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, August 3, 2015

Conflicts of Interest Inquiry- Inquiry Submitted To The New York City Conflicts of Interest Board Respecting Brooklyn Community Board 2 and The Proposed Sale and Shrinkage of Brooklyn Heights Library

The following is a conflicts of interest inquiry submitted August 3, 2015 to the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board.  As of that day we received oral confirmation that the inquiry was accepted and an investigation with respect thereto will proceed.

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Conflicts of Interest Inquiry

Can a New York City community board member or community board committee member vote  (or participate in discussions respecting a vote) that will directly affect the financial interests of a private school (probably to the tune of tens of millions of dollars) if that board or committee member assures the public and others voting that they are voting independently using their own personal judgment about what would be right and wrong, not being influenced by the their full-time employer or any other entity.


We already have a statement of assurance to the public from the community board's District Manager that this is not the kind of conflict of interest and "does not meet the Conflicts of Interest Board's definition of a conflict" so as to be prohibited by the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board.   Further, the community board committee member when voting and advocating for the outcome that would benefit the private school, the outcome that her employer (more facts below) was specifically advocating for, stated that she was voting for what she personally believed was right, not what any other entity wanted.

The committee member and another board member, both participating in several outcome determinative votes and related discussions (in June and July 2015), were both full time employees of the Brooklyn Heights Association.  The Brooklyn Heights Association was taking the position that a major public asset, the Brooklyn Heights Library, should be sold and drastically shrunk.  The Brooklyn Heights Association president explained that this decision, greatly surprising most people in the neighborhood, was being made by its library committee, "which is how we operate," she explained.  The library committee was comprised so that key deciders on that committee steering its decision in this regard were connected with the Saint Ann's school that will benefit significantly if the library is sold and shrunk.  One such committee member was from a family that considers itself a founding family of the private school, another is a Saint Ann's parent.

It is probably surplusage, but a later addition to this BHA library committee also had traceable connections to those with vested interests in selling the library and, while the library sale plans were being formulated, one of the BHA board members, a former president of the BHA, was the architect and implementer of the NYPL's plans to sell and shrink libraries, turning them into real estate deals while his wife, with a position on the board of the Brooklyn Public Library, was involved in helping to structure mirroring transactions for similar deals at the BPL, including this particular sale and shrinkage proposal that the BHA employees were voting on, a virtual replica of her husband's Donnell Library sale and shrinkage.

Clearly discernible, these influences are highlighted by several stark BHA inconsistencies related to not representing neighborhood and public interest:  1.) The BHA, now advocating for the shrinkage of the library, previously advocated for its substantial enlargement (in fact, at appreciable public cost and sacrifice the library was substantially enlarged by one-third, building out over two wings, and was fully upgraded, brought into the modern computer technology-supporting era in 1993), 2.) The BHA is, as a rule, opposing discretionary public approvals of new towers in the neighborhood until the need for an augmenting balance of new public school infrastructure is addressed, but, by omission from its rule, doesn't oppose this tower and instead continues to argue for the conversion of the library into a new luxury tower, and 3.) The BHA refused to advocate for more funding for NYC libraries when it meant that this library might not be sold as a result, but now advocates for funding for NYC libraries (in other neighborhoods) as a premise and rationale for selling the Brooklyn Heights Library.

Although one of the BHA's employees faced with the issue of her BHA employment said (June 17th):  "I am not here representing any organization.  I am here on this committee to do what I think is right,"  it was readily apparent to witnesses that the other BHA employee was clearly put under pressure and therefore reversed her vote about selling and shrinking the library as a result.

Initially (June 17th), this other employee spoke forcefully in opposition to the library sale and shrinkage stating that "I will not vote for any large scale residential development until we get a school."  She also forcefully pointed out the lack of any credible assurance for believing, as posited by some, including the BPL, that a sale and shrinkage of the library would mean that there would be funds coming to the libraries as a result in the future.

Then, on two succeeding occasions (July 6th and July 15th), CB2 had meetings to reverse and supersede (we believe quite likely improperly) the votes in which that CB2 member and Land Use Committee member participated that night.  First (July 6th) it held another meeting of the Land Use Committee, comprising that committee of different attending individuals.  The CB2 Member and Committee member did not attend that meeting, reportedly "on vacation," helping to change the composition of the committee members meeting.  When there was a discussion at that meeting of whether the proposed developer had been lobbying any of the Land Use Committee members in the interim, it was reported that the developer had tried to reach this member, calling the offices of the BHA as a way of doing so, with her immediate supervisor being informed of the attempt.  Her immediate supervisor is the BHA employee Land Use Committee member who has been forceful and faithful in voting and arguments for how to proceed consistent with the BHA's efforts to have the library sold and shrunk (the one who nevertheless describes themself as being "on this committee to do what I think is right.")

Thereupon (July 15th), the entire CB2 then  met to vote with this BHA employee CB2 member being present where she:  1) inexplicably reversed her previous (June 17th) vote and voted in favor of selling and shrinking the library, and 2) sat in stony silence throughout the discussions with a strange, uncomfortable look on her face.

The exact dollar amount of benefit that the private Saint Ann's school will get from the library sale and shrinkage when it is able to sell its development rights as a result is not out in the open as public information, nor is information about what Saint Ann's has done to lobby behind the scenes.  The amount the school is getting is likely in the tens of millions of dollars. The developer refused to answer when asked how much he was paying the school, saying that it was a "private" transaction even though it is clearly an influence helping to drive forward a public transaction that will be a significant loss for the public.  (The dollar value of the library to the public is over $120 million, $60 million to replace the building alone and over another $60 million to replace the land and associated rights for expansions of public use, yet any cash netted by the city on this sale would be paltry, perhaps even less than zero when the math is completely done.)

What we do know from prior disclosures is that Saint Ann's was previously proposed to get a 20,000 square foot student theater in the new building as part of its payment for its rights, but it will now, instead, take all cash.  Also, the developer, in saying (June 17th) he would NOT disclose how much Saint Ann's was getting, referenced a tax-exempt borrowing by Saint Ann's in the amount of "$40 million" (public records indicate it is actually $30 million), and said that these transactions were unrelated and should not be viewed as reflecting what he was actually paying the school.

Needless to say we can alert you that your answer and analysis will be freighted with importance to a community that is up in arms about all of the above.

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