for the 2016 fiscal year. Those funds are being used for universal 6-day service, extended hours in many locations, and create nearly 500 new jobs, said the spokesperson.

As for community centers, City Hall spokesperson Monica Klein said city-run Cornerstone programs run out NYCHA houses, of which there are none in the Financial District or Community District 1, or public schools, which are called Beacon programs, and are available in high-need areas.

“The administration continues to take steps to ensure Lower Manhattan is a complete neighborhood, from supporting the development of open space and rehabilitating the waterfront to keeping streets safe and opening new schools,” said Klein.

Klein provided a list of eight Cornerstone and Beacon programs, none of which are in the Financial District, and 13 senior centers, only one of which is in the Financial District.

The City Hall Senior Center, which is affiliated with Hamilton Madison House Inc., is at 100 Gold St., at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. The center’s mission statement, however, indicates that it primarily provides senior services to those living in Two Bridges, the Lower East Side and Chinatown.

The other contributing factor to a lack of community facilities in Lower Manhattan east of Broadway, which is related to the question of population, is that the Financial District is still largely considered commercial in many minds, Sheffe said.

“We have very little of the residential infrastructure that most urban neighborhoods take for granted and that’s because we were a commercial district for hundreds of years,” said Sheffe. “So people are accustomed to thinking about it that way, and perceptions are hard to change.”

He claims the Financial District is now more residential than anything else, a perception that’s hard to change because many of the buildings in the district appear to be commercial. But people forget (or don’t know), Sheffe said, that many commercial buildings in the district have been converted over to residential use in past years.

“It’s just something that hasn’t reached the consciousness of people and I’m afraid maybe the same is true of City Hall,” said Sheffe.

Sheffe said CB1 has been asking for a library and community center in that part of the district on their annual list of priorities submitted to City Hall.

“For more than a decade a library and a community center east of Broadway has been at the top of that list, right above schools,” said Sheffe. “The disparity between facilities to serve Battery Park City and Tribeca and those that serve the Financial District is remarkable…and I frankly cannot understand it.”

Sheffe said the board had reached out to elected officials on every level in pursuit of a new library and community center. They’re sympathetic, he said, but nothing seems to change.

When contacted for comment, State Senator Daniel Squadron, who represents the Financial District, praised the recent opening of the Peck Slip School and said, “I appreciate that [Community Board 1] is continuing to look at ways to expand local services east of Broadway. I look forward to continuing to partner with them.”

Sheffe added he was optimistic his clamoring for new community facilities would bear fruit when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was succeeded by current Mayor Bill de Blasio, but so far his pleas have been ignored.

“I was hoping that with a change in administration there would be a change in policy, but it hasn’t materialized yet,” he said.