Why Is New York City Planning to Sell and Shrink Its Libraries?

Defend our libraries, don't defund them. . . . . fund 'em, don't plunder 'em

Mayor Bloomberg defunded New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth, shrinking our library system to create real estate deals for wealthy real estate developers at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity. It’s an unjust and shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness.

It should NOT be adopted by those we have now elected to pursue better policies.

Monday, July 13, 2015

PRESS RELEASE & NEWS ADVISORY- Brooklyn Community Board 2 Votes Wednesday, July 15th On Proposed Fire Sale of Major Public Asset, Central Destination Library In Downtown Brooklyn

Forewarned and Forearmed Brooklyn Community Board 2 Votes Wednesday, July 15th On Proposed Fire Sale of Major Public Asset, Central Destination Library In Downtown Brooklyn
New York City

WHAT: Community Board 2 Votes On Proposed Fire Sale of Major Public Asset, Central Destination Library In Downtown Brooklyn
WHEN: Wednesday, July 15, 2015, 6:00 P.M.
WHERE: St. Francis College, Founders Hall, 180 Remsen Street (Court and Clinton streets) Brooklyn, New York 11201

This Wednesday, July 15th at 6:00 PM Brooklyn’s Community Board 2 will meet to vote on the proposed sale for a pittance of a valuable publicly owned asset worth well over $100 million, (probably $120 million or above), the Brooklyn Heights Library, the central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn on Cadman Plaza West at the corner of Tillary and Clinton Streets.

Unprecedented Vote Will Set Precedent Affecting the City

Brooklyn Heights central destination downtown library
This will be the first-ever community board vote on the proposed sale and drastic shrinkage of a major New York City library (proposed to be turned into a real estate deal) after a public hearing required under ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) because it is a sale of city-owned property.

No matter what happens CB2's vote will be momentous.  If the board votes “NO,” it will constitute a rejection of the “City For Sale” agenda launched and in full swing when the Bloomberg administration left office.  If the board votes “YES” to approve the proposal it will set the table for future developers to feast on public assets, laying out an exact playbook developers and complicit public officials can use to target which assets they want.

“Developers will swarm around our public assets in droves,” says Citizens Defending Libraries co-founder Michael D. D. White, “because any approval of this deal would also announce to them just how much below their true value to the public such treasures can be sold.”

Forewarned By lack of Transparency and Benefit in Previous Real Estate Deals Proposed By Library Administration Officials
Luxury tower replacing Donnell on left. Brooklyn Heights luxury tower to replace library on right
The CB2 members are forewarned because the lack of transparency and the lack of public benefit in real estate deals and library shrinkage plans previously announced by library administration officials has been well documented with notorious acknowledged blunders.
    •    Donnell Library Sale.  An inexcusable debacle, that even library administration officials now all acknowledge, in 2007, when the real estate market was at its height, the NYPL sold the public’s beloved Donnell Library, a five-stories and 97,000 square foot destination library on 53rd Street across from MoMA, to net the far less than $33 million.  How much less than $33 million did the NYPL net?: From that must be subtracted what was spent on high-priced consultants to justify the deal, and, according to new revelations in Scott Sherman’s new book, “Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library” (released 6/23/2015) annual rent for a temporary replacement library started, with an escalation clause, at $850,000 per year.  The so-called “replacement” library for Donnell, less than one-third size at only 28,000 square feet, is not due to be delivered until the end of 2015, perhaps 2016.  That library will be largely underground and largely bookless.  If a full-scale Donnell Library were being built, the NYPL would have suffered a substantial loss of cash due to this sale.

        For how much below value was Donnell sold?  At the time of the sale the Mid-Manhattan block on which it sat was documented has having the highest square foot values in the city.  The penthouse apartment in 50-story luxury tower replacing Donnell is being marketed for $60 million.  Other of the luxury apartments in the building are now selling for about what the library sold to net. 114 luxury hotel guest room in the building were sold to the Chinese for a record-setting price of $230 million.
    •    The NYPL Central Library Plan.   In a major news story of May 2014 the de Blasio administration derailed the NYPL’s Central Library Plan, a proposal for consolidated shrinkage of over 400,000 square feet of central destination library space down to just 80,000 square feet.  The Mid-Manhattan Library and Science, Industry and Business Library were to be sold and the stacks for the 42nd Street Central Research Library holding three million books would have been destroyed, the books sent away to New Jersey.  Days after this shrinkage plan was killed it was revealed that it would have cost over $500 million, hundreds of millions of dollars more than the NYPL had previously been publicizing in promoting its plan.
CB2 members are also clearly forewarned because the proposed sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights library for a paltry sum is closely modeled on the reviled Donnell sale.  There are even links.

The Donnell sale and Central Library Plan shrinkage were overseen by NYPL Chief Operating Officer David Offensend (having come from Blackstone Group spin-off Evercore).  At the same time COO Offensend was pushing through these NYPL transactions his wife, Janet Offensend, assumed an important place on the Brooklyn Public Library board where the sale plans for the Brooklyn Heights Library were concurrently conceived, together with the BPL’s still secretively withheld “strategic real estate plan” that envisions similarly turning the rest of the real estate of the Brooklyn Public Library system (“over 1,000,000 square feet of real estate” according to BPL president Linda Johnson) into leveraging and redevelopment deals.

Forewarning by Bill de Blasio

CB2 members are also clearly forewarned because Bill de Blasio has warned what we see going on here.

“It’s public land and public facilities and public value under threat. . . and once again we see, lurking right behind the curtain, real estate developers who are very anxious to get their hands on these valuable properties,” (1:00) said Bill de Blasio standing on the steps of the 42nd Street Library with Citizens Defending Libraries in July 2013 calling for a halt to this sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library and other threatened NYC libraries.  It was right after this that his campaign approval ratings in his race for mayor skyrocketed.

Unfortunately, just a few months later de Blasio was receiving money sent to him by the development team now proposed to be handed this library at the same time their application for the sale was pending.

Value of the Brooklyn Heights Library To The Public

The Brooklyn Heights Library is a central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn.  It is now 63,000 square feet.  It is now that large because, at considerable public expense and sacrifice, it was substantially enlarged (by one-third) and fully upgraded, reopening in the fall of 1993.  That complete renovation makes it five years newer than the adjacent Forest City Ratner One Pierrepont Plaza Morgan Stanley building where presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has located her national headquarters (more than 80,000 square feet of space).* The BPL is now proposing to shrink the library to just one-third of its current size.
(*  Because Citizens Defending Libraries sees the fire sale of our public assets in deals rigged to benefit befit those at that top as an outgrowth of and exacerbation of escalating income, wealth and power inequality in our society and that is a national campaign issue, Citizens Defending Libraries has invited candidate Clinton to hold an event with Citizens Defending Libraries about protection of public assets and the public commons outside the library at the corner of Tillary and Clinton.  That invitation is being extended to other presidential candidates as well.)
The two central destination Brooklyn libraries designed by Francis Keally, Grand Army Plaza on left and Brooklyn Heights on right
The Brooklyn Heights central destination downtown library, eligible for landmarking, was designed by Francis Keally who also designed Brooklyn’s other central destination library at Grand Army Plaza.  As president of the once revered Municipal Art Society, Keally, in his time, was instrumental in passage of the landmarks law that now protects individual landmarks and neighborhoods such as Brooklyn Heights.  The library moved to its current location in 1961, but it and its “collection in depth” with books going back to 1786, go back to its establishment in1823 when Walt Whitman, as a child, was present for laying its cornerstone with General Lafayette.

As a central destination library, the Brooklyn Heights Library was designed and intended to serve not only all of Brooklyn, especially the downtown business district, but Manhattan has well, particularly lower Manhattan.  It was envisioned that it would attract and serve some of the same patrons using the 34th Street Science, Industry and Business library (SIBL).  Unfortunately, SIBL is now threatened to be shut down with a simultaneous sale.  Of Brooklyn’s two important central destination libraries, the Brooklyn Heights Library is the only one that is handicapped accessible by subway.
Libraries threatened by simultaneous sales, Brooklyn Heights on left, SIBL on right
The library has a dollar value to the public of probably $120 million or more.  According to the BPL’s own estimates, the building itself would cost about $60 million to replace if built new, while the land and right to expand public use on it has an additional value exceeding another $60 million.  Like Donnell, the BPL’s sale would net the BPL the merest fraction of that, net cash received at close to or less than zero when the math, based on figures the BPL won’t disclose, is done.

The sturdy library is in excellent shape and its space extraordinarily serviceable and adaptable.  Similar to the 42nd Street Central Reference Library it was set up to hold books for easy on-the-spot retrieval from two underground floors.  Almost 38,000 square feet of the existing library is above-ground.  In the case of the proposed replacement library, only 15,000 square feet of space would be above ground.

The mayor should now fulfill his campaign promises by stopping the progress of this proposed sale in its tracks.  As a candidate for election de Blasio said that valuable libraries should not be sold for far less than their value.  That is the exact terrible thing we witness happening here.

Sale of The Library Is NOT Yielding Funds For Libraries

CB2 members should be forewarned and forearmed that the proposed sale of the library is a sell-off and overall reduction of library assets plain and simple.

If the Brooklyn Heights downtown library is sold for shrinkage, there is no assurance that paltry sums, if any, gleaned from the sale, all going to the city, would ever subsequently come back for libraries.  Libraries, highly valued by the public using them more than ever, cost relatively little to fund, but this sale is apt to encourage further underfunding like this.

The BPL has cynically said that if the Brooklyn Heights Library is sold, four libraries (Pacific Street, Sunset park, Washington Irving and Walt Whitman) will be moved to the top of the their list for relatively small amounts of funding from the city, a possible $21.5 million in capital funding, thus probably expected to garner political acquiescence for a library sale from the elected officials who represent districts where those libraries are found.  Manipulating these libraries to the front of the list for even small amounts of funding is not necessarily fair and could disadvantage deserving higher-need libraries from other districts.  At the same time nothing would prevent libraries overall from suffering reduced funding as the developer community, aware of a “program” of self-cannibalizing funding pressures to use continued underfunding of libraries as an excuse to sell more of them.

Moreover, when the math is done (the BPL is not being transparent in releasing information about this) the proposed Brooklyn Heights Library sale is likely to net no significant amount of money.  It may even result in an actual loss of cash and certainly would if the replacement library were larger and/or more above-ground:
    •    The sale will gross only $52 million.
    •    Based on Donnell figures it will cost the BPL over $16 million to build and outfit the much smaller replacement library.
    •    The BPL won’t estimate the significant cost of moving and reconfiguring space to cram 27,000 square feet of “business and career” functions into Grand Army Plaza where no new square footage will be built to accommodate the functions.
    •    The BPL will have costs associated with moving to and from and operating in a very small temporary library for the estimated four years of redevelopment construction even though the developer will pick up the rent for the 7,500 square feet there.
    •    The BPL is spending undisclosed millions on high-priced consultants in connection with these transactions.
Again, as with Donnell, if a full-scale replacement library were being built this would be a significant cash loss for the BPL.

Candidate de Blasio said the library should open up its books.  Instead, the BPL is embracing non-transparency as its modus operandi in pushing this deal.  That’s something, Citizens Defending Libraries has warned the CB2 members about. . .

. . . Indeed, BPL minutes show that in 2011 when BPL president Linda Johnson was explaining to her board the need to keep information about the “the real estate plan” in “strict confidence” she reminded the BPL board that the “goal was to get far enough into the plan with this Mayor [Bloomberg] so that when a new Mayor takes office, the plan will be deep in progress and he or she will not derail it.”

A Rushed Sale, The Library Is Being Shrunk Down To Pr-Ordained Size Without a Design For a New Library, Plans or Cost Estimates For Moving Functions Being Shed To Grand Army Plaza Location

The BPL is proceeding with its plans to sell the library and shrink it down to a size the BPL per-ordained without first designing a replacement library.  Similarly, the BPL also doesn’t have plans or any cost estimates for what it will do in terms of supposedly “moving” the 27,000 square feet of business and career focus functions from this library to the Grand Army Plaza library.   This is a recipe for disaster.  It also appears to be a way of obfuscating mistakes, basic errors of judgement and identification of problems with its plans.

Here is just just one major problem with the plan: Stuck in the bottom of a residential luxury tower the shrunken library can never be enlarged afterward as and when this reverse-course shrinkage is recognized as the pathetic or willful mistake it is.  The library can also never be enlarged if it is subsequently conceded that it needs to grow because the city, borough, Brooklyn Central Business District, and immediate surrounding neighborhood are all growing at a fast pace, all of which is already immediately, compellingly true.

How large should the library be?  The BPL is now proposing to enlarge the Sunset Park Library which is a branch library (on the R line), not a central destination library, to 20,600 square feet, essentially the same size down to which it would now shrink this central destination downtown library.

The Shrinkage And Proposed Sale of the Library Is being Done With Total Obliviousness To The Tradition of Finding Books In The Libraries

The developer's architect was asked to do some conceptual "test fits" of what could go in the library (that didn’t fit), but the architect was totally oblivious to the concept of having books in a library.  The architect, Jonathan Marvel, has also attracted considerable attention in the community for being the same one involved in designing Pierhouse and the calculation the resulted in that building being thirty feet above what was specified in a community agreement, so that it blocks the view of the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

The developer’s architect did admit that when “Charrettes” were held about what the public wanted (excluding, at the BPL’s instruction, the possibility of a bigger library) the public said: “Books, books, books.”

We are speaking of physical books because physical books (actually cheaper) are what the public wants.  Circulation is up at the libraries 59% and almost all of that circulation is physical books.

Saint Ann’s, a Private School, Is Getting Big Payday From Public’s Sale and Shrinkage of Library

There is another absolutely startling major part of this story that remains to be flushed out with further investigation and disclosure.  The developer has refused to say how much of a payday the private Saint Ann's School is getting from the public's sale and shrinkage of the library.  He asserts that this is because it's a private transaction, even though it's driving this public one.  (Should Saint Ann's be paying the BPL for this benefit?-  It doesn’t seem like that is being negotiated by the BPL.)  Quite likely, Saint Ann’s may get more money free and clear from this sale than the BPL is netting.

Saint Ann’s gets to make money because it is selling development rights it can’t use without (expensively) tearing down and rebuilding its own building.  If the public tears down and rebuilds its library Saint Ann’s can sell its rights through Forest City Ratner.

At least one CB2 member thinks that it is irrelevant that Saint Ann’s is getting this payday or exercising influence spending money behind the scenes to have the public incur these costs.  We disagree that this issue should be dismissed. What do the other CB2 members think?

Relinquishing Public Infrastructure As We Fail To Keep Pace With Private Development?

This sale would sacrifice one more public asset (an education-supporting one at that) to build yet another new, huge residential tower that would further burden the public infrastructure such as the local school, PS8, already at 140% capacity.

Community groups and the CB2 Land Use Committee have called for a halt to further discretionary approvals of additional massive new residential towers like this one, until the PS8 infrastructure problem gets addressed.  This is another problem the CB2 members have foreknowledge of by reason of which they should not approve this subtraction from the public’s assets and infrastructure.

Sale of Public Assets Promoting Gentrification

The ways in which this giveaway of public assets is designed to promote gentrification are unmistakable.  Right now the library is a public asset democratically serving everyone equally, drawing patrons from all over to the borough’s downtown on the border of increasingly elite on Brooklyn Heights. Shutting down the library would result in lower income patrons coming to the neighborhood being, in effect, "disinvited"  In the place of a library serving everybody a high-end luxury tower would be built.  As a sop to excuse the inexcusable, give the mayor plausible cover to sell public assets cheap, and try to divide the community, a few so-called "affordable" housing units the developer built "poor door" style at a far remove from Brooklyn's burgeoning downtown and upper crust Brooklyn Heights.  114 units would be built altogether, but fully half of those units would essentially be market rate with many units being small units such as studios.

Meanwhile, in another similarly structured sale of public assets de Blasio’s public housing privatization plan would shed 14,000 units of truly affordable public housing from NYCHA’s inventory so, with the few “affordable” units provided off-site, we would not be keeping up, we’d be losing ground in a shell game of public asset defunding where lost ground will create an endless cycle of reasons to sell more public assets.

The NAACP of Brooklyn has opposed this project delivering a resolution.

It looks like the proposed luxury tower would be plus-ultra elite, likely pushing beyond what Brooklyn Heights has experienced before even if the Heights has a history as an enclave where a fair share of wealthy residents have continually resided over the years.  The developers web site now says the luxury apartments will “have generous layouts, expansive views of the NYC skyline and include a comprehensive set of amenities as well as underground parking.”

Will the “comprehensive set of amenities” include a yoga room, a sauna, a screening room, two private around-the-building terraces (one above the library) where the public is not permitted?  We ask because we are told that the development team promised these amenities on one of its web pages, but then apparently took it down again (something we are trying to confirm) perhaps realizing it was not conducive to the public approval they are seeking for this sell-off of public land.

At the end of last month a New York Times editorial lauded a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that federal housing subsidy funds should not be used (following “the path of least resistance”) to perpetuate segregation even as developers rationalize as “economic redevelopment” building in areas that don't offer minority citizens equal "access to jobs and good schools."

The New York Times concluded: “It’s the duty of the federal and state governments to ensure that affordable housing policies do not make racial isolation worse.”

We think that a sale of valuable public assets like this, even if it conceivably generates `subsidy' for a few housing units, should also not be an agency to exacerbate discrimination and segregation.

48 Hour Information Dump Including Insufficient Environmental Information Before the Public Hearing

The CB2 Land Use Committee hearing on the project, the first ever hearing on the proposed sale and shrinkage of a major public library, was held Wednesday, June 17, 2015.  Two days before, on Monday the 15th, the developer prefaced it with an information dump of required documents including what the project would look like and hundreds of pages of insufficient environmental impact statement documents based on decade-out-of-date incorrect assumptions about growth and development in the neighborhood.  However insufficient in disclosure and analysis, these documents do talk about the regular closure of streets that provide Brooklyn Bridge access and the extraordinary number of disruptive truck visits that will occur during the anticipated four years of construction to build the luxury tower.

BPL’s Lack of Transparency Should Prelude CB2 Approval It Requests

The lack of transparency on the part of the BPL should itself present an irrefutable reason for CB2 members to refuse the approval the BPL is requesting.  As with Donnell and the Central Library Plan, lack of transparency often goes hand in hand with detriments to, and sell-outs of, the public interest and should be treated as an indicator of such.

Information has been requested of the BPL and the BPL has stonewalled and not furnished that information in response.  Much of it is likely required to be furnished under the Freedom of Information Law.  More of it, most all of it, is appropriate to furnish under simple precepts essential to maintaining transparency when selling a public asset for conversion like a library for conversion into a luxury condominium tower.

For instance, information should be given about the true and complete costs to the public of selling and shrinking this library as proposed.  That includes what it would cost to replace such the asset, including land and development rights, that is being given up.  It should include also all the costs of disruptions and what the public must forgo and bear to undergo this transaction.  The BPL should also furnish its “strategic real estate plan” that was formulated going back to 2007 and other documents about what plans it has for other libraries.

The members of the BPL board promoting development deals as an agenda for the libraries  historically and present overlap with the members of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation who have similarly been cited for their lack of transparency about promoting development in what is refereed to as “Brooklyn Bridge Park” with any unnecessary over-development there thus constituting another form of public asset sell-off.

CB2 Procedures- Complaints

Citizens Defending Libraries is not entirely satisfied with the Community Board 2 procedures in reviewing this application although it is wary of criticizing the board with this key vote hanging in the balance.  Still, Citizens Defending Libraries wrote a letter to the CB2 members in February and that letter was not distributed.  We feel this is unfair and would not have been the case with a similar letter to the CB2 members from the BPL.  In fact, the BPL has had the opportunity to do multiple lengthy presentations to the CB2 meetings assisted by PowerPoint and prearranged coordination.  We believe those presentations contained misinformation.

Although Citizens Defending Libraries reached out to similarly inform and educate CB2 members and committees our overtures were shut down.

On June 17, 2015 after its public hearing the deadlocked CB2 Land Use Committee refused to approve the BPL proposal.  That refusal to approve could have been let stand as their decision.  Instead, the committee was instructed to meet and vote again on a day when its composition was different from the group on the hearing day.  We must question the appropriateness of proceeding in that fashion.

Given how momentous the decision is as to whether to sell and shrink such a significant public asset together with the precedent it sets we think that CB2 should hear what the public has to say about this proposal before voting.  Although it is our understanding that CB2 can allow the public to speak at the start of its meeting before the board votes we have been told that CB2 intends not to do this.  Instead we note that CB2 will have to rely on a record that expresses inadequately what the public had to say.

We respect that minute-taking and keeping a hearing record is very difficult job to do.  What has been presented to the CB2 members is perhaps more than adequate as a set of minutes, but it inevitably leaves out much that the public expressed as part of the hearing, some of it very important.  In addition, written and email testimony was submitted and this testimony has not been passed along to the CB2 members expected to vote, just as Citizens Defending Libraries letter from February has never been passed along.  This deficiency is all the more important in that oral testimony by the public was limited to just two minutes.

The Precedent of CB2's Vote

No such hearings were required when the Donnell Library was suddenly and secretively sold off because, in that case, the library, not the city, owned the land.  Because the proposed sell-off of this Downtown Brooklyn Library is closely modeled on, almost identical to, the sale of Donnell Library this is an opportunity for the public to send a clear signal in retrospect that the Donnell sale was also wrong..  Similarly, such a hearing isn't required for the now threatened sale of another major destination library, SIBL, Science, Industry and Business Library at 34th Street.  What CB2 votes will likely affect the proposed sale of that library too.

It cannot be denied: If approved, this sale sets the unfortunate precedent for serially underfunding and selling off other libraries (per the BPL strategic real estate plan) and other public assets (like public housing) setting a template for how public assets can be picked off one by one.  This developer is making hundreds of millions of dollars: The incentives for other such deals will always be there.  If we can't stop them at libraries . . . there may be no stopping them at anything all.
Admonition Carved in Stone at the Library

On the library's north wall an admonition is carved in stone that one should come to the library to seek "TRUTH" not "TREASURE."

Will that admonition be heard?

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