Sunday, November 15, 2015

Do Conflicts of Interest Steer the New York City Planning Commission? The Answer Is “Yes” When It Comes To Selling/Shrinking Public libraries (Unless You Don’t Want to Call Them “Conflicts of Interest”)- Implication For Protecting The Public

Over 2,000 completed testimony forms opposing sale and shrinkage of the library and collected in just over two weeks
On September 22, 2015 the City Planning Commission was taking oral testimony about whether to approve a proposal to sell very cheaply Brooklyn’s second largest central destination library, located in Downtown Brooklyn, the recently expanded and fully upgraded Brooklyn Heights Library.  Citizens Defending Libraries (of which I am a co-founder) delivered over 2,000 completed testimony forms collected in just over two weeks at the end of the summer opposing the sale and drastic shrinkage of the library. Confronted with twenty-two reasons not to sell the library, most members of the public submitting the testimony cited the more than half of those reasons not to sell the library, the majority citing all of them. . . . . .   

Notwithstanding, on November 2, 2015, ten City Planning Commissioners voted unanimously to sell and drastically shrink the library, pulling in very little money for the city in return for that sale.
Click to enlarge: Twenty-two reasons that most of the more than 2,000 people delivering testimony against the library sale thought were good reasond NOT to sell the library
What explains why not one of these commissioners sided with the express, nearly universal sentiment on the part of the public?
The New York City Planning Commission at the September 22, 2015 hearing
The lock-step lineup of commissioners also voted 180 degrees contrary to the recommendation Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams made against selling and shrinking the library.  Moreover, the commissioners knew that Citizens Defending Libraries also has, with its two petitions, well over 25,000 signature opposing such sale, shrinkage and underfunding of libraries.  The commissioners rejected and failed to take to heart the common sense, some would say conservatively-based advice of Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute, who directed an appeal to them in her New York Post column before their decision about how we are depriving “future generations” : NY libraries shouldn't be selling land - especially to build `affordable housing', By Nicole Gelinas, October 18, 2015.- See also her radio segment on the subject.

About the only conceivable explanation for the commissioners being so out-of-sync is that, pretty much across the board, the City Planning Commissioners have interests very different from the rest of the public’s. . .

. . . Two commissioners currently in office actually didn’t vote (there are twelve commissioners now holding office): The two were recused from the vote because they were acknowledged to be directly involved in the proposed library sale and shrinkage under consideration.

One commissioner recused was, Joseph Douek.  He is one of the trustees of the Brooklyn Public Library, one of the co-applicants proposing to convert the library into a real estate deal and also was on the board of another co-applicant, the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC), while the proposed sell-off was formulated.

The other commissioner recused was Michelle de la Uz.  Her position on the commission is as an appointee of the Public Advocate (appointed by de Blasio when he held the position). The Public Advocate's job is to be an elected watchdog for the public interest.  In another capacity Ms. de la Uz heads the Fifth Avenue Committee in which role Ms. de la Uz has already been advocating for the sale and shrinkage of this library and also pursuing a number of other Brooklyn Public Library real estate deals like Sunset Park, Clinton Hill (requires accompanying upzoning), Red Hook and finally turning the Sunset Park Library into a multi-use development.  Supposedly Commissioner de la Uz’s Sunset Park Library   redevelopment will be moved to the head of the list for city funding if the Brooklyn Heights Library is sold.

But what of the other ten commissioners who did vote?  Whatever causes their point of view to diverge so significantly from what the public wants, they say it is not a conflict of interest and they say there was no similar need for any other of them to to similarly recuse themselves.  We know this because Citizens Defending Libraries raised the issue of the likely need of seven more commissioners to recuse themselves, noting how those seven commissioners were respectively, in various ways, involved professionally with businesses, entities, and individuals in selling off the libraries.
CPC Chair Carl Weisbrod
Firmly rejecting the notion that any other commissioner might have to recuse themselves by reason of a conflict of interest the commission’s Chair Carl Weisbrod observed of the various professional entanglements (refereed to by him as their “essential . . . broad exposure to the business realms and civic realms of city life”) we “clearly would not want a commission of cloistered monks.”

Whether the commissioners have been living like “cloistered monks” or not, the question is whether the vote of all ten of the commissioners, each and every one of them under the circumstances and taking their associations into account, could be interpreted as independently exercised votes of conscience rather than reflecting a desire to please those in the real estate industry.

Having conflicts of interest is inherently awkward, but having a conflict of interest doesn’t make you a bad person.  What makes someone a bad person is having a conflict of interest and letting that conflict of interest determine an outcome.  A shade of nuance over from this is having a conflict of interest and, because you believe that you can still exercise your best judgement, voting or exercising discretion in a position of trust despite that conflict.  If you then vote in accordance with how that conflict might sway you (rather than the reverse) even if you think you are exercising your best judgment, you then have an appearance of impropriety, difficult to explain away.

If your standard is that you should avoid the appearance of improprieties (and that’s the standard most would advise) and you have many conflicts that can create such appearances then you may not be a bad person, but the question is whether you are holding a position it is not good for you to hold, whether it would be better for another, less conflicted person, to hold that position instead. . .

. . . With the world of New York real estate (especially the huge projects and major decisions regularly coming before City Planning) being such a small world of big monopolies, mostly a few, often family-based organizations, it is not surprising that commissioners who are `broadly’ involved in that world and not living like “cloistered monks” would face overlaps of involvement worth looking at.

Along these lines, the Citizens Defending Libraries press release announcing that it was raising the conflicts of interest issue noted:
The perhaps startling number of commissioners asked to recuse themselves can be accounted for by a number of things deserving public attention: Because so many of the New York City Planning Commission commissioners are deeply enmeshed in their own private real estate careers, the ubiquity of Forest City Ratner as a developer, and lastly because all of New York City's many libraries have now become an attractive target for transformation into real estate deals.
The reference to Forest City Ratner is because four of the commissioners had identifiable business interactions with Forest City Ratner and the commissioners were voting to approve the amendment of an agreement with Forest City Ratner (incidentally allowing for the wiping out of a public park and open space with many trees) whereby the transfer development rights could transferred through Forest City Ratner’s property.

Aside from the recused commissioners de la Uz and Douek, three other of the commissioners had connections to library sale transactions, one of them being Chair Weisbrod because of the involvement of the Episcopal Diocese of New York in real estate matters relating to the sale of New York City Libraries.
Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron, a particularly interesting case when it comes to conflicts of interest and selling off libraries
When it come to selling libraries Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron was a particularly interesting case because she (and I am stealing language liberally from the press release) has multiple relationships with many of the people involved in promoting the sale of New York City libraries.  That includes working directly with Linda Johnson, president of the BPL, one of the co-applicants to sell and shrink the library.  It also includes being on the board of the Revson Foundation formulating policy with Sharon Greenberger, the former Chief of Staff to Daniel Doctoroff, Deputy Mayor for Development for the Bloomberg administration who as a BPL trustee worked with Janet Offensend to structure this and other library sale transactions.  Her involvement with promoting the sale and shrinkage of libraries in a surprising variety and number of ways is extensively set forth in this open letter to her from Citizens Defending Libraries before the commission's vote: 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 

Among other things, the Revson Foundation granted money to the Sunset Park Library real estate transaction tied in with this one, a reason Commissioner de la Uz has already recused.  The Revson Foundation has also given money to a number of other organizations promoting NYC library sales, including the Center for an Urban Future whose representatives testified more than once during these proceedings that the Brooklyn Heights Library (and others) should be sold based on reports the center did funded by the Revson Foundation.  Effron has been simultaneously involved on the "Benefit Committees" for Center for an Urban Future galas (for at least two years) working with David Offensend who, as COO of the NYPL sold the Donnell Library while his wife Janet was involved as BPL trustee structuring the nearly identical proposed Brooklyn Heights Library sale.
On left the David Offensend deal, the luxury tower replacing the  Donnell library. On right, the Janet Offensend deal, a luxury tower to replace the Brooklyn Heights Library replicating the Donnell deal.
The debacle of selling the Donnell Library, still infamous, was alluded to several times by the commissioners during the hearing as a generally acknowledged mistake (although the Revson funded Center For An Urban Future endorses it as model).  We have now passed the 8th anniversary of its sudden, secretive sale: The luxury hotel, condominium tower and restaurants the lucky developers to whom the property was handed got to build were up and running last March, but the tiny, underground, shrunken mostly bookless library to `replace’ the once grand Donnell is still nowhere in sight.

David Offensend was also working to sell the Mid-Manhattan Library and Science, Industry and Business Library as part of the Central Library Plan.  That’s the same plan predicated on removing 3 million books from the research stacks of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library and sending them to New Jersey, something hurriedly done before Bloomberg left office so that we are still trying get them brought back.

Commissioner Effron was not recused from the vote and voted just the way one would expect her to given all these previous efforts   Explanations for why none of the commissioners, including Commissioner Effron, recused themselves were offered in general terms so pinpointing what exact reasoning applied to each respective commissioner is difficult.  From what was offered it seems that, in the case the of Ms. Effron, the idea seemed to be that she didn’t have a conflict of interest because Sharon Greenberger, working with her the board of the Revson Foundation to set policy and provide funds to organizations promoting library sales, including the Center For an Urban Future, and former hedge funder David Offensend, working with her on the fund-raising galas for the Center For an Urban Future, were considered just “acquaintances.”  Chair Weisbrod suggested that to “just know” someone or have inconsequential dealings with them was not a concern. The Commission Counsel, Anita Laremont, opined for the board that “incidental business relationships” don’t create conflicts while Weisbrod similarly said that just to have “dealings with” someone doesn’t create a conflict.

What was perhaps intended by Chair Weisbrod to be the coup-de-grace in dismissing any idea that Ms. Effron could have a conflict of interest was that her long record of involvement with those pushing for these library transactions together with any of Commissioner Effron’s own committed involvements in promoting such library sales and shrinkage as Donnell, the Brooklyn Heights Library and the NYPL Central Library Plan, were “charitable.”  Mr. Weisbrod, reading from his prepared statement, referred to board member involvement in “charitable efforts to assist libraries.”

The Revson Foundation is a charity.  The Center for Urban Future is non-profit.  Spaceworks, receiving funding from Revson with a principle purpose (albeit with a real estate oriented bent) of shrinking and privatizing NYC public library space as “underutilized” is technically non-profit, Urban Librarians Unite, advocating for library sales is a non-profit and receiving funds from Revson is a non-profit.

Ms. Effron “has served on more than twenty boards”- That’s from Ms. Effron’s bio on the website of the Municipal Art Society introducing her as “as a New York-based real estate developer specializing in the revitalization of warehouses into multi-tenant manufacturing centers” from when she was a speaker at a “summit” in 2011.

Although BPL president Linda Johnson, who when she arrived at the BPL in 2010, the year before, told her board that the real estate plans were her priority, was also a speaker at the summit that should not be held against Ms. Effron because the speakers in 2011 were many and far ranging. Nonetheless, the Municipal Art Society has also been devoting it resources to the promotion of this and other library sales.  Worse, it stands as a prime example of how a charitable organization’s charted course can be commandeered and reversed.  As Noticing New York has covered before, the Municipal Art Society, once a bulwark for the public interest has started backing developments it once helped direct excoriating criticism at, handing out two awards for Ratner’s Atlantic Yards (once the “poster child” for bad development) and an award to the man who was viewed as having bollixed it up, Sharon Greenberger’s former boss and Bloomberg Deputy Mayor for Development, Daniel Doctoroff.

That a once powerful organization that could be depended upon to critique the excesses of the real estate industry has now, instead, been moved into the category of cheerleader (only occasional deference to its ostensible purposes still paid) must be extremely valuable to the real estate industry, “Better than money in the bank” to use an expression.

Sounds like a joke, but true story-  Two hedgefunders sit in a Mid-town Manhattan Starbucks.  “So what’s up?” says the first.  “I don’t know,” says the second sounding somewhat put upon, “They’re wanting us now all to get on the boards of 501(c)(3)s.”  

Why when you look at the LinkedIn profile for a young ambitions professional, a salesman/consultant/PR type always playing the angles, do you see the vaguely expressed objective of “getting on the board of a charity”?  Just any kind of “charity”?

With the percentage of nonprofit board members coming from the finance industry reportedly doubling since 1989, the increasing dominance of Wall Street financiers on charitable boards is raising concerns about how those institutions set their goals.

Charities should not always be presumed to be doing good in this world.  Forest City Ratner created “charities,” non-profits to promote Forest City Ratner's very much for-profit Atlantic Yards project.  With financial assists Ratner also induced existing charities to veer into the course of supporting his project, putting them at odds with the broader community opposition that soon arose.  Then Ratner essentially used one of the non-profits he created to run a candidate (Delia Hunley-Adossa) for City Council against Tish James, the City Council Member who was leading strong opposition to his mega-monopoly project.

Charities should not always be presumed to be doing good in this world, but the presumption that they are doing good can be like putting on a suit of armor for those from the business world who have other motivations.

In a May 30, 2015 New York Times Sunday Review Op-Ed, "Who Will Watch the Charities?," by David Callahan, founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, says "(W)e should end the charade that all philanthropy is somehow charitable," and gives multiple examples of why.

There are, of course, requirements under state law that the purposes of charities be truly charitable.  There are levels of regulation under the federal tax code intended to enforce concepts along those lines which the IRS is supposed to enforce.  State law is most often supposed to be enforced by the State Attorney General, (currently in New York State: Eric Schneiderman) but that is a political position, subject to the same sway of big money as may subvert the purposes of charities.  In all, there is much deference paid to the judgement of the supposedly charitable boards even when the decisions they make are suspect or bad.

Whether conclusive or not, that activities are denoted as “charitable” goes a long way to negate an inference of “financial gain” being sought.  The City Planning Commission concluded that, apparently largely because they were describing them under the rubric of  “charitable,” Commissioner Effron’s deep and repeated involvements with those shrinking libraries were not conflicts because, as such, she would not be considered to be using “her position to obtain a financial gain, contract, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect for . .  herself or for any person or firm with whom he or her is associated.”

In fact, in presenting how involved Commission Effron has been with promotion of library real estate deals Citizens Defending Libraries did not trace through any of her involvements to “financial gain” or attempt to say specifically whether she was receiving other “private or personal advantage, direct or indirect for . .  herself or for any person or firm with whom he or her is associated.”
The Effrons described by Muckety as a “power couple,”
Commissioner Effron is described by Muckety as one half of a “power couple,” her husband being Blair W. Effron, co-founder of New York based Centerview Partners, an investment banking firm based in New York City with offices in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

According to its website since its 2006 founding Centerview has:
advised on over $1 trillion of transactions. Our clients include over 20% of the 50 largest companies in the world by market capitalization, and we have been involved in many of the largest and most complex corporate situations and transactions.
The subject of conflicts of interest can be confusing and baffling in the challenge of its analysis, especially when one realizes that conflicts don’t necessarily have to manifest themselves in bilateral quid pro quos.

For instance, conflict can involve three-way exchanges.  When former Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland resigned in scandal one of the things that brought him down was the purchase from the governor of a “pied-à-terre” condominium unit at an apparently inflated price by an antiques dealer.  The antiques dealer, a Mr. Pratt, didn’t have any business dealings with Governor Roland and wasn’t trying to get any benefits for himself, but “Mr. Pratt's frequent business partner and closest friend” was Robert V. Matthews, whose companies “received $8.7 million in rent and $4.8 million in loans and loan guarantees during Mr. Rowland's tenure.”

Another example of how confusing things can be: Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, who (together with others such as Zephyr Teachout) writes about the problem of what money in politics buys at the expense of public good, has been making it clear that the corruption of money in politics should not be considered just the kind of particularized quid pro quos that the Roberts Supreme Court is trying to narrow things down to “a contribution” to a government official or candidate “in exchange for his agreeing to do a particular act within his official duties.”  It is instead a more systemic problem involving generalized understandings about how the interests of wealthy players will be served ahead of those of the general public.

This gets into questions of what the law is, or may be interpreted to be, versus what it . . .  Or as the refrain goes: “The crime is what’s actually legal!”  (At least when certain people are writing the rules.)

Thus part of the defense being mounted for former NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver against his criminal prosecution for corruption is that while there may be more or less broad belief on the part of the public that Albany is corrupt, and while what goes on there, even exactly what Silver was doing may make people “uncomfortable” it is not against the law because Silver successfully side-stepped leaving evidence of a technical ”quid pro quo.”

In his opening statements in Silver's criminal trial Silver’s defense attorney Steven Molo said of Silver and his the huge payments he was taking as alleged kickbacks (per the Observer):
. .  the government simply disapproved of the entirely legal fact that Mr. Silver and other state lawmakers can hold outside employment and, instead of trying to change such laws—which he said will present “inherent conflicts of interest”—the government was “leveling false criminal charges against one of the senior legislative officers, senior government officials in this state.”

 “It makes some people uncomfortable, but that is the system New York State has chosen, and it is not a crime,” Mr. Molo said. “The prosecutors are trying to make it a crime, but it’s not.”
A New York Post editorial chose to quote Mr. Molo on another aspect of the defense, everybody does it:
"It's impossible, absolutely impossible," argued defense lawyer Steven Molo, "for a member of the Assembly to .?.?. do the job that a person in the Assembly does and not have some sort of conflict of interest.
"That may make you uncomfortable," he added, "but that is the system New York has chosen, and it is not a crime."
That’s not exactly a you can’t be a “cloistered monk” defense, but it has an echo of it.

It’s worth remembering that Sheldon Silver, and similarly charged Republican Senate leader Dean Skelos also, may not be convicted.

The key to what’s actually kosher, or what ought to be, is what Sheldon Silver sought to conceal.  So, last Monday, testimony was taken from a staff member on the Assembly Ways and Means Committee about how budget reports were adjusted to conceal Speaker Silver’s involvement with “discretionary funding that Sheldon Silver had allocated to items of his own choosing.” 

It is worth noting that during the oral testimony hearing about the library sale, Commissioner Effron was conspicuous in her non-disclosure of her relationship with the Center for an Urban Future when eliciting testimony from its representative.

The possibility of conflicts on the part of the other City Planning Directors don’t involve charities.  Dismissing the possibility of their importance, Chairman Weisbrod said that they in some cases involved  “really ancient dealings.”  CPC Council Anita Laremont stated “Past business relationship is irrelevant. . . . Acquaintances, past business dealing, or incidental business relationships do not meet [the definition of conflict of interest].”

Not much of what was raised for the commission to consider about conflict of interest was all that “ancient,” except for one past involvement of Chair Weisbrod himself: Chair Weisbrod was the former head of the NYC Economic Development Corporation when the Ratner agreement about development of the property, then sought to be amended, was put in place for the adjacent Ratner building completed in 1986.  As for the real estate deals involving the Episcopal Diocese of New York and its pension funds purchase of a portion of the NYPL’s SIBL at 34th Street, the deal's inception looks like it goes back to 2007, but in 2012 there was a significant transfer of real estate, followed with a number of other transactions, some quite recent, and it looks quite likely that negotiations still continue respecting future possibilities.

While certain dealings could maybe be characterized as "ancient" the conflicts of interest law sometimes has a long memory with a “lifetime bar” (albeit narrowly construed) applying to city officials and employees ever working on the “same transaction” for someone else in the future.  While this “revolving door” prohibition invokes an elephant's memory standard, there isn’t a reverse counterpart that prohibits someone implementing a transaction for a private party then going into government and continuing to implement it further or consummate it there.

As for Chair Weisbrod’s previous involvement with the Ratner deal at EDC: Although not cited, he might have been able to excuse himself from a “lifetime” bar with respect to it by arguing that he was, at the CPC, once again working for government, not the private sector, so the bar should not apply.

A review of most of the other overlapping professional relationships of the commissioners show they involve more contemporaneous and/or possibly recurring situations.

For instance, Commissioner Orlando Marín has a professional association with the Bluestone Organization.  The Hudson Companies is the developer applicant wanting to buy and shrink the library.  Bluestone is a partner with the The Hudson Companies in another Brooklyn project, Gowanus Green.

Orlando Marín
Mr. Marín did not recuse himself, reportedly because he is not now with the Bluestone organization.  But when Bluestone was called up by someone seeking to check this information about when Marin left Bluestone, it was Commissioner Marin who answered the phone.  The explanation is, reportedly, that he operates as a sub-contractor.  We understand that answering the phone at Bluestone Mr. Marin was not happy and somewhat defensive, complaining about being “stalked.”  But, remember, there is nothing wrong about having a conflict of interest, the question is whether someone lets that conflict determine outcomes.  Conflicts should also not be concealed.

On September 22nd, after the commission hearing where oral testimony was taken, several of us there to defend the library had to wait patiently to talk to Commissioner Marin because David Kramer, whose Hudson Companies was a co-applicant asking for the library sale, was ahead of us conversing with  Commissioner Marin about business opportunities and who they mutually knew and who was doing what.  While it cannot be said exactly that Kramer was offering Marin business we as listeners agreed that it was very easy to interpret it as having that flavor, and the conversation was certainly reminder to Marin that they were in the same club with shared interests and point of view.

Later, after one of the commissioners’ meetings (Monday, October 5, 2015) where there was a follow-up discussion about the library before the commissioners voted, CPC staff shooed me away from talking to Commissioner Cantor (whose question indicated he was uninformed about the relationship between the Donnell and Brooklyn Heights libraries, including the Offensends).  I was told it was improper for the public to be talking to the commissioners while a matter was pending.

There is a back hallway at the City Planning Commission that leads to where the commissioners can be found before and after their meetings.  It is blocked by a sign that reads “Staff Only Beyond This Point.”  After the commission’s November 2nd voted to approve sale of the library to Hudson Companies, a witness excitedly reported seeing David Kramer pass beyond that sign, disappearing down the hallway.  Sounds like he knew his way.

Should Citizens Defending Libraries have raised these questions about conflicts of interest before a vote?  With any group, and this must be supposed about the commissioners too, there is a strong psychological impulse to “circle the wagons” and band together when any of its members are in any way questioned.  And while not all the commissioners were exposed to questions about the possibility of conflicts in this instance, the possibility of other other conflict being raised in the future is huge.  A little research in connection with other matters might expose nearly all of the commissioners to many such challenges going forward.  You might say that, thinking ahead to the future, they needed to defend how principled or not they have a right to be as a matter of principle.

Citizens Defending Libraries could have waited and raised these issues after the vote, but raising them after the vote seems lame, sour-grapes, and last ditch, less like you were honestly concerned about the issue from the get-go.  The actual fact of the matter is that, given the composition of the board and its history, the board could have been expected to vote the interests of the real estate industry club to which they belong no matter what.  Raising these issues explicitly as we did in advance in a context where the public interest was so clearly contrary to what the board decided at least helps light the way for those who will be dealing with the City Planning Commission in the future.

Chair Weisbrod dismissed the need for any other commissioners to recuse themselves somewhat disdainfully, sounding admonishing as he asserted that by raising these issues Citizens Defending Libraries “demonstrate a lack of understanding as to what constitutes a conflict of interest.”  To add authority to this assertion Weisbrod said that the CPC’s Counsel, Anita Laremont had discussed the issue with the city's Conflict of Interests Board.

Is the Conflicts of Interest Board exacting and tough enough to protect the public?  Some things it does will throw a convincing scare into people.  For example: As previously written about in Noticing New York, in 2009 the Conflict of Interest Board sought to fine a librarian $1,000 because, as a proud father, he promoted and gave away free copies of his daughter's new graphic novel version of  of "Macbeth." 

At almost exactly same time, the Conflicts of Interest Board was exempting the members of charitable boards, including those on the library boards, from newly enacted disclosure rules, doing so very much against the expectations of legislators who had passed the law.  It may be said that the tough rules are for small fry, not the big fish.

In 2009, the New York Times wrote about how the Conflicts of Interest Board was likely not so reliable for discerning conflicts pertaining to Mayor Bloomberg:  City Board Set Up to Monitor Ethics May Have Conflicts of Its Own, by David W. Chen, September 6, 2009:
But even as they scrutinize the ethics of others, several board members, all five of whom were appointed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, have ties to city funding and the mayor's fortune that raise questions about their own potential conflicts.

        * * * *
Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a nonprofit government watchdog, said, "There may be reason to question how strongly they are monitoring the activities of senior administration officials, given that they have ruled against a number of lower-level city employees for rather minor mistakes or judgments and then appear not to be as equally fair-minded in their review of higher-level folks."
Conflicts of Interest Board bias is likely to flow from who appointed them.  The five members of the Conflicts of Interest Board are appointed by the Mayor (with the advice and consent of the City Council).  When Mayor Bloomberg first took office, the COIB, its then members appointed by his predecessor, issued restrictions to prevent Bloomberg’s continued interactions with his Bloomberg LLP. terminal sales business.  Ultimately, those restrictions were not enforced when Bloomberg ignored them and kept calling up his business to check on terminal sales (mostly with companies doing business with the city).  The board that was not enforcing the restrictions transitioned to one Bloomberg appointed himself.
Anthony Crowell, on the Conflicts of Ethics Board and the Brooklyn Public Library Board, appointed to both by Bloomberg.  He was Bloomberg's special counsel.
Currently, three of the five sitting COIB members were appointed by Bloomberg.  One of those three is Anthony Crowell, a trustee of the Brooklyn Public Library, and former chair of the BPL's borad of trustees as the library sales were first pursued hot and heavy.  He was appointed by Bloomberg when he was Bloomberg’s special counsel.

Does this make it sound like the club that gets to decide who can do what is altogether too small?  In 2006 the Conflicts of Interest Board was asked whether Anthony Crowell being on the (charitable) BPL board (ultimately pushing for libraries sales) at the same time he was part of the Bloomberg administration constituted a conflict of interest.  He’s still on the BPL board so you can guess what Conflicts of Interest Board decided.

No matter, it is not really clear at this point what was communicated to the Conflicts of Interest Board in the recent discussions the City Planning Commission reportedly had with them nor which of them did what in reaching the conclusions that there were no other conflicts of interest that needed to be dealt with.

Here is what the CPC’s Counsel Anita Laremont stated for the record during the meeting:
in order for there to be a conflict requiring recusal . .  there would need to be a determination that a commissioner was attempting to use his or her position to obtain a financial gain, contract, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect for him or herself or for any person or firm with whom he or her is associated. . .  Past business relationship is irrelevant. Nothing in the various alleged relationships evidences an association of the type that would constitute a conflict or allow the conclusion that any commissioner was attempting to use his or her position for personal or financial gain or other advantage for themselves or others.  We remain unaware of any such relationship, beyond those of Commissioner de la Uz and Commissioner Douek who are both recused .
The relevant provision of the City Charter on this is Charter Section 2604 subsection 3, which prohibits public servants from using or attempting to use their city position to obtain any financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect for themselves or for any person or firm with whom or with which they are associated. . . Acquaintances, past business dealing, or incidental business relationships do not meet this definition.  In short, none of the claimed relationships here would require recusal for any of the named commissioners.
To be absolutely fair, although the overwhelming divergence of the commissioners' votes from what would obviously appear to be public interest cannot be readily explained without resorting to an examination of problematic ties to the real estate industry, not every one of the ten votes can necessarily be ascribed to possible conflicts of interest.
Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin, a particularly depressing vot because of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
The vote that was most depressingly troubling and not explicable in this way was that of Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin, the appointee of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin has no apparent conflicts or ties to the real estate industry. Appointed by Borough President Gale Brewer, she should have been expected to vote exactly as Gale Brewer wanted so long as it was the right thing, and Commissioner Levin comes across as very smart and informed so she must have known that voting for the sale and shrinkage of the library was not the right thing to do.  During the hearing she properly raised valid, on-target concerns about what was proposed: That this was a “one-shot deal,” a lack of a proper appraisal showed that the city was not even getting the “tear-down” value of an extremely valuable asset, how there was absolutely no guarantee that any of proceeds going to the city would ultimately be spent on libraries (the “main argument” for the proposed sale), that the BPL was selling the library without even bothering to design the “replacement” shrunken library first, she expressed concern about the imbalance and burdens between development and supporting public infrastructure when our educational infrastructure, schools and libraries get such short shrift.

She firmly expressed all these appropriate concerns during the early days of the proceedings and then she did that classic government maneuver that’s always startling whenever it is pulled in these situations: The day of the vote she obliquely announced that all her “concerns had been met” leaving it a mystery how that could possibly be.

Needless to say there is probably reason to be enormously disappointed in Gale Brewer as the probable influencer of this outcome.  It does not bode well with respect to the planned sale of SIBL being talked about that results in the shrinkage of the Mid-Manhattan library when “renovated.”  Further, it is already time to acknowledge that Brewer has not been the friend to SIBL one would hope and expect.

As Brewer’s appointee Commissioner Levin should also have voted against the sale based on Commission Chair Weisbrod’s indication that the sale of this public asset could be viewed (dangerously) as setting an interchangeable precedent for something Gale Brewer recently fought while still a City Council member: Selling public schools for redevelopment, putting them in the base of towers.  Indeed, although Citizens Defending Libraries offered caution about this and all its associated problems in its testimony, less than two weeks after the commission’s vote a report ran on WNYC, sounding like it had been placed by the de Blasio administration, a trial balloon for future PF.  It told us “Mayor de Blasio says” that the public should “allow developers to build taller and, in return, get things like new schools and libraries” in the buildings.  See: Dumbo Developer Proposes Schools in New Apartment Buildings, Friday November 13, 2015.
WNYC's report: Dumbo Developer Proposes Schools in New Apartment Buildings
Ironically, reporter Janet Babin’s WYNYC report is structured around “one real estate mogul” Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management in Dumbo who is “on board” making the proposal to do this “wherever there are new apartments coming on line” and uses the example of school space being put into Walentas’ Dock Street, Walentas proclaiming it “a model of how schools should get built.”   The report makes no mention of the sordid details of how the withholding of a more appropriate school was used to blackmail the community into approving a bigger Dock Street project for Walentas that the report holds up as a desirable example.

The report, biased in terms of time allocated and otherwise, lets Walentas make a sort of too-good-to-be-true-free-lunch pitch that by allowing a “bending the zoning code” by Mayor de Blasio we’d be creating “land for free” (Really?), and that “private developers can build schools cheaper than the city” and that the city spends “way too much money” building schools.  In asserting that there will soon be a “shiny new school” in the Walentas building the report skips mention of the controversial bait and switch the community is now dealing with in that respect.

The entire WNYC report offers just one sentence that offers a different point of view to counter what it hypes, but it’s a good one.  Maggie Spillane, a member of the community education council for Brooklyn Heights says: “I think for children, where they learn matters, and I don’t know that developers whose main interest is in selling apartments, really have the interest of the school children, sort of at the forefront.”  Her on-target observation, however, is undercut by the quickly following suggestion that a developer may want a good school to help sell apartments.

Think for a moment: Isn't the reason that we need our libraries and new schools because developers have gone crazy-wild building taller all over the place already?

How can the answer is to that problem then be to build even more and even taller?  (it's like those who say the answer to guns in schools is even more guns in schools.)  What happened to providing schools and libraries the old-fashioned way keeping pace with development, no hostage taking allowed?

Besides, why are we noticing that the result of letting the private developer Hudson Companies build super-tall (400 feet) on the site of the Brooklyn Heights Library is that the `rebuilt' shrunken library the public is getting in exchange, hardly a free lunch, is actually a significant loss, just one-third the size of the library the public, no private developer in sight, recently enlarged and fully upgraded in 1993.

Why is it that Gale Brewer apparently wanted her appointee to the City Planning Commission to set a precedent to approve the sale and shrinkage of NYC city libraries, likely followed by New York City schools in deals that drastically shortchange the public?  Why would she want to be seen as retroactively blessing the inexcusable sale and shrinkage of the Donnell Library?  An answer is that she may have had a deal with de Blasio.  In the larger scheme of things, that's OK, not a conflict of interest, if Borough President Brewer made a good trade, one that actually benefitted the public.  Horse trading and deal making is the basis for much of the way that government and politics operate.

But why would de Blasio want to be selling off and shrinking libraries, something he decried as he ran for mayor saying: 
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
The answer is that, shortly after saying this, de Blasio was taking money from the real estate development team looking to acquire the Brooklyn Heights Library while their application was spending.  Money in politics is not the kind of possibly prohibited conflict of interest we have mostly been talking about here, but in the big picture, money in politics represents interests that conflict with those of the public.

Reade Street, above the door when you enter City Planning Commission premises
The vote of the city Planing commissioners occurred at 22 Reade Street.  That’s sadly ironic because the commissioners voted to greatly curtail and take away space for New Yorkers to read. . .

. . .  Another irony: The Monday the commissioners voted to shrink library space the New York Times ran a front page story about how the troubling shortage of New York City library space often means that needs are not being fulfilled.  The article said that surging “demand for story time  . .   has posed logistical challenges” for NYC libraries “particularly those in small or cramped buildings.”  See: New York Times:  Long Line at the Library? It's Story Time Again, by Winnie Hu, November 1, 2015.
Citizens Defending Libraries tweet of New York Times story about inadequate library space.
You can't make this stuff up!

The City Planning Commission would have you believe that there were no conflicts that should have required any of the other commissioners to recuse themselves, a sort of `Move along folks, nothing to see here' kind of thing.  It's flabbergasting that, even by the very narrow constraints according to which the CPC would like to define and admit to conflicts that their answer is that there absolutely weren't any more conflicts at all to be recognized (or even asked about).  Beyond this, there is the bigger picture question of what is allowed to drive the planning commission and what the public would likely sense ought to be considered a conflict with an appropriate writing and interpretation of law.  That kind of analysis would likely call for more recusals in this instance and probably for a different, stricter approach to selecting who should serve on the commission in the first place.

Thankfully the City Planning Commission speaking for the real estate industry doesn't have the last say.  Whether the Brooklyn Heights Library should be sold and shrunk will now proceed to the New York City Council will confront the issue of setting this formidable precedent. Its first hearing will be 1:00 PM this Wednesday, November 18th in the Council Chambers at City Hall. The City Council is a body of elected officials.  There Stephen Levin, the elected City Councilman in whose district the City Council is in, will have a substantial say about the outcome.  At a previous hearing Mr. Levin said that "95%" of his constituents are opposed to this sale, that he wasn't able to walk "ten feet in district" without hearing about this issue and that it was the "#1 issue" when he was re-elected. . .

. . .  We'll see how this plays out.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Priorities To Be Replicated?: Private Luxury Now Abounding Where Former Donnell Library Stood, A "Replacement" Library Is Nowhere In Sight

"DO NOT ENTER" the library, still a construction site in the huge new luxury tower, but an "Opening Alert" went out last March inviting those who could afford it to come "Come sip cocktails in the Crystal-clad Baccarat Hotel" - Click to enlarge
Monday of this week the New York City Planning Commission for the first time voted, setting an very significant precedent, about whether we should sell our libraries as redevelopment projects, with our libraries and perhaps schools (if schools are sold as well) put at the base of new luxury towers. . . 

Today is the eighth anniversary of the announcement of the sale of the beloved and very important central destination Donnell Library across from MoMA on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Last March the luxury hotel, the luxury condominium building, the luxury restaurant replacing the Donnell Library all opened.  If you pass by the former Donnell site as I did the other day it will be clear to you that there will be no `replacement’ library there come next March 2016, the anniversary of these luxury openings.  That's even though, when the Donnell Library sale was announced in 2007 the public was told that the sale would produce such a replacement library in “no more than three-and-one-half years.”

Guest luggage headed in to the Baccarat hotel (a lit fireplace part of its entryway) and, on right, as seen from the outside, the bar at the entrance of "Chevalier," restaurant for the wealthy.
This arrival of private luxury in the Baccarat Hotel and condominium tower with no library in sight says volumes about what the priorities were when Donnell was sold off at a fraction of its value to the public: High-end amenities and more property and wealth for the richest come before democracy and the assets that serve us all.

Moved back yet one more time, NYPL's expected completion date become "Summer 2016".

In fact, a visit today to the New York Public Library website discloses that the current, relentlessly postponed expected completion date for the drastically shrunken “replacement” library (less than one-third the size, almost only just one-quarter) is Summer 2016.”  That's virtually the ninth anniversary of the announcement of the sale, approximately a year and a half after the opening of the luxury facilities.

That “replacement” library will be largely bookless and, unlike the now completed luxury facilities, mostly underground.  While it might be unknown how many books the replacement library will hold (when plans were announced the architects said they were given no direction on this), the luxury penthouse in the fifty-story building replacing the library is advertised as featuring its own private library, books lining the private space’s walls.
New York Times advertisement for the luxury condominiums in the Baccarat featuring the private library of the penthouse
The announcement that Donnell, one of Manhattan’s favorite, most heavily used, central destination libraries had been suddenly and secretively sold, its dismantling soon to commence, was like finding out one of your very best friends was in the hospital with a few more visits still possible, but, in all, on its way out with not long to live. Did the announcement maybe explain some previous recent manifestations of sickliness, a flutter in the library's heartbeat, as the NYPL administrators secretly withdrew resources, preparing to move Donnell to the terminal ward?

Besides the promise of a prompt restoration, much else that library administrators told the public when the Donnell sale was announced wasn’t true.

They said that Donnell would remain open for a year after the announcement, but it was closed only months later in the spring, virtually all its books banished.  (Because the library still retained a very few books on site for a while the NYPL obfuscates that the library didn’t officially finally close until the very end of "August.")
Books from Donnell headed elsewhere
The title of the November 2007 NYPL press release reads: “New York Public Library to Rebuild outdated Donnell Library Branch.”“Rebuild,” of course, implies that an equivalent library of the same size would be built, and the text of the press release contained no contradicting reference for the unaware about how the library was being shrunk.  Additionally, only a very careful reading of the New York Times coverage by an already informed individual would have allowed that reader to decipher intimations about the shrinkage.

When the sale was announced, the NYPL told the public that the buyer would build “an 11-story hotel building” on the site.  In truth, as later disclosed, the people involved in the negotiations for the property, including Jared Kushner, clearly envisioned something bigger, and a 50-story building was built instead.

The NYPL press release and Times reporting both asserted that “The Library will receive $59 million in cash” from the sale, without noting that. more importantly, the net amount obtained would be far less than only $33 million. . . Far less than only $33 million.for a 97,000 square foot library that had undergone substantial recent renovation at public expense?  The 7,381 square foot penthouse with the private library went on the market for $60 million. Another single lower level condo unit in the building, 43A, sold for $20,110,437.50.  There is also a 114 guest room luxury hotel in the tower and earlier this year Chinese investors made that hotel, according to the Wall Street Journal, "the most highly valued hotel in the U.S." after agreeing to buy it for "more than $230 million. . .  .more than $2 million a room."

What was being downplayed overall was how much this was not a deal intended to benefit the public, only one that was intended to hand off property to the wealthy.

There is the expression: “First in time, first in right.”  The completion of all the luxury components at the former Donnell library site so far ahead of any public elements suggests the appropriateness of flipping this to: “First in right, first in time.”

We have often, through history, spoken of the “prerogatives” of wealth, the “pre” in that word meaning before and getting to say (and get) what you want first.

That seems to be the way it is playing out here.

The restaurant on the site, Chevalier, looks very nice (the New York Times review says “it's pretty, but . . . looks like a movie director's idea of a restaurant for rich people” - “it’s a place where Bruce Wayne would have dinner”) and for those who can afford it, from the dinner menu, you can get a three course meal for $96, sides an additional $12 each.  You’ll probably want to have some wine as well because “Executive Chef Shea Gallante is available to work closely with each guest to create a unique, customized tasting menu complemented by a carefully chosen wine pairing.”  A review from “at the Sign of the Pink Pig” says “This is another wine-list which is unrelenting in its proffer of three-figure special occasion bottles.. . . Yes, it's very expensive: $200 per person is easily achieved, even with relatively modest wine, and I exceeded that.”

Customizing the menu and "wine pairing" assistance from the "Chef Shea Galiante"
With seating in the main area for 80 to 85 people, plus a 14-person Chef’s Table, and bar seating 15 they obvious have hopes to rake in a considerable sum.

Baccarat publicity photo
Chevalier is not the only restaurant in the luxury hotel and condo building. The hotel’s Grand Salon with “coyote” pelt upholstered chairs (yes indeed “coyote” skins!) charges more for its wine according to the New York Post review, an easy “$151.30 . . .  for lunch for two,” the Post commenting that the Salon: “targets the serious wastrels - -Eurotrash, oligarch wannabes, and hedge-funders and their dates.”
Even covered up by a cheery over-promising sign, you can see above how little work is in place for the "replacement" library.
With everything else complete and up and running so long ago, why is it taking so long to complete the public's library, if it’s not complete indifference?  It could be that the NYPL wants to minimize cost overruns.  Homeowners who have handled their own renovations likely have faced this trade-off: Being strict and on top of things with your contractors about price control, you are more likely to face delays, while, conversely, pushing to stay on schedule you are more likely to generate overruns.  The NYPL already admitted early on to facing $1 million in overruns in constructing its new version of a library.

But schedule delays have their cost too. Scott Sherman’s new book “Patience and Fortitude- Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library” about the NYPL's recent ventures in transforming its main Manhattan libraries into real estate deals revealed that the NYPL is paying a lot, every year, in rent for the temporary library replacing Donnell, the lease signed called for $850,000 for the first year (with possible increases thereafter).  So an extra year’s construction could cost an extra $1 million or so in rent . .
. . .  Remember the figure above that the NYPL netted considerably less than $33 million?  That’s the $59 million gross cash price received, minus $21 million to construct the new library, minus also the $5 million spent to outfit the temporary replacement library, equaling $33 million. . .  But from that $33 million must be subtracted each year of rent plus millions the NYPL has paid to consultants and PR firms to promulgate the idea that the very bad idea of selling this library was a good one.  What does that leave?: Maybe $25 million?
Design for NYPL's 53rd Street "replacement" library on left, apparently cribbed from design for "bookless" Japaneses library, upper right and looking a lot like the design for the Prada Flagship store, lower right.  - Click to enlarge

Another possible reason things are going slowly?: Library administration officials fear that the new library with its rather odd design that has nothing in common with the old Donnell will be unpopular with the public, especially a public that can remember back, and those officials may not be that eager to have the library come on line while other library sale and shrinkage plans are in the works or being conjured up.  The are indications that to avoid comparisons the NYPL may, in the future, be calling this the "53rd Street Library," not Donnell.
Both designed by Francis Keally: On left Grand Army Plaza which would become more cramped with sale of central destination Brooklyn Library on right.
Yes, there are, indeed, other library sales for redevelopment planned like the one that the City Planning Commission voted on Monday, involving the proposed drastic shrinkage of another major destination library, this time the Brooklyn Heights Library in Downtown Brooklyn.  It's Brooklyn's second largest library, designed, like a book-end, by Fracis Keally who also designed Brooklyn's other central destination library at Gran Army Plaza. Once again the library is proposed to be shrunk to about a third of its original size even though it was just enlarged and fully upgraded in 1993.  Once again a “partnership” benefitting a private developer will produce a luxury tower at the site.

Once again the public is being short-changed as a library worth $120+ million is being sold to net considerably less than the $40 million the BPL says it will get.  The BPL says it will cost $10 to $12 million to outfit its new library so it will net $40 million by selling the Downtown Brooklyn for a gross sale price of $52 million.  But it actually would come out to considerably less if the BPL does the math they refuse to do.  Based on Donnell’s figures it should cost closer to $17 million to outfit the (still undesigned) library, plus the BPL refuses to reckon the cost of moving and keeping books off-site or transferring Business, Career and Education functions to the Grand Army Plaza library where no additional space will accommodate them (there is no design for that either) but resulting construction will still be necessary.
On left a rendering of the luxury tower replacing the  Donnell library (David Offensed). On right, rendering of the luxury tower proposed to replace the Brooklyn Heights Library replicating the Donnell deal (Janet Offensend).
That this new deal so exactly replicates the Donnell deal should not be a surprise.  It was planned at exactly the same time and while David Offensend, the NYPL’s Chief Operating Officer, was implementing the sale of Donnell to be followed by other planned library sales, his wife, Janet Offensend, materialized as a trustee on the board of the Brooklyn Public Library involved in implementing this sale and shrinkage and an overall “real estate strategy” to similarly “leverage” all the BPL's library real estate.
The Donnell library was a five-story 97,000 square foot library, much of which had been recently renovated at public expense, with a state of the art media center,a new teen center and an auditorium that hosted valuable public forum and things like regular jazz performances.
What was different about this last Monday when the City Planning Commission voted, is that this was the first time the City Planning Commission ever voted to back such an absurd transaction thus setting a precedent of public approval for future sales.  Public libraries in New York City, run by “charitable” 501(c)(3) organizations, are almost all are owned by the City of New York and, under a City Charter provision intended for safeguarding public property, a section in something known as ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), such property cannot be sold to be turned into luxury towers, without public approval.  That's the reason the City Planning Commission voted on the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library.  By contrast, the Donnell Library was owned by the NYPL itself, not the city, and thus was one of a few rare exceptions to the ULURP requirement, which the NYPL took advantage of when rushing to secretly sell it.
Above, New York City Planning Commissioner which voted to approve the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library, just like Donnell, and whose chair indicates would be inclined to similarly approve sale of NYC public schools for redevelopment inserted into private towers.
The irony is that, while virtually everyone now acknowledges that the sale of Donnell has been an inexcusable debacle that should never have occurred, the City Planning Commission, eyes fully open, voted to approve this replication of the Donnell sale, thus setting a precedent for the sale of all New York City’s libraries. . .

. . .  And based on remarks made by the City Planning Chair Carl Weisbrod at the public hearing, he apparently considers it a precedent for similarly selling off New York City public schools for private partnership redevelopments.  If that happens, just remember who comes first in these private-public partnerships.
City Planning Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron who voted for the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library and who at the Revson Foundation and in other ways has supported and worked with those recommending sale and shrinkage of the NYC libraries like Donnell and Brooklyn Heights.  Part of "power couple," her husband Blair is an investment banker.
Here is one note of hope: The sale of the Brooklyn Heights central destination downtown library still cannot go through without City Council approval.  The first step in that approval is expected to be a November 18, 2015 hearing before the City Council's Land Use subcommittee on dispositions in the City Hall Council Chambers at 1:00 PM.

Citizens Defending Libraries, of which I am a co-founder, is fighting against the sale of these and other city libraries.  You can contact Citizens Defending Libraries to join in the fight and it will also certainly also help if you and everyone you know signs Citizens Defending Libraries’ most recent petition:

Mayor de Blasio: Rescue Our Libraries from Developer Destruction:   We demand that Mayor de Blasio, all responsible elected officials, rescue our libraries from the sales, shrinkage, defunding and elimination of books and librarians undertaken by the prior administration to benefit real estate developers, not the public. Selling irreplaceable public assets at a time of increased use and city wealth is unjust, shortsighted, and harmful to our prosperity. These plans that undermine democracy, decrease opportunity, and escalate economic and political inequality, should be rejected by those we have elected to pursue better, more equitable, policies.

Baccarat on right, the MoMA Museum tower that got special pushing-the-envelope special tax benefit and perhaps helped inspire the Baccarat on left
PS:  Has the Brooklyn library sale been window-dressed, as is par for de blasio's course these days, with some "poor-door" so-called "affordable" housing units in another school district more than a mile away, entitling the developer to a larger building, only five of those units in a really affordable range being large enough for families (even as de Balsio is shedding 14,000 NYCHA, truly affordable units?  Yes, quite indefensibly.

As for the other ostensible `difference' between the Donnell and Brooklyn Heights sales, that library administration officials can terminate the transaction with the Brooklyn Developer if the transaction isn't proceeding fast enough?:  It's not a difference, because the Donnell deal could have been terminated by COO David Offensend on essentially that basis and he simply didn't do so when he had the chance.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Was Library Administration Officials’ Campaign For Restoration of Library Funding Done With Great Fanfare A Victory? No. Was It Even A Great Campaign? No.

Caption to this "We Did It" photo sent by the NYPL: "You asked them to Invest in Libraries-and they did! Pictured, from left to right: Libraries Sub-Committee Chair Costa Constantinides, Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer"-  And what "did" they do?
There had been so much fanfare about it all and then, late Monday night, June 22, 2015, the public got news on the results of one of the most major campaigns for restoration of library funding that anyone can remember.  The campaign NYC Library administration officials ran, aimed at the de Blasio administration, was for restoration of progressive annual cuts implemented by the Bloomberg administration going back to 2008.  Was the campaign a success?: It was announced that libraries would receive an additional approximately $40 million* "for all branches operating within the five boroughs" over what had been in the "the mayor's office original plan to significantly cut library funding in next year's budget.". . .  Was the campaign even a good one?

Sadly, the answer to both these questions is NO!
(* Introductory background note on the figures:  Perhaps it's indicative of just how casually a few paltry million is thought of in the scheme of things, but the restoration of funds was variously reported and discussed as being in the amount of $39 million, and alternatively, without explanation, in the amount of $43 million.  Initially, the New York Times reported the restoration amount to be $39 million on June 22, 2015.  Similarly, $39 million is what was discussed as the figure from budget negotiators on June 24, 2015 on the Brian Lehrer show.  A City Council press release announcing the restored funds on June 26, 2015 oscillates, stating the restored figure to keep branches open as $39 million in one place, and $43 million in another.  Ultimately, library PR started consistently using the $43 million, which my discussions with the NYC Independent Budget Office indicate is probably the correct number.  A recent New York Times article by Ginia Bellafante that sought to convey with emphasis that libraries that might be sold off have gotten a lot of money recently stated the figure to be $46 million, but that was probably a typo or a miscommunication between Ms. Bellafante and the library administration spokespeople she was communicating with. . . . However, dirty little secret, the actual increase to funding this 2016 funding year over the prior funding year is just $35 million, the statement of the greater $43 million figure is because de Balsio was actually proposing to cut funding from the previous year's level.)
It Hasn't Been Reported, But A Confused Public Needs To Know. . . 

These questions were asked of me by a reporter in connection with an article that might have been written.  Time has passed and that article has yet to be written so I think it's time to write it myself.  Full disclosure: The reporter contacted me because I an a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, an organization that has been fighting for adequate funding for New York City Libraries, one reason being that we don't want underfunding of our city's heavily used libraries to be used as an excuse to sell them off.

Based on what has been written and appeared in the news media to date, the public would be pretty confused about what happened, including being confused by the fact the campaign was declared a victory and the PR pushed out by by library administration officials PR that has led to goofy, misleading statements like this one in the Times: "The city’s 2016 budget includes the largest increase in operating and capital funding for libraries in the city’s history."

In reality, failing to get a restoration of the Bloomberg cuts they identified, library administration officials got $22 million less funding for libraries from Mayor de Blasio on the operating side than they asked for and they should have been asking for even more money overall.  The Bloomberg administration's intentional deferral of capital expenditures for the libraries has not been adequately addressed so that needed repairs for libraries will not be made and this lack of funding will be cited as a reason to sell off significant library assets at bargain basement prices.

Is it truly fair to say library administration officials ran an ineffective campaign for the restoration of library funding? How could it be that when, with the campaign that they ran, every major New York City daily editorialized that proper funding to the city's libraries should be restored: The New York Times, the New York Post, the Daily News, The Observer, AM New York (as a key tool to narrow the city's income gap), and the Staten Island Advance?  Good points were made by all getting important messages out.  For instance, the Times editorial cited its columnist Jim Dwyer who had pointed out that in the last 8 years at least $620 million has been spent on just three sports arenas, (the Ratner/Prokhorov "Barclays" arena included) and that this amount was 1.37 times the amount spent on libraries serving seven times as many users.

Said the New York Times editorial while citing that Dwyer piece:
Mr. de Blasio leads a city where the corporate and entertainment infrastructure are seldom neglected. Citi Field, Yankee Stadium and the Barclays Center, to name just three, are beneficiaries of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds . .  while schools and libraries languish.
The reason it is fair to say that the campaign was actually not the campaign that it needed to be is that the big picture of what went on is that the fight for more library funding was fundamentally flawed: It was hamstrung by starting out not asking for enough, asking essentially only for a compromise . . .  Worse: The campaign did not clearly state what was at stake.  Doing so would have been important to rally the public.  . .    When your starting position is to ask for what is only a weak compromise what you are likely to get, and what we got, was a compromise on that requested compromise.

Libraries have always had to fight for funding, but we used to fight for funding to enlarge our libraries as we were doing through to the end of the Giuliani administration and before him under Dinkins.  Now the money we need is so that there isn't an excuse to sell off in our libraries in a weird program of self-cannibalizing funding that sacrifices and drastically reduces our overall assets, selling libraries like Donnell, the 34th Street Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) and Brooklyn Heights for a fraction of their value.

Libraries are one of the top priorities of the public.  They cost the merest fraction of the budget to fund.  Usage is way up.  They supplement what we spend on schools and more than pay for themselves economically although their real value in terms of democracy, society and culture is fuller than that.

The public absolutely does not want libraries underfunded and the public certainly does not want to face the doomsday scenario that libraries are so underfunded that the public will be told that unrepaired libraries need to be sold off and shrunk.  The funding campaign waged by the library administration officials did not ask for the amount of money we need so there will be no excuse to sell off libraries like SIBL or the Brooklyn Heights central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn.  The library administration officials' campaign did not tell the public that without proper funding we would be selling our libraries.  Any real threat like this should've been trumpeted!  It wasn't and most of the public still aren't aware libraries are threatened by such sales.

Why did library administration officials hold back and not make the case for funding sufficient so that libraries won't be sold?:  These very same library administration officials are pushing these real estate deals, which are, in fact, juicy handouts to developers.  This amounts to a perverse incentive to underfund libraries. .

. . .  The current level of underfunding began after Bloomberg secured his third term and as plans to sell and shrink libraries, citing underfunding as an excuse, were launched.

Listen To Young Adult Fiction Writer Judy Blume
The following was from an April 25, 2015 “Invest In Libraries” campaign email, “Are you there Mr. Mayor? It's Me, Judy Blume,” sent out by the Libraries. .  In this case, for purposes of the email, the words were put in the mouth of author Judy Blume asking New Yorkers to sign a letter to Mayor de Blasio asking for more funding (emphasis supplied):
Librarians are the protectors of intellectual freedom. They are the defenders of books and imagination and thought. They are on the front lines, working every day to improve literacy, to close the digital divide, and to spark creativity in everyone who walks through their doors.

Despite this role, NYC libraries have been cut $65 million in annual operating funds since 2008. They are down hours and about 1,000 staff members. If that funding was restored to the City's three library systems, the total budget for public libraries would be less than half of one percent of the total City budget. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Take a moment. Literally just about 30 seconds. Tell Mayor de Blasio and the City Council that our libraries are worth more.

Additionally, library buildings themselves are not up to par. The City's 217 branches need $1.4 billion worth of maintenance and renovations over 10 years. They leak. They are overcrowded. They don't have enough outlets. Really? This is not acceptable.
There's nothing to disagree with here.  And it's eloquent.  But where is the mention that without proper funding major libraries, significant capital assets will be sold?

Next, notice that the Blume email observes that since 2008 (when Bloomberg was launching library sales plans) library operating funding has been cut $65 million.  Wouldn't you imagine that anything less than a restoration of those requested $65 million in funds would be a defeat?  One would think so, but although the revised budget de Blasio agreed to restored significantly less everyone involved in the ineffective campaign was willing to proclaim victory as if the public wouldn't notice the still missing funds.  And the public, being told that a victory had been achieved might, indeed neglect to remember the figures in the Judy Blume email.

Declarations of Victory- Really?

Here is a June 30, 2015 email (Subject: "Subject: Major Victory for NYC Libraries!") from the NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito declaring a victory in the library funding campaign fight:
In case you missed the good news, this past week the New York City Council adopted a balanced, fiscally responsible budget for Fiscal Year 2016  that includes $43 million in funding for our city's libraries.  

With this funding, branches across all three library systems – the Brooklyn Public Library,  the Queens Library,  and the New York Public Library (which serves Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island) – will be able to stay open six days a week!

We also successfully persuaded the Mayor to commit to a $300 million 10-year capital plan to help maintain and revitalize these vital institutions.

Our thanks to you and everyone else who helped make these important victories possible!
Here is a similar June 24, 2015 email declaration of victory sent out by Brooklyn Public Library president Linda E. Johnson:
Dear Library Supporter,
This is a great week for Brooklyn Public Library.

On Monday, we learned that Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Council have reached an agreement to increase funding for public libraries in the City’s budget.

Here from NYPL President Tony Marx’s June 30, 2015 “Big win for NYC's libraries” (alternately to others it went to the same day “The big news, and a big thank you”) with a huge “We Did It!” banner:
 New Yorkers spoke out. And City leaders listened.

We're thrilled to report that the Mayor and the City Council announced their agreement on the budget: The City will increase libraries' operating budget by $43 million. We'll also see a significant increase in the budget for taking care of our aging buildings.

This is the largest single increase of operating funds in our history and will allow for 6-day service across the city, plus more books, programs, and increased research library services.

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We are so grateful to Mayor de Blasio, City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, Council Finance Chair Ferreras, Majority Leader and Cultural Affairs Chair Van Bramer, Sub-Committee on Libraries Chair Constantinides, incoming Libraries Chair Andy King, and all the members of the Council for this historic increase, which provides great momentum for the future.

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We at the Library have been honored to have been a part of this campaign, which showcased the best of New York.

"We Did It!"  Did What?

The banner said “We Did It!”   Whether that's true all depends on what your definition of "It" is.

If "It" means that New York City libraries will continue to be underfunded, then they did "It."

If "It" means that New York City library administration officials will proclaim that library funding is now at a level so low that libraries need to sold and shrunk as a result, then they did "It."

If "It" means that all of the above can be true ans still let library administration officials, the New York City Council and the mayor proclaim this "the largest single increase of operating funds in our history," then they did "It."

This is the "It" that these officials apparently think means that they can tell the world they ran a great campaign even while libraries are underfunded and in jeopardy of sale, a sort of sweet spot where they probably expect much of the public will be lulled into thinking there is no longer anything to be on guard against, that its interests were vigilantly protected. . .  This sweet spot was steered into almost as if by magic.  Were smoke and mirrors involved?

What enables the proclamation that this is this "the largest single increase of operating funds in our history"?  Partly it's a budget dance.  The actual increase to funding this 2016 funding year over the prior funding year is really just $35 million.  The statements describing the increase to be $43 million instead is because Mayor de Blasio was actually proposing in his original executive budget this year to cut funding from the previous year's level.

Last year, the first year for which Mr. de Blasio was in office to propose a budget for libraries, City Council members in the their budget hearings gleefully announced that with Democrat de Blasio in office the "budget dance" was over.  The "budget dance" engaged in routinely and cynically by Bloomberg involved gaming ploys to distract attention and energy by proposing cuts to the public's beloved libraries that the Bloomberg administration never, ever intended to fully implement and then letting the city council fight and take credit for reducing them.  The good news that first de Blasio budget year was that the dance was theoretically over and that de Blasio somewhat increased library funding over the prior year's Bloomberg budget, even though he by no means made up for all the past Bloomberg cuts.*
(*  That year de Blsio also derailed the NYPL's central library plan, cutting off its funding, although, somewhat inconsistently, he did not simultaneously recapture for other uses plus city oversight and scrutiny the $150 million in city money that had been associated with it.)  
 This year during budget hearings the City Council members were forced to acknowledge that the "budget dance" was back with City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer stating that what they were fighting for this year was not a "restoration" of funds but a "restoration of a restoration" of funds.

Library Administration Officials Commanded Significant Resources to Hit This “We Did It!”  Sweet Spot

Library administration officials and those with them in the lead on this campaign were able to commandeer significant resources with many like Judy Blume, significant personages appropriately eager to fight for the libraries.  One would hope that Ms. Blume and these others would consider that their contributions to the fight were well used.

For instance, on  June 8. 2015, the NYPL ran and ad in the New York Times with a list of supporters which included really big names like Robert A. Caro  Malcolm Gladwell, and Tony Kushner.  At the bottom of the page it said the "Advertisement paid for by NYPL Board of Trustees Chair Evan R, Chesler and NYPL Executive Committee Chair Abby S. Milstein."  Ms. Milstein is from the Milstein real estate family.

Others signing the advertisement statement that "The world's capital of opportunity deserves better" included: Vincent Alvarez, Kurt Andersen, Paul Auster, Rabbi Andy Bachman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Judy Blume, Andy Borowitz, Phoebe Boyer, Rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl, David Byrne, Geoffrey Canada, Graydon Carter, Mario Cilento, Vin Cipolla, Edwidge Danticat, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, Junot Díaz, E. L. Doctorow, Jennifer Egan, Héctor Figueroa, Reverend Floyd H. Flake, Jonathan Franzen, Neil Gaiman, Henry Garrido, William Gibson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Adam Gopnik, Kim Gordon, Annette Gordon-Reed, Philip Gourevitch, Vartan Gregorian, George Gresham, Ethan Hawke, John Hockenberry, Jenny Holzer, Siri Hustvedt, Sherrilyn Ifill, Walter Isaacson, Jennifer Jones Austin, Maira Kalman, Imam Khalid Latif, Paul LeClerc, John Legend, Jonathan Lethem, David Levering Lewis, James McBride, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Toni Morrison, David Nasaw, Victor S. Navasky, Harry Nespoli, James Patterson, Darryl Pinckney, Richard Price, Francine Prose, Ruth Reichl, Anthony D. Romero, Oliver Sacks, Stacy Schiff, Anna Deavere Smith, Colm Tóibín, Javier Valdés, Reverend Michael A.Walrond, Jr., Tom Wolfe, Jacqueline Woodson, Sheena Wright, Tim Wu.

Notably, this list includes individuals who, like Citizens Defending Libraries, were plaintiffs in lawsuits against the NYPL to halt the NYPL's Central Library Plan, an ill considered real estate boondoggle involving library space shrinkage and library sell-offs: David Levering Lewis and David Nasaw.  Similarly, it includes now recently deceased E. L. Doctorow (a professor of mine at Sarah Lawrence) who supported the Committee to Save the New York Public Library (of which I am also a part and which has coordinated with Citizens Defending Libraries) joining in criticism of that Central Library Plan.  Tim Wu, last on the list, was candidate for Lieutenant Governor of New York on the ticket with Zephyr Teachout who held a rally with Citizens Defending Libraries decrying the library sell-offs and sales on the steps of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library during their campaign.

The energy of all these individuals wound up supporting a campaign that steered into falling short of the mark, and consequently the prospect of turning libraries into real estate deals. What if some of these individuals could, alternatively, have put their energy into a campaign with higher standards and demanding a better deal for the public?

In the strange bedfellows department, some of the individuals in this long list, former NYPL president Paul LeClerc and Muncipal Art Society president Vin Cipolla were involved with launching or supporting library sell-offs and shrinkage, individuals who would not have wanted this grand campaign to steer a different course.

Celebratory Endorsement While Underfunding Persists

Still others were similarly broadcasting to the public that they were endorsingly enthusiastic about this sweet spot that had been hit.

Brad Lander, who has been working hard to turn libraries into real estate deals for a number of years now, emailed his constituents ( 6/26/2015):
“I am especially excited about . . . six-day service at all our public libraries: Thanks to an additional $43 million, every public library across NYC will be open 6 days a week. This has long been one of my priorities – and it was made possible this year by an incredible “Invest in Libraries” campaign that involved many of you.”
From Urban Liberians Units "Happy Dance" post about the level of funding for the libraries
Urban Librarians Unite is a group that was formed contemporaneously with the launching of the library sales and which has managed to find itself on the supporting side of all the proposed variations of library sales that have materialized since then, posted, on July 29, 2015, its "Library Budget Happy Dance FY16":
It’s starting to feel real now. In June, libraries in NYC received an additional 43 million dollars in operating funding, something we have been fighting for for 6 years. . . .  

. . .   It’s completely awesome and a little bit overwhelming, but real. Definitely real.
We did it. YOU did it. Thank you to all the letter writers, elected official callers, 24 hour read in readers, postcard collectors, researchers, petition signers and city council testifiers. You were so loud that libraries couldn’t be ignored.
Underfunding of Libraries Now Cited As Reason to Sell Them

Has the de Blasio administration restored New York City library funding to anything near sufficient levels? On Wednesday July 15, 2015, a community board in Brooklyn, Community Board 2, voted to sell off and shrink down to just one-third size a major destination library in burgeoning downtown Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Heights Library, for a very low price.  That library had not long ago, in October 1993, under a previous administration, the Dinkins administration, been greatly expanded and completely upgraded at with city funding reflecting appreciable public expense and sacrifice. . .

. . . .The reason for the sale of this public asset worth probably $120 million or more to net the city selling it significantly less than $40 million?: The community board said there was no other alternative to address the lack of city funding.  One of the CB2 board members pushing for the sale and shrinkage of the library, William Flounoy, chairperson of the Economic Development and Employment Committee, speaking of repairs (the air conditioning) that haven't been made at the library said"There's no money in the system to maintain it."

Meanwhile, another major library, the Science, Industry and Business Library, built at considerable expense ($100 million) when it opened in 1996 (also with a special focus on business and career functions) is similarly on the sales block for the same reasons.

Must the answer be to now sell and shrink libraries?  In a Brooklyn Magazine article about how in the aftermath of the proclaimed funding victory capital needs of the libraries still remain desperately unmet, Christian Zabriskie, Executive Director of Urban Librarians Unite, says selling the Brooklyn Heights Library (probably SIBL and others too) is the "pragmatic" thing to do because "libraries don’t really have any assets other than the buildings,” as if the purpose of publicly paid for libraries is to pay financial tribute or spin off assets.  Libraries are long-term capital assets that took years to build and acquire.  Rather than rush, wouldn't it be better to wait and continue the fight for restoration of the small amount of funds needed?  Remember Ms. Judy Blume's informing us above that, "If that funding was restored to the City's three library systems, the total budget for public libraries would be less than half of one percent of the total City budget.". . .

. . .  that "less than half of one percent" is what the entire budget would be, not the still missing fractions needed to end de Blasio's carry-ever of the the Bloomberg cuts.

In a recent Ginia Bellafante New York Times article promoting the sale and "redevelopment" of the Heights and other libraries, Zabriskie ridicules the idea that there could be such alternatives: "We would obviously prefer it if buildings weren’t sold off. But it’s the real world. I’d rather ride a unicorn to work, but I can’t.”   This ridicule about the possibility of adequate funding comes from the man that Urban Librarians Unite, in its "Happy Dance" post about funding touts "just never freaking stopped" when it came to library advocacy?

The Underfunding Is Recent, Peculiar To the Bloomberg and de Blasio Adminstartions

The Brooklyn Magazine article quotes David Woloch, Executive Vice President of the BPL who says that in Brooklyn alone, capital needs are a “problem that has been growing for a really long time, for decades” making the current funding problems seem perhaps all the more insurmountable.  But this is disingenuous.  Going just one `decade' back would take us to 2005, and Bloomberg's NYC and BPL deferrals of capital repair expenditures doesn't commence until November of 2008, although the plans to sell and shrink libraries that occasioned them may well go back to 2005. . .  Going back two 'decades' gets us to 1995, the era when under Dinkins and Giuliani we were enlarging and upgrading libraries, including the Brooklyn Heights Library.

Giuliani's expansions continued to the end of his administration carrying over into the first years of the Bloomberg administration that started January 1, 2002.

Mr. Woloch once worked at the city department of transportation for Iris Weinshall, senator Schumer's wife, who now as COO at the NYPL is selling off SIBL, completed as part of a major publicly paid for expansion in 1996.    

Selling Libraries Is Amounts To Public Loss, Not Generation of Funds For the Public

Providing another disingenuous rationale for selling off the Brooklyn Heights library Mr. Woloch and Mr. Zabriskie have advanced the idea that (ignoring any associated public losses), according to Zabriskie, the sale "will generate revenue to repair other branches in lower income areas. The sale of this one library will benefit many."

In point of fact, the money from any sale goes back to the city, not the library.  Although the BPL is, in connection with the proposed Heights Library sale, moving four identified libraries to the head of its list for city capital repair funding of some of their needed repairs there is no guarantee that after whatever lobbying and beseeching is done money will come back to the libraries after this bird-in-the-hand asset is sacrificed and, in the end, there is no way to track things through to show this to have been the case.  Further, some would say the BPL moving these four libraries to the head of the list is just a cynical political move to buy support from key local elected officials at the unfair expanse of other libraries equally or in greater need of funding.

Lastly, although the sale will "gross" a $52 million price for the city and the BPL it has many attendant expenses the city and BPL will have to pay for, including, but not limited to, $16+ million to outfit the new much smaller replacement and a yet to be determined or revealed amount, probably again many millions, to cram shifted functions into the Grand Army Plaza where no additional space will be created to accommodate them.  The BPL has not opened up its books on this, but in the end, the sale could net close to or less than zero.

Zabriskie also invokes his own "library science" analysis to justify his conclusion its a good idea to sell and shrink the Heights library.  I am not a librarian and I don't play one on TV, but given the greater expense of digital books and the fact that the public prefers physical books we would beg to take issue with Zabriskie's expression of his professional opinion on this matter.

Was the campaign for restoration of library funds a successful campaign?  No. Neither that, nor a good one.  As the most recent Citizens Defending Libraries petition to Mayor de Blasio (Mayor de Blasio: Rescue Our Libraries from Developer Destruction) states:
Selling irreplaceable public assets at a time of increased use and city wealth is unjust, shortsighted, and harmful to our prosperity. These plans that undermine democracy, decrease opportunity, and escalate economic and political inequality, should be rejected by those we have elected to pursue better, more equitable, policies.
The campaign has left us exactly there, in a place where we are selling those precious assets.  Only those who think that this is a good thing or believe that this was legitimately the intent of the campaign should believe that it was a good and successful one.