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.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Open Letter To NYC Planning Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron Respecting Her Vote About Selling & Shrinking the Brooklyn Heights Library, Other Libraries The Revson Foundation, Center for an Urban Future, And More

Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron asking a question of Jonathan Bowles, Executive Director of the Center for an Urban Future, about whether the fiduciary responsibilities” of library trustees “have been taken seriously.”
Below is a letter that was delivered today to the New York City planning commissioners that have calendared a vote for this coming Monday, November 2nd on whether to approve the sale and drastic shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library, the central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn.

The letter was delivered in conjunction with other correspondence requesting that a number of the planning commissioners, including Commissioner Effron, recuse themselves, based on conflicts of interest, from the precedent setting vote on whether to sell off this important and valuable public asset.  See: Friday, October 30, 2015, Letters To New York City Planning Commissioners Requesting Recusals With Respect To Vote on Proposed Sale and Shrinkage of Brooklyn Heights Library.

The commissioners took oral testimony about the proposed sale on September 22nd and have since further discussed the proposal a number of times and received additional testimony about the proposal.  See: Report on Tuesday, September 22nd City Planning Commission Hearing On Proposed Sale and Shrinkage of Plus Testimony of Citizens Defending Libraries (it includes links to video).

Note: As the commissioners receive physical copies of their correspondence (submission of fifteen copies is required) the letter they received di not include hyper-links.  Links have been add below for the web reader's convenience.

Open Letter To NYC Planning Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron

October 30, 2015

Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron
(Copies to other Commissioners)
Care of City Planning Commission
22 Reade Street
New York, NY 10007
Attn: Yvette V. Gruel
- (212) 720-3370 -

Re: Submission of supplemental testimony against the proposed sale and drastic shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library, Brooklyn’s central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn. (ULURP C15039 PPK - Oral testimony taken by Commissioners on September 22, 2015)

Dear Commissioner Cheryl Effron:

This is an open letter to New York City Planning Commissioner Cheryl Effron.  We are also providing the other city planning commissioners with their own copies of this letter because we were told that planning commission staff considers it improper to have a communication that does not go simultaneously to all the commissioners* and, in addition, because the matters we describe here and ask Commissioner Effron to give serious thought to may have parallels with respect to other of the commissioners that we have not identified here and might not even yet know about, but which we would nonetheless ask them to give similar consideration to.
(* Some of us did, however, observe the developer, David Kramer, communicating with one of the commissioners about business and mutual opportunities and we hope, much the way we are addressing Commissioner Effron, that this other commissioner will also, ultimately, do the right thing.)
This letter is not a formal request for Commissioner Effron to recuse herself on the matter of proposed library sales or deals transforming libraries into real estate deals.  Since we note that Commissioner Effron has apparently already decided that she not need to recuse herself we will, for the purpose of this letter, put such a request aside and assume aguendo and for the moment, that she does not need to recuse herself.  Thus we will ask instead that Commissioner Effron recognize and detach herself from the personal and professional relationships and her prior pursuits with respect to the implementation of city library policy such that she avoids being influenced by them, consequently making wrong decisions.

When Jonathan Bowles, Executive Director of the Center for an Urban Future, provided oral testimony in favor of selling and shrinking the Brooklyn Heights Library at the September 22nd portion of the public hearing certain commissioner (Levin and Weisbrod) stated that they were appreciative consumers and admirers of past Center for an Urban Future product.  We followed up with supplemental testimony to the effect that, while Center for an Urban Future product can sometimes be valuable, the testimony the Center for an Urban Future was providing was flawed in several respects and noted, as well, that the judgment of the Center for an Urban Future must be considered seriously amiss when it praises the decision to sell the Donnell Library, putting itself at odds with virtually all other New Yorkers informed on the subject, and probably, it is fair to say, the NYPL’s own board and management’s retrospective assessment.

The Center for an Urban Future also testified in favor of selling the Brooklyn Heights downtown central destination library at the Brooklyn Borough President’s hearing.

When Mr. Bowles spoke Commissioner Effron did not acknowledge any connections with him or the Center for an Urban Future.  She did not weigh in with the other commissioners to acknowledge being a consumer or admirer of its product.  Nor did Ms. Effron note for the record that she was in any way connected with the production of its work, especially, in particular, when it concerns libraries and, more particularly, when it concerns whether libraries such as the Brooklyn Heights Library should be sold.

When during his testimony Commissioner Levin asked Mr. Bowles about why it is “a good idea in this case to sell a valuable public asset, a one-shot deal” Mr. Bowles responded  “our report called `Re-Envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries,’ about a year ago, actually called for this kind of thing for at least ten branches in the city.”

Chair Weisbrod thereupon followed up with questions about what the report said.

Although Commissioner Effron was then the third commissioner to ask a question of Mr. Bowles, asking her question after the Levin and Weisbrod exchanges, Commissioner Effron did not note that the report being discussed was a major initiative (in fact the second such report) paid for by the Revson Foundation.  Ms. Effron is on the board of the Revson Foundation.  At the Reason Foundation web page presenting the report Mr. Bowls referred to it is stated: “This report was made possible by generous support from the Charles H. Revson Foundation.”

Commissioner Effron also did not note her position on the “Benefit Committee” for the Center for an Urban Future’s 2015 Gala coming up on November 4, 2015 as well as last year’s 2014 gala.  We don’t yet have information about whether Commissioner Effron or others had a similar role with respect to any prior year functions.

It may be wondered why the Center for an Urban Future would have such bad judgment as to endorse the sale of the Donnell Library, or any other important libraries like the Brooklyn Heights Library.  One explanation could be discerned from the fact that serving with Commissioner Effron on the “Benefit Committee” for the Center for an Urban Future’s 2015 and 2014 galas is David Offensend.  It was David Offensend who as Chief Operating Officer of the NYPL, coming to the New York Public Library from the investment firm Evercore (a spin-off of Blackstone), was responsible for effecting the Donnell Library sale.  Further, it was David Offensend’s wife Janet, who taking a key trustee role at the Brooklyn Public Library was involved in the contemporaneously planning for the very similarly designed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library.

The Center for an Urban Future web pages for the 2015 and 2014 galas are also interesting in that not only do you find Commissioner Effron’s and Mr. Offensend’s names appearing with Jonathan Bowles’ name on the Board of Directors; you also see Jonathan Butler’s name appear as a director as well.  It’s one of Mr. Butler’s businesses that will be given the ground floor retail space in the developer’s luxury tower if the Brooklyn Heights Library is sold and shrunk.

Concerns about Ms. Effron’s role on the board of the Revson Foundation should not have gone unnoticed.  Citizens Defending Libraries included in its original testimony submitted September 22nd an article that raised questions about the activities of the Revson Foundation with respect to the sale of libraries.  We were unwitting at the time that the same article identified Ms. Effron as being on the board of the Revson Foundation, asking whether her presence there, and her point of view on library sales might be a problem.  The article is: “Where Are They Now?: Sharon Greenberger, Evercore and the Revson Foundation- Selling And Shrinking NYC Libraries” (Saturday, June 6, 2015).

If Ms. Effron and the commissioners are reading the testimony submitted then they should all have become aware of this.  Ms. Effron and the commissioners also should all know this if, at least, city planning staff is reading the testimony to identify such important matters as mention of the commissioners themselves and their roles.

Of great concern respecting the Revson Foundation’s board is that it has on it Sharon Greenberger, a former Bloomberg appointee to the board of the Brooklyn Public Library (she was chief of staff for Daniel Doctoroff, Bloomberg’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding).  In her role as BPL trustee Ms. Greenberger served as designated point person working with Janet Offensend putting together the real estate strategy for the library sales, including the Brooklyn Heights Library that is now before the commissioners.  Ms. Greenberger went on to be involved in other work that related to the privatization of public assets and her position on the Revson board may be looked at as one of those endeavors as the plans for library sales she worked on at the BPL are pursued further.  Also on the board at Revson is Stacy Dick who was at Evercore overlapping for a number of years with David Offensend.

During the oral testimony, Commissioner Effron asked a question of Mr. Bowles setting him up to offer an opinion whether (as “spoken about” or raised by “fellow commissioners”) the “fiduciary responsibilities” of library trustees “have been taken seriously.”  (i.e. The “fiduciary responsibilities” of trustees selling libraries and constructing real estate deals such as BPL trustees Sharon Greenberger and Janet Offensend.)  Center for an Urban Future representatives were previously on record as saying they do not believe the library trustees motivations should be subject to question and Mr. Bowles responded that he though the library trustees were “doing a great job.”  Citizens Defending Libraries was one of the plaintiffs in lawsuits recently brought against the NYPL.  In all, two of the lawsuits, each with multiple plaintiff parties, had as one of their causes of action breach of fiduciary duty by the trustees when they pursued the real estate plans being implemented by NYPL COO David Offensend.  (The cases did not proceed to legal discovery on the issue, but that does not preclude the commissioners from delving to evaluate the issue.)

The Revson Foundation’s role with respect to the proposed sale and shrinkage of libraries has not been good and must be viewed with profound suspicion:
    1.    The Revson Foundation was undoubtably involved with the “Revson Study” which concerned the proposed sale and redevelopment of the Sunset Park library into a mixed use facility.  This proposed Sunset Park redevelopment is part of the reason that Commissioner de la Uz is recusing herself from hearing the Brooklyn Heights Library matter that the BPL has tied in with Sunset Park.  What more the “Revson Study”says or what other libraries it mentions is not known to us at this point because the BPL has for more than a year been refusing to release the study as required by the Freedom of Information Law.  Presumably, it is being withheld because what it says  would not be viewed favorably by the public.

    2.    The Revson Foundation is a heavy funder of Urban Librarians Unite, created around the same time that library sales plans were launched and an organization that has backed every form of proposed library sale and shrinkage since that time, including the Brooklyn Heights Library sale, the Central Library Plan (involving the sale of Mid-Manhattan Library and the 34th Street Science, industry and Business Library plus the destruction of the research stacks of the 42nd Street Library) and the plans for library shrinkages via Spaceworks.  We have asked that Urban Librarians Unite decry the Donnell sale and they refuse.

    3.    The Revson Foundation is a key funder of Spaceworks, a private company, albeit technically a 501(c)(3), with a heavy emphasis on real estate that cited the privatization of library space (as “underutilized”) as one of its principal business purposes when it was created.

    4.    Supplementing, yet distinct from The Center for an Urban Future reports, the Revson Foundation funded a “Re-envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries design study” followed up by a series of presentations of the study that, subtly or not, provided support for turning libraries into real estate transactions, promoted the urgency of redesigning and redeveloping libraries, suggested that books can be made less important with less space devoted to them, introduced ideas for how to have good PR for keeping books off-site, and promoted the idea that libraries should or can be smaller “flexible” spaces so that less space serves their needs.  As submitted in our original testimony, one of these presentations ended with the audience being told:
And again, as the final presentation has shown, and we will see again hopefully, at the end a library is real estate.  It's an integral ingredient in urban development.  I've studied libraries for years, and many design projects around the country have found it's often a nice placating gesture in a real estate development. You want to do commercial development?: Put a library in it and you win a new public that you might not have had on your team initially.  So in short a library has many fronts and functions.
    5.    As noted, whatever good work The Center for an Urban Future has done, it has also been promoting the sale of libraries in ways that raise concern and indicate serious lapses of judgment and reckoning on the Center’s part.  In fact, of late, the Center has been so deeply enmeshed in the subject of libraries that when David Giles, author of the CUF library reports, appeared at yet another event following up on the Re-envisioning Libraries design study funded by Revson (October 21, 2015) at the New York School of Interior Design, he had to, before he got started, disclaim to the audience that “although we have been publishing quite a lot recently on libraries we are not a library advocacy organization, but a public policy think tank” researching a range of other issues as well.
Ms. Effron has had significant personal involvement with what the Revson Foundation does with respect to libraries and even the library heads themselves, which would include Linda Johnson, head of the BPL library, who appeared on behalf the BPL on September 22nd as it made its case as applicant for this library sale and shrinkage.  The Revson Foundation’s web pages highlight this with a link to a Wall Street Journal article profiling Commissioner Effron, where her help to spearhead “Love a Library” in the fall of 2011 was a featured portion.

The Wall Street Journal article, “Giving New York City's Local Libraries a Boost,” by Melanie Grayce West, September 3, 2012 reads (emphasis supplied):
She brokered a grant of $50,000 from the Revson Foundation. .  for New York Cares for the purpose of Love a Library. . .

The idea for Love a Library blossomed in the fall of last year when a grant from the Revson Foundation sponsored a panel discussion with the three leaders of the city's library systems, where better collaboration was discussed. At the same time, Ms. Effron was aware that New York Cares [She’s an honorary board member of New York Cares] was engaged in library activities and could do more to serve branches. So, Ms. Effron did what made sense: She made a three-way introduction between New York Cares, the heads of the three library systems and the Revson Foundation. Out of that came the day of service, which Ms. Effron coined, "Love a library, embrace a branch."
Ms. Effron’s picture is also on the Revson Foundation site ceremonially presenting Revson Foundation library awards: Yes this involves the Brooklyn Public Library and the (only theoretical?) eligibility of awards to any of its branches and actual awards to some.  One must wonder about all the public relations management discussions that ensure with the subject of library sales almost certain to come up.. .  In 2015 $40,000 went from the Revson Foundation to the BPL, in 2014 $138,820 in 2013 $173,820 (including an Offensend sponsored gala).  The Revson Foundation’s library sale related disbursements (and these are not all of them) rise is dramatic correspondence to the presentation to the public of plans to sell and shrink libraries.

In 2015 the Revson Foundation made a grant of $62,000 to the Fifth Avenue Committee (per Revson’s website):
To support FAC in facilitating a community planning process and assessing the potential of New Market Tax Credit (NMTC) in order to build and finance an expanded Sunset Park Library with affordable housing above.
This grant supports the proposed sale for redevelopment of the Sunset Park Library which the Brooklyn Public Library has tied in with (including citing as a reason for) the proposed sale and redevelopment of the Brooklyn Heights Library.  It is the reason that Commissioner  Michelle de la Uz, head of the Fifth Avenue Committee which is proposing to redevelopment the Sunset Park and other libraries into a mixed-use facilities has recused herself from consideration of the Brooklyn Heights proposal.  It is the theoretical reason why the Fifth Avenue Committee has sent multiple representatives to multiple public hearings in this process to testify in favor of selling and drastically shrinking the Brooklyn Heights Library.

In 2014 the Revson Foundation gave $80,000 to the Center for an Urban Future:
To support a project examining the challenges that New York City nonprofits face in undertaking construction projects financed with city capital dollars and managed by the New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC).
As the commissioners must, no doubt be aware, some of the most important alternatives under evaluation at this moment in terms of what can and should be done with the Brooklyn Heights Library involve working with the New York City Department of Design and Construction to effect normal repairs (including just fixing the air conditioning- which the Department previously opined was in good shape).  Those promoting library sales and taking real estate out of the hands of the public, supporting so-called “public-private” partnerships for new construction like in the instant case, have worked to make the New York City Department of Design and Construction into a bogeyman to be side-stepped at all costs (even though the department’s figures for library construction were the merest fraction of what was proposed with the Offensend/NYPL Central Library Plan).

Ms. Effron was appointed to the City Planning Commission August 5, 2014 by Mayor de Blasio.  This was after de Blasio, while developer applications for the purchase of the Brooklyn Heights were still pending, was receiving money from the development team to which his administration ultimately awarded this project.

As previously noted, Ms. Effron and the commissioners should all already know of Ms. Effron’s, we think, problematic roles as trustee of the Revson Foundation. Presumably, Ms. Effron has raised with the other commissioners the question of her library activities and Revson Foundation board membership and Revson Foundation goal or vice versa.  Nevertheless, the outcome is that Ms. Effron has not recused herself during the ongoing proceedings.  Whatever the standards are that the commissioners are choosing to live according to, we must wonder whether Commissioner Effron, in feeling she does not have to recuse herself, also feels that it is similarly consistent with her role as commissioner to advance the current goals of the Revson Foundation within the context of the planning commissioners’ deliberation and debate.

That said, here is the request we write this letter to make of Commissioner Effron:
We feel that with all the public’s testimony, Citizens Defending Libraries testimony included, has made a strong, convincing, and irrefutable case that the Brooklyn Heights Library, Brooklyn’s central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn, a very valuable, recently expanded and fully upgraded library should not be sold and drastically shrunk in a one-shot deal that will yield little, if anything at all, for city coffers or the public while sacrificing irreplaceable public assets we should pass on to future generations.

Commissioner Effron, if you do not recuse yourself, we ask that you at least disentangle yourself from your loyalties to those dedicated to selling libraries with whom you have worked long and closely and from the goals and policies with respect to selling libraries that the Revson Foundation has branched out to support in multiple ways.  Please make it your intent to do this so as to consider with a clear, unbiased mind the public good.  If you cannot manage this, at least abstain.  This is far too significant a decision and precedent to deserve anything less.

We pray that it is not a faint hope that you will respect this request.
Similarly, we ask that any other commissioners who may also have entanglements and mixed loyalties that have not yet surfaced or been discussed, or have not been considered grounds for recusal (given how the commission chooses to conduct business) will themselves surmount such influences that are not consonant with the greater public benefit.


                            Michael D. D. White
                            Citizens Defending Libraries
"Benefit Committee" for the Center for and Urban Future Gala- At least two years in a row with Cheryl Cohen Effron and David Offensend appearing.

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