Sunday, April 1, 2018

Reimagining Our Library Spaces: Where Once There Were Books There Will Now Be “Maker Rooms” To Be Named Appropriately After A Famous Hedge Funder and Presidential Candidate

"Major" changes are coming to Brooklyn's Gran Army Plaza Library with name changes to reflect the future and sponsorship
Do you know about the “Major” changes they are making to our libraries, perhaps particularly as exemplified by the changes in the works at Brooklyn’s last central destination the library, known up to this point in time as the Grand Army Plaza (“GAP”) Library?  The changes being made are so extensive that everything is getting renamed.  The library won’t be called a “library” anymore, but an “Information Center.” Inside, all the rooms will be renamed after a hedge funder acclaimed for creating value through corporate restructurings who may yet run again successfully for president.

But first, speaking of holding elected office, did you know that Brooklyn Public Library is making a big thing about its announcement via BPL president Linda Johnson that the GAP Library is being renamed after Major R. Owens a librarian who went on to become a prominent, revered black congressman representing Brooklyn.  Major Owens died in 2013.  That was that the year that the BPL announced that it was starting to sell shrink and sacrifice libraries for real estate deals, “the most valuable ones first,” like the Pacific Street Library next to Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards and Brooklyn’s second-biggest library the central destination Brooklyn Height Library in Downtown Brooklyn also adjacent to Forest City Ratner's property.
The changes being made at the formerly named GAP Library and the plans to now name it after Major Owens are the reason that the New York Times just ran an article descriptive of many of the changes (In Brooklyn, Modernizing a Library for Downloads and Robots, by James Barron, March 25, 2018) that begins by recounting a dream Major Owens is said to have once had:
Major R. Owens once dreamed that an alien spaceship had landed and that the creature that clambered out told the first person it encountered, “Take me to your librarian.”  When the alien was brought to the library [“information center”?], his human guide pointed up and said, “look up in the sky, it’s a librarian, it’s a robot, it’s a . . . 
Why should a dream about librarian-seeking aliens and robots commence a New York Times article about the how libraries are changing?  It may seem far out, but good explanations will come to those who wait.

First, let’s talk about the rest of the visionary renaming of the spaces within the library.  Lest the Major Owens renaming seem too populist or bookish, other spaces in the library will be renamed for achievements that more customarily get recognition in our society.  The 42nd Street Library has now been renamed by the NYPL the “Stephen A. Schwarzman Building” (or the sassy sounding “SASB” for short).  Mr. Schwarzman, still very much alive, is for anyone who doesn’t know, the head of the Blackstone Group and now the first Corporate CEO to pull in an annual income exceeding $1 billion.  Naming the “building” after Mr. Schwarzman is not only good for the burnishment of his brand, it inspires democracy by helping to encourage everyone else to follow in his footsteps in being alert for ways to achieve similar wealth . .  . And so that they too may have their exploits chronicled by the likes of such famous authors as Jane Mayer.

The sassy SASB is the central jewel of the NYPL system.  The renaming of the spaces at the BPL’s central jewel, spaces at the GAP Library will be in a similar vein and may help another recognized financial wizard to burnish his brand, which means perhaps also helping him politically in the future.  The name change will also help the BPL get across what it has to offer and the message it intends to send to its clients.

The BPL is focused on how to repurpose its library spaces for the 21st Century and the 22nd Century.  “We are looking to the future,” says BPL president Ms. Johnson hardly suppressing her glee as she borrows the Buzz Lightyear phrase to say that with our library information centers we are headed “To Infinity and Beyond!”  What does this mean?  It means the new repurposed spaces will all meet the standards of what is called in the new jargon for transforming libraries, “Makerspaces.”
Here is more to let you know how exciting information center makerspaces can be if they are for young adults (from the Young Adult Library Services Association):
Makerspaces, sometimes also referred to as hackerspaces, hackspaces, and fablabs are creative, DIY [“Do It Yourself”- exciting!] spaces where people can gather to create, invent, and learn. The focus, actually, is on the type of learning that goes on, not the stuff.  Making is about learning that is: interest-driven and hands-on and often supported by peer-to-peer learning.  This is often referred to as connected learning.  Also, you don’t need a set space to facilitate this type of learning.  You can have pop up makerspaces at various library branches, afterschool programs, community centers, etc.  Or you can set up a ‘maker cart’ that can travel anywhere in the library.  Perhaps what your teens need most are maker backpacks that are stuffed with resources and activities they can do at home.*
(* NOTE: "At home"- No expensive library space needed!)
Of course, makerspaces are flexible spaces so they can be a lot of things, and they don’t have to be for the youth.  They are also intended for adults.  Going back a few years, the BPL has already converted much of its space at the future Major R. Owens Information Center (MROIC “pronounce it `More-ick’,” suggests BPL PR officer  David Woloch) into conference rooms that can be used by “makers” starting new businesses or needing “gateways to technological tinkering” for their work.

There was one problem with our makerspace efforts,” said Ms. Johnson, “but we have the solution now.  The term `makerspace’ has been around far too long, since 2006 when we were first telling the public of big changes for our libraries.  The term has lost its pizzazz.  We like to keep mixing up the terminology so when we use so it always sounds fresh and convincing when we say we are doing future oriented things nobody has yet been able to conceptually grasp.  `Makerspaces’ was the term back when we first introduced in alongside `STEM’ education. For excitement purposes we now often mix it up now by referring to `STEM’ a lot of the time to ‘STEAM’ education.”

Ms. Johnson then presented her big news: “We have a brand new name for these makerspaces, and we do mean `brand.’  We will now be calling them `Romney spaces.’  That is honor of Mitt Romney when he was a presidential candidate so memorably differentiating for us that our society is composed of `makers’ and ‘takers.’” Ms. Johnson continued on to say that they had further refined to term that would usually be used to clearly indicate that upscale clientele they hoped to attract to the spaces should have fun in them by calling the spaces: “Romney Romping Rooms.”

Ms. Johnson explained that affixing the Romney name to these spaces to highlight the maker/taker dichotomy would help her and the library in its mission a great deal.  For instance, Johnson said that people often reacted negatively when articles like the one in the Times wrote sentences like “among many other things, the plan for the central library calls for replacing two levels of old-fashioned `stacks,’” Ms. Johnson said that if she could just more succinctly say they were doing away with all the “taker” spaces in the library she would get a better reaction.  Henceforth all the space in the library not devoted to the Romney Romping Rooms will be designated and described as “taker” spaces.

Similarly, while doing a presentation for Open House New York the other day, architect Francine Houben, working for the NYPL to remove books from both the 42nd Street Central SASB library and the Mid-Manhattan Library (in a consolidating shrinkage) got flack for saying that “stacks” that could not be easily removed from the libraries and done away with at the whim of the trustees were “problematic.”  Not surprisingly, the NYPL, in sync with the BPL and Queens Library, will also be dividing up their spaces into Romping Room spaces and “taker” spaces.
Much of the former GAP Library will be closed for many years to create the Romney Romping Rooms, but the BPL already has plans to ensure that they are a success when they open.  The BPL will open them with a special overnight event.  The BPL has already had several all night 7:00 PM to 7:00 AM nights of Philosophy and Ideas.”  Repeating this wonderful idea, the “makers” of Brooklyn will be invited to fill the Romney Romping Rooms for an all night inauguration.
Coverage of a previous BPL philosophy night when attendees were not required to walk the tightrope of Bain Capital's prescribed philosophy  
“Previously, we didn’t steer the ideas under discussion so much,” said BPL spokesperson David Woloch, “but in honor of bequeathment of the Romney name we will provide a focus this time.”  Mr. Woloch said that libraries are about “information,” and that being “a `maker’ in a DIY, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps society is about capitalism” so that putting the two together the focus for the evening would be virtues of “information capitalism.”

Click to enlarge
Mitt Romney’s own Bain Capital has been gathering together some of the suggested reading material.  Included is a selection from John E. Buschman’s Dismantling the Public Sphere- Situating and Sustaining Librarianship In the Age of the New Public Philosophy where he summarizes an overview of thinking from Frank Webster setting forth what he sees as the tenets of “Information Capitalism.”  Although what was presented was intended by both those authors to be a critique of “Information Capitalism,” the executives at Bain thought it was a spectacularly well put description of what they believed in and ought to promulgate.  Those tenets were summarized as follows:   
    •    The ability to pay is now a major criterion determining provision of high-quality information.
    •    Provision is made on the basis of private rather than public supply.
    •    Market criteria are the primary factors in deciding what is made available.
    •    Competition for funding (as opposed to a steady tax or tuition basis) is coming to be regarded as the appropriate mechanism for organizing the economics of librarianship.
    •    Commodification of information is the norm.
    •    Private information vs. public is favored.
Makers coming to spend the night to discuss “information capitalism” will be invited to bring and change into their pajamas.  “We think this will help us corral a lot more young people,” says Woloch, “something that’s very important to us.”   In addition, following its new principles the BPL now holds no events without partnering with private sector partners.  In this case it will be partnering with Victoria's Secret and Flap Happy, another pajama manufacturer.  Models from  Victoria's Secret will stroll through the Romping Rooms modeling night lingerie, “which should certainly help with our young male attendance” says Woloch.  The BPL is not breaking any new ground here: Britney Spears unveiled her new lingerie collection in the Celeste Bartos Forum of the NYPL’s sassy SASB in 2014.
In 2014 Britney Spears howed off her new lingerie (right) in the Celeste Bartos Forum of the NYPL’s sassy SASB (center) while the SASB stacks (left) were empty of books
Flap Happy will be donating free pajamas for those who don’t bring their own.  What kind? Rompers with feet of course.  The Rompers will have the Bain Capital Logo embroidered above a (not so vintage?) Romney presidential campaign buttons.  Bain is also partnering in the event and Flap Happy is one of the companies, now manufacturing in China, that has been through a Bain restructuring that stripped out excess value.

“We expect we may start implementing modest charges to use the Romney Romping Rooms,” confessed Ms. Johnson. “Modest charges are a way of testing whether makers are really and truly real makers. . . plus it will serve to reduce the absurd cost and burden on society of maintaining libraries.”  Ms. Johnson says the charges, the kind of thing that was previewed by the BPL when it was turning over library space free of charge to Spaceworks, a private company with good intentions like Bain, “does not mean that we are privatizing the space.”

“Our libraries have always been a public commons,” says Ms. Johnson, “but we are talking about ushering in the future and while the libraries continue as a commons in that future we understand that commons in terms of having evolved and kept pace with the future to become the neo-commons that makes sense today.”

The Times article about the changes in the library tells us that Congressman and former librarian Major Owens was always referred to the “Librarian in Congress” a play on the “Library of Congress.”  The BPL’s David Woloch is frank when he is asked about why the library is being named after Major Owens:
Several reasons: There is the fact that Major Owens was black and we have to cover over and divert attention from how harmful what we are doing to the libraries is, most particularly to people of color and those who are not so very wealthy.  Then there is the felicity of the name `Major.’  When you are consolidating and shrinking libraries it makes those libraries seem bigger if you can call them `Major.’  In fact, where we used to call this particular library the `central’ library, we are revising it to call it the system’s `major’ library, so it will be a `Major Major Library.’
“I know that’s sort of Hellerish thing to do,” Woloch told the Times reporter making sure reporter was “Catch 22ing” that he was making a “literary allusion.”

Chris Owens, son of Major Owens, a musician, singer-song-writer, politically active as a District Leader, former candidate for political office himself, and an activist who fought Atlantic Yards says he is not going to be fooled by the BPL naming anything after his father.  He says:  
Anyone who accepts what they are doing to the libraries by turning them into real estate deals and eliminating books with space conversions is getting `booby prizes.’  It’s unacceptable.  My father was Democrat and nobody is going to allow his name to be wrapped around a bunch of Romney Romping Rooms named after a Republican looking to fleece the public.  Now that the BPL has announced the intention to use my father’s name they’ve booby-trapped this for themselves because come time to cut ceremonial ribbons we will call them out on this.
Chris Owens went on to link it into the Atlantic Yards fight:
We fought Atlantic Yards and we fought Bruce Ratner.  We know that the first two most valuable libraries the BPL wanted to sell, Pacific and Brooklyn Heights were both adjacent to Ratner’s Forest City sites.  We know that the person who prioritized those libraries for the BPL’s sale came from Forest City Ratner. We are not going along with any of this cover-up.
So why did the Times begin its article about what the modernization of a library by recounting a dream about librarian-seeking aliens and robots?  Why were “Robots” referred to in the Times headline for the article?

BPL robot librarians
It was possible to refer to “Robots” in the headline because the article explained how the library makerspaces could now be used by makers to build robots.  The BPL’s Woloch also bluntly explains there was another reason: “We asked the Times to put `robots’ in the title of their article. People were regularly Googling to find a Noticing New York article about how the BPL is on the cutting edge of introducing robot librarians to replace the real ones.  Putting`robots’ in the title of the Times article helps divert attention when people are looking to find out how soon we might really be shifting to robots librarians.”

But to be fair, there is real talk about using library `Romping’ spaces for various sorts of robots to roam.   Architect Francine Houben, working for the NYPL, has suggested that the new central atrium of the soon to be renovated Mid-Manhattan Library will be an excellent place to test fly robotic drones before procuring a license to fly them outside, especially if sight lines are improved by the oft suggested removal of bookstacks.  Such robot drone flying includes test flying swarms of new nano-robotic bees.
New Mid-Manhattan atrium space- According to architect Architect Francine Houben a perfect place to fly drones, even better if the book stacks are removed as suggested.
Yes, it is possible to imagine a future where, when you visit a library, you will be met by a flying drone and, surprise, it will be your librarian ready to serve you.  (Such flying robotic librarians would also solve surveillance challenges in keeping track of what patrons read.)

But why aliens?  Does it seem creepy that everyone these days is suddenly always bringing up extraterrestrial aliens?  Fox News, New York Magazine, Saturday Night Live, even on the front page of the New York Times?  Is everyone having the same dream?  Like in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”?

Here is the creepy thing.  The NYPL is selling the biggest science library in New York City (SIBL, the Science, Industry and Business Library) to the son of a librarian, a man who became wealthy beyond belief through his knowledge of science.  The man leads a life like he is hell-bent desperate to be written into a James Bond novel, a feet of the world’s largest yachts, a fleet of vintage warplanes, building the largest airplane in the world, building a plane to go into space.  His name is Paul Allen.  Mr. Allen also had a sci-fi sort of dream that could relate to what a landing alien in the future might find if they land: A dying or threatened civilization that can only save itself t it can find the trove of knowledge it needs.

What, additionally, is Mr. Allen spending his money on now besides privately acquiring NYC’s biggest science library?  He is spending muti-millions of dollars on trying to discover the extraterrestrial aliens out there!  And now, just so you know, that is absolutely true, notwithstanding that this article has been an April Fool’s article written satirically for your amusement even as it riffs off far too much else that is unfortunately too, too true.  (If you want to know how real such threats truly are to our libraries, go to Citizens Defending Libraries, of which I am a co-founder, and there you will find facts galore.)
Something more that is true: At the last Brooklyn Public Library trustees meeting on February 27, 2018, where trustees were given copies of the NYPL's the BPL's updated "strategic plan", the creatively titled (but hard to type) "Now➔ Next."   At the same time, the trustees were told that a substantial portion of the Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn’s biggest library would be closed for a long while the library is “modernized” and, as described by the Times, its stacks eliminated.  What’s more, as was clear with what else the trustees were told the meeting there will be other libraries concurrently off-line: The central downtown Brooklyn Heights Library, once Brooklyn’s second biggest library and the only other central destination library is closed and now a hole in the ground as it is substantially shrunk, pushed more underground and its books largely eliminated as it is replaced by a supertall luxury tower (its Business, Career and Education Library has virtually disappeared), the Sunset Park Library will be shut down as it becomes a real estate project, construction will similarly put the Brower Park Library into the Children’s museum in another consolidating shrinkage, the Greenpoint Library too is getting `modernizing' construction.  Creation of a DUMBO library as an experiment in teeny-weenyness was supposed to pick up some slack, but the trustees were told they haven't yet found the teeny-weeny space for it.  This will be as Mid-Manhattan the city’s largest circulating library is closed for book-eliminating “modernization,” the 42nd Street Central Library where books have been eliminated undergoes work and, as mentioned, SIBL, the city’s largest science library is sold to Mr. Allen, its science library eliminated.

That said, in the spirit of April 1st let’s put just a few more last words in the mouth of BPL spokesperson David Woloch:
In today’s day and age of the internet, the inconvenience of temporarily closed libraries matters less and we’ve steadily removed a lot of the books from the shelves ahead of time in tests that proved our conclusion about this to be true.  These extended concurrent closures of library space will also help people forget what libraries were in the past while letting them get used to not having libraries in the present so that in the 21st Century future people won’t even know what they are missing when we reopen our doors of those spaces we have, for the time being, still kept, to experience our fabulous Romney Romping Rooms.  Besides, in the interim, we are partnering to send our library patrons off to city museums with a new “One-Pass” or "NYC culture Pass" Museum visit program.  This is great because Museums are themselves partnering with profit making partners seeking attention with sensational blockbuster shows.  Moreover, in the future, for greater efficiency and cost reduction we may further meld our infotainment institutions, so who knows what we will then be asking people to get used to or to do without.
For real: Linda John before the BPL trustees on February 27th ad they are told about a "culture pass" to send patrons to museums.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

With No Irony, No Trepidation, The New York Times Publishes Story About Micro-Housing That Mimics Our April Fools' Story For 2017

Come on everybody: The New York Times just ran an article about "extreme ideas" for solving housing crisis problems that suggests people take up compact living in drainpipes . . . . .

. . . . Didn't people read our Noticing New York article done for last April 1st?
See: A Giant Leap Forward Into Tiny Benefits: Bloomberg Micro-Apartment Initiative Shrinkage Grows Under de Blasio, Saturday, April 1, 2017.
At this rate what the heck are people going to be able to produce for April Fools' Day that will safely constitute genuine satire without the truth catching up too fast?

Monday, January 29, 2018

Reporting About Multiple Troublesome Real Estate Deal Connections Between Presidential Son-In-Law/Advisor Jared Kushner and Presidential Advisor Stephen A. Schwarzman, New York Times & Press Overlook Connections, Including Library Sale

Stephen Schwarzman and Jared Kushner captured in black tie together in 2007 around the time the Donnell Library sale was being concocted.  Schwarzman with Trump running his economic forum where the public infrastructure he wants to privatize was discussed.  Graph information about the benefit Schwarzman's Blackstone is getting from a Kushner-negotiated deal with Saudi Arabia for selling American infrastructure and where public employee pension fund money is being taken from to benefit the Trump family.  New York Magazine dubs Kushner the nepotistic "President-In-Law."  
Last August when the New York Times reported on the economic benefits of being politically connected to Donald Trump as president (The Benefits of Standing by the President, by Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Ben Protess and Michael Corkery, August 19, 2017) it came up with an impressive seemingly one-stop-shopping list of real estate deal connections between presidential son-in-law/advisor Jared Kushner and presidential advisor Stephen A. Schwarzman, the head of the Blackstone Group.  Of course, the bigger topic lurking was conflicts of interest.

As impressive as the list was when compiled, the question is what did it still leave out?  One thing it left out was the a library shrink-and-sink deal, the sale of the Donnell Library once owned by the NYPL, for a minuscule fraction of its value in what was essentially a no-bid transaction arranged in secret.

Here are the Kushner/Schwarzman transactions the New York Times listed in their article that day: 
•    In 2013, (before Mr. Trump was a candidate), Blackstone financed the purchase of warehouses and industrial buildings by Mr. Kushner’s family company.

•    Blackstone also made a loan, which has since been paid off, to Kushner Companies on a Rector Street property (2 Rector Street) in Manhattan.

•    In the summer of 2016, an entity controlled by Blackstone lent $376 million to Mr. Kushner’s company to purchase a large property in Brooklyn that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had operated for many years.

•    Separately, Mr. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, invested up to $500,000 in a fund that Blackstone manages.

•    Mr. Kushner urged the staff at his Commercial Observer newspaper, to place Jon Gray, the senior Blackstone executive at Blackstone who runs Blackstone’s real estate business, higher on its list of “Power 100” real estate executives and in 2016, Mr. Gray was No. 1 on that list.  (Blackstone is the largest commercial real estate investor in the world.)
And adding context, consider which is most important:
•    Mr. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka, attended what many described as the obscenely lavish 70th birthday party Mr. Schwarzman held for himself in February 2017 at his home in Palm Beach, Fla., near Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

•    Mr. Schwarzman speaks with Mr. Trump as much as once a week, typically (the Times tells us) “about the economy though also about social policy.”
•    When the national economic policy forum that Trump had created and put Schwarzman in charge of imploded following Trump's embarrassing racist Charlottesville comments, Schwarzman called Jared Kushner to give Trump a heads-up. Then, with the panel not yet announcing it was disbanding, Trump tried to claim it was his initiative.  (Infrastructure had been a key topic for the forum's moguls.)
A few months before the Times article, Bloomberg News zeroed in on the Kushner Schwarzman connections.  See: Kushners' Blackstone Connection Put on Display in Saudi Arabia, by Caleb Melby and Hui-yong Yu, May 25, 2017.

The Bloomberg article was far more direct in how it linked a $20 billion Saudi investment in Schwarzman’s Blackstone not just to Trump, but specifically to Jared Kushner and to a $110-billion arms sale to the country Kushner concurrently negotiated to the country noting that Schwarzman was with Kushner and Trump in Arabia when these deals were negotiated:
When Saudi Arabia announced last week a $20-billion investment in a U.S. infrastructure fund managed by Blackstone Group LP, many noticed that it came shortly after presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner personally negotiated a $110-billion arms sale to the country. What went unnoticed -- and is largely unknown -- is how important Blackstone is to the Kushner family company.

Since 2013, Blackstone has loaned more than $400 million to finance four Kushner Cos. deals -- two of which have not been reported -- making it one of the business’s largest lenders. And their ties go beyond the loans. Stephen Schwarzman, Blackstone’s co-founder and chief executive officer, heads Trump’s business-advisory council and was in Riyadh with the president and Kushner. The Saudi promise to invest in Blackstone’s fund drove the firm’s stock up more than 8 percent.
The Bloomberg article thoughtfully included a chart to make explicit how much Blackstone stock had gone up when Blackstone nailed, as the Times described it, “one of the biggest deals on Wall Street this year.”
By contrast to the earlier Bloomberg article, the triple-bylined Times article somehow neglected to mention the stunningly huge Kushner-negotiated arms deal at all, a deal which has all sort of implications given that Saudi Arabia is currently busily using its U.S. supplied arms to bomb and cut off food and water to the people of Yemen.  It’s not exactly fair to think that this arms deal is even hinted at by Times statements that, “Other deals involving chief executives with ties to Mr. Trump were announced during his visit to Saudi Arabia” or “In all, there were more than 40 signed agreements between Saudi Arabia and largely American corporations, including General Electric and the defense contractor Lockheed Martin.”  Nor should we be expected to cleverly discern the information when being told that the “guest list” for the business meeting that the “Saudis scrambled to put together . .  on the same weekend as Mr. Trump’s visit” included “an oil executive, defense contractors and a college president.” 

Given that the Bloomberg article had let the cat out of the bag covering the major points of the Kushner/Schwarzman real estate relations in May, the toned-down write up by the Times of essentially the same facts in August almost comes across as damage control together with a dutiful  checking of the box for the paper of record obligated to cover what is obviously major news.  Much of the Times article equivocally explained that there may or may not be indications of quid pro quo in Schwarzman’s and Kushner’s dealings and it almost sounds like an apology for Mr. Schwarzman being in Riyadh to say that:
Dozens of chief executives from across the United States faced pressure over the meeting. Some of them, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they had felt they had no choice but to go if they wanted to do business in Saudi Arabia.
The Times article takes a sort of have your cake and eat it too approach, one that’s almost schizoid, about whether it is truly suggesting to its readers that there is anything bad about economic benefits that flow from being politically close to Trump and Kushner.  (With multiple bylines pastiched did some reporters have cake while others ate it?)  The article quotes  Schwarzman furnishing this profundity: “Public service is a core value for people of my generation . . . It’s a great privilege to be asked to help the country — even if it occasionally comes with some degree of criticism.”

The article also includes comments about Mr. Schwarzman from Kathryn S. Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, a regular go-to person for quotes who can be depended upon to say nice things about powerful people.  Sinking any last possibility that the article’s ambiguity doesn’t do its job the article contains this direct statement: “There is no suggestion that Blackstone did anything wrong.”
Nevertheless, the Times probably figured that they were leaving a sufficient trail of crumbs for any readers priding themselves on being astute about such things to read between the lines and between the ambiguity and the denials.  That includes those readers who would intuit the sort quid pro quo they consider abominable, as well as those eager to know what Mr. Kushner and Mr. Schwarzman are up to so that they can keep up with the competition and abreast of the latest tactics and status of what people can get away with.

The Bloomberg article writing about how “the sequence of the deals and the intertwined personal relationships of the principals raise concerns about conflicts of interest” is also different from the Times in that the Bloomberg article reported on the lack of transparency.  It said that of the “$400 million to finance four Kushner Cos. deals” that Blackstone has loaned since 2013, two “have not been reported.”  More specifically, that Blackstone “was quietly financing two Kushner endeavors,” that although documents didn’t show it, Blackstone was among the project lenders giving Kushner an “$88 million loan for the property at 2 Rector St.,” and that a “similar arrangement enabled Kushner Cos.’ purchase of five Jehovah’s Witnesses warehouse and printing buildings” and “again, Blackstone was among the undisclosed partners.”

This lack of transparency is an essential ingredient of the story.  It should not be glossed over.  It was wrong for the Times to neglect to mention it.

In May the Wall Street Journal reported how Kushner improperly didn’t disclose (just forgot to?) business ties and $1 billion in loans he owed with “personal guarantees to pay more than $300 million of that.”  (See: Trump Adviser Kushner’s Undisclosed Partners Include Goldman and Soros- Investments show ties to major finance and technology names, by Jean Eaglesham, Juliet Chung and Lisa Schwartz, May 3, 2017)

More specifically (and the list below includes Blackstone declining to comment):
Lenders to Mr. Kushner, either directly or via properties he co-owns, include Bank of America Corp. , Blackstone Group LP, Citigroup Inc., UBS Group AG, Deutsche Bank AG and Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC. Royal Bank of Scotland didn’t respond to requests for comment; representatives of the other firms declined to comment.
The Times did eventually report separately about Kushner’s lack of disclosure (separately is not such a good thing), but in another example of the Times lagging months behind, it was finally reporting only in November about non-disclosures previously reported by others. 
The potential conflicts extend from the cabinet to the West Wing. Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, an adviser whose portfolio ranges from Middle Eastern peace to government technology, revealed over the summer that he had failed to disclose dozens of assets on his initial government ethics forms.

    “It is precisely because we have extraordinarily wealthy individuals running the government that we have no way of knowing what the conflicts of interest really are,” said Gary Kalman, executive director of the FACT Coalition, a network of anti-corruption groups. “They use complex structures to hide their money, both domestically and abroad.”
See:  Too Rich for Conflicts? Trump Appointees May Have Many, Seen and Unseen, by Nicholas Confessore, November 10, 2017.

Another layer texturing the information about the $20 billion Saudi investment in Blackstone is that the money is seed money for deals to privatize American public assets.  So you can bet that $20 Billion will be generating scads of spin-off deals.  Those deals may not benefit the American public, in fact you can expect them to diminish the public domain and the wealth of what is publicly owned, but beneficiaries like Jared Kushner are not likely to be far away.  The sale of the Donnell Library in which Kushner and Schwarzman each participated on opposite ends of the transaction, was essentially a prototype for the kind of selling off of public property that we ought to anticipate Saudi/Blackstone funds will be used for.  The Blackstone fund is looking to mobilizemore than $100 billion of purchasing power for infrastructure projects.”

There is more texturing to the Blackstone/Kushner/Saudi/Military arms deals to consider if you think about that how tight the behind-the-scenes alliance has been between the Saudis and the Israelis.  The same trip Trump and Kushner took in May going to Saudi Arabia also involved flying directly to stop in Israel next.  The Times noted more recently about that stop in Israel:
Last May, Jared Kushner accompanied President Trump, his father-in-law, on the pair’s first diplomatic trip to Israel, part of Mr. Kushner’s White House assignment to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Shortly before, his family real estate company received a roughly $30 million investment from Menora Mivtachim, an insurer that is one of Israel’s largest financial institutions, according to a Menora executive.

The deal, which was not made public, pumped significant new equity into 10 Maryland apartment complexes controlled by Mr. Kushner’s firm.
(See: Kushner’s Financial Ties to Israel Deepen Even With Mideast Diplomatic Role, by Jesse Drucker, January 7, 2018.)

When the New York Times finally got around to reporting about the nondisclosure of potential conflicts of interest by Kushner on his ethics forms and other Trump advisor/associate ’s business engagements that are generating potential conflicts of interest, it reported that among the investments Mr. Kushner initially failed to publicly disclose was a real estate technology start-up called Cadre.

According to PR published on the web, Ryan Williams, the “co-founder” and face of Cadre, a young (29-year-old) black fellow from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who came from Goldman Sachs, had just recently started working at Blackstone’s real estate private equity group when he started “thinking about a new endeavor — disrupting the real estate industry at large,” i.e. starting Cadre.  He says that Blackstone had “approached him about working in their real estate group given his technology experience.”  (See: How this 50-person startup is planning to completely transform the real estate industry, by Taylor Majewski, April 5, 2017.)

As “Thrive Capital” Jared Kushner and his brother Joshua Kushner are backers and strategic advisers to Cadre.  Cadre’s offices are in the Kushner owned Puck Building.  In other words they are very much involved.

In a March 1, 2017 Real Deal article (Trump assumed the presidency January 2017) Ryan Williams explained his closeness with the Kushner brothers, styling himself as a metaphorical third brother:
Every day, I speak with Josh Kushner. Josh, an investor through Thrive Capital, brings his tech domain expertise. He played an incredible role early on helping to seed us and give us the capital to build the business. Josh and Jared are both like brothers to me. Jared was an adviser and not involved operationally day to day. He was always a great sounding board for us.
Assessing this undisclosed close business relationship that Jared has with his brother Josh, it is worth bearing in mind that when Jared Kushner wanted to contend that he was taking appropriate steps to deal with his conflicts of interest he transferred some of his questionable assets to  brother Joshua and to a trust overseen by his mother. Such laughably useless gestures are the family M.O. when it comes to ‘resolving’ conflicts of interest with Donald Trump putting his own business interests in the hands of his sons, Eric and Donald Trump Jr.  Ivanka, Trump’s daughter and Jared’s wife, similarly retains the benefits of her business “empire” through such trust and close family relationships.

The Times has editorially worried that the Saudi Arabian government might try to exercise influence over Donald Trump through companies that Trump Organization recently established in that country wanting to do real estate deals there.  Meanwhile, one of the Trump Saudi trip deals, unveiled concurrently with the Schwarzman infrastructure privatization investment and the arming of the Saudis, was for the Saudis to put $100 million into the hands of Ivanka for a “new foundation” she was proposing.

When quid pro quo arrangements (possibly illegal) are bilateral, i.e. people connected by being each on one side of a single transaction, it is easier to conceptualize, comprehend and identify them. When organizations are huge, diffuse and ubiquitous, identifying problematic conflicts of interest can be much more challenging. Some people think it’s sufficient to conclude that the system is defective if you know powerful players view themselves as all being in the same club looking out for each other.  Maybe so, but with multiple players and possible combination there are a lot of variations in between the simple bilateral and the `we are all in the same club' mentality.  They can be very hard to spot. 

When Connecticut Governor John Rowland resigned in 2004 in a bribery scandal one of the bribery schemes that was uncovered was an exceedingly difficult to detect three-way: Bribing the governor by having an antiques dealer pay him nearly twice the legitimate value when purchasing a condominium from him, while one step removed, that overpayment was funded and reimbursed by a business man who had the real interest in bribing the governor buying antiques from the dealer at an inflated price.

How do you spot these things, or know with any certainty when they have or have not happened?

Back in May WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz produced a story alerting the public to another business deal partner quietly helping to fund Jared Kushner projects, an outfit called CIM Group, a private equity company based in Los Angeles.  (See: Trump and Kushner’s Little-Known Business Partner, May 25, 2017)

The story told how “CIM has done at least seven real estate deals that have benefited Trump and the people around him, including Kushner.”  These include:
    •    Kushner’s $340 million purchase of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower (“one of the biggest real estate transactions in Brooklyn history”).

    •    The trouble plagued Trump SoHo that could have gotten Trump family members criminally indicted that CIM rescued with “a reported $85 million lifeline.”  (Family investors include Donald Trump and his children Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Jr.)

    •    200 Lafayette Street, an office building.

    •    2 Rector Street, an office building.

    •    85 Jay Street, a parking lot in Brooklyn, (“for an eye-popping $345 million.”) 
The story raises a slew of concerns about CIM’s trustworthiness and its interest in influencing politicians including with donation of “tens of thousands of dollars to a series of statewide political action committees.”  It quotes Konrad Putzier, a reporter for the Real Deal magazine saying that “CIM stands out as being very secretive.”  It quotes Laurent Morali, the present president of the Kushner Companies saying of CIM that they “can work through complicated situations, are thorough and strategic.”

The story sniffs around for the traditional bilateral sort of quid-pro-quo concerns saying that the “full extent of CIM’s government ties is not known,” while telling us that public disclosure documents show that CIM “received annualized rent of $37.7 million from the General Services Administration and other federal agencies” and that it has “pursued an array of lucrative government contracts, pension investments, lobbying interests, and a global infrastructure fund, all of whose fortunes could benefit from a Trump presidency.”

And the article reports that CIM has gotten a great deal of its money from public pension funds.  This, with concerns of pay-to-play overtones when political donations are made, is something that Schwarzman’s Blackstone has also been involved in.  WYNC links to the information that public employee pension funds in at least seven states (California, New York, Texas, Arizona, Montana, Michigan and Missouri) have invested in a CIM fund benefitting Trump and his family.
From Reuters, the seven states where the money from public employee pension funds is going to help the Trump family.
As noted, WNYC was sniffing for problematic overly-cozy bilateral arrangements.

Here is something more to think about-  Schwarzman’s Blackstone also does business with CIM.  Blackstone did the following two deals (reported in 2017) with the CIM Group that could be viewed as infusing cash into the business:
    •    Blackstone Real Estate Partners bought 211 Main Street, an office building in San Francisco from CIM for $312.9 million or $750 per square foot, according to sources that were aware of the sale.  CIM reportedly acquired the property in 2009 for $113 million. (“Blackstone declined to comment when contacted for this story.”  March 29, 2017)

    •    The Blackstone Group provided a $360 million loan to CIM Group to finance 1440 Broadway according to a December 21, 2017 article in the Real Deal.
Conflicts of interest in government are a diminishment of the public realm because they mean, by definition, that decisions being made are slanted to be more beneficial to private interests than to the public whom government officials are supposedly in office to serve.  The idea that the public realm is susceptible to being sold off is what then makes infrastructure deals, selling off publicly owned American infrastructure, just as Schwarzman’s fund is setting up to do, such juicy attractions for the greedy.  The private plundering of the Donnell Library with Kushner on one side and, on the other, Schwarzman in a position of public trust as an NYPL trustee, is a prime example of just how heinously detrimental to the public the looting of its assets can be. . .  But we are increasingly at the mercy of those in power who would seek to enrich themselves by diminishing the public realm, claiming its various dismantled parts as their own territory.

One final symbolic irony, perhaps even an irony that’s forcefully intended: In 2011 a new slogan was raised, a cry adopted and resonating across the country, recognizing the public as the “the 99%” while power and  wealth were being wielded with increasing destructiveness by the “1%.”  It was raised by Occupy Wall Street a protest movement that took to the street and seized Zucotti Park in New York City in order to be publicly heard and seen.  Zucotti Park was once named Liberty Plaza Park, before it was renamed in honor of a real estate lawyer. . .

I’ve written previously in Noticing New York about how Zucotti Park and its occupation directly raised the question of the public realm and how we are shrinking the public domains both physical and cultural that the public is still permitted to occupy.

Although Zucotti Park is dedicated and supposed to be for the public, it is technically privately owned by an adjacent property that got zoning bonuses for providing the public with the park.  Ever since Occupy Wall Street was forcible evicted from the park, tight private ownership control has been exercised over the park to ensure that such meaningfully expressive protests don’t erupt there again.  The latest news about Zucotti: Schwarzman’s Blackstone acquired 49% ownership* of it and the adjacent building.  A trophy intended to be symbolic of someone’s victory?
(* NOTE: If you know real estate, you know the various structures whereby 49% can be actual control.)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

This Year’s Seasonal Reflection: Yes We Are Now Living In Ratnerville, Locally and Nationally, And Yet We Hope And Work Towards Something Different

From our Thursday, December 24, 2009, A Christmas Eve Story of Alternative Realities: The Fight Not To Go To Pottersville (Or Ratnerville),
Every year since 2009 Noticing New York has engaged in the tradition of a seasonal reflection post as we reach the cusp of the new year.

The theme, borrowed from "Its' a Wonderful Life," has been that if enough is not done to oppose greed and the usurpation of our public commons and community we wind up living in "Pottersville," the fictional dystopian town that Bedford Falls became when the selfish banker Henry Potter (not Harry Potter) took it over when men who could not keep their spirit and will to fight alive let the greed triumph.

The theme has been that in the real world the fictional "Pottersville" is an all too real "Ratnerville."  That's "Ratnerville," as in Forest City Bruce Ratner taking over the entirety of a neighborhood for a monopolistically controlled megadevelopment.  Or you may recognize it equally well today as "Jared-Kushnerville" another New York City Developer, or recognize it by the name of Kushner's father-in-law, Donald Trump the nation's Distractor In Chief who also fledged in this city's real estate industry: That would make it "Trumpville."  Indeed, isn't that what we have as every wish and every good instinct of the public is ignored so that the greedy can grab more for themselves?

Isn't that exactly what he have when among the self-serving deals Trump put in his basket visiting Saudi Arabia this year was $20 billion to be invested with Stephen Schwarzman's Blackstone Group for privatizing America's public assets?

As we commiserate about what is happening nationally, commiserate that it has been a terrible year of seizures, it is important to remember how interconnected what happens on the national level is with what is happening here locally in New York City, how much of what is national was nurtured to awful fullness by this city's real estate industry.  A review of Noticing New York's seasonal reelections of years past reflects this.

Among other things, Jared Kushner and Stephen Schwarzman (aside from other deals they have been involved in together) have both been involved in selling off our New York City libraries.  That too has implications building upon implications, including national ones.

As for keeping our spirits up and keeping up the fight?:  One thing that involves is staying informed plus making sure that others can stay and get informed, and that is one reason fighting to save our public libraries is a critical fight that will give us leverage to win more of these fights to regain our beloved figurative Bedford Falls in the future.   If you click and use the link available here to visit Citizens Defending Libraries you will be one of the first to visit the new Citizens Defending Libraries main web page.  It's subject to some refinement and upgrading that you'll see in over the next days, but it is a good way to start the new year.  It may also be surprising to read there about how interconnected the library fight is to everything else we may be thinking about in term of regaining Bedford Falls.
Here are links to the prior Noticing New York ventures into seasonal reflection where you can read:
•    Thursday, December 24, 2009, A Christmas Eve Story of Alternative Realities: The Fight Not To Go To Pottersville (Or Ratnerville),

•    Friday, December 24, 2010, Revisiting a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville,

•    Saturday, December 24, 2011, Traditional Christmas Eve Revisit of a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville, the Real Life Incarnation of the Abhorred Pottersville,

•    Monday, December 24, 2012, While I Tell of Yuletide Treasure,

•    Tuesday, December 24, 2013, A Seasonal Reflection: Assessing Aspirations Toward Alternate Realities- 'Tis A Tale of Two Alternate Cities?.,

Wednesday, December 24, 2014, Seasonal Reflections: No Matter How Fortunate or Not, We Are All Equal, Sharing a Common Journey

•    Thursday, December 24, 2015, Seasonal Reflection: Mayor de Blasio, His Heart Squeezed Grinch-Small, Starts Gifting Stolen Libraries To Developers For The Holidays
•    Saturday, December 24, 2016, Noticing New York's Annual Seasonal Reflection
One must keep one's fighting spirit up.      

Friday, October 27, 2017

Appellate Court Hearing on View-Blocking Brooklyn Bridge Park Development: Who Knew What And When As A Community Needed Protection? (In the audience Mr. Gutman nods.)

Outside after Friday, the 20th Appellate Court argument: Center background in suit and blue shirt Hank Gutman member of the defendant Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, Center in trench coat Otis Pratt Pearsall who sought protection for views from the Promenade, foreground in red tie Steven Guterman who started plaintiff Save The View Now organization to object to view-blocking Pierhouse hotel/residential complex being oversized.
Friday, the 20th, there was an Appellate Court argument on Monroe Place about whether the already mostly constructed “bulky Pierhouse hotel/residential complex in Brooklyn Bridge Park” should be reduced in size because it is 30 feet taller than the view plane height limit negotiated with the community in 2005.   Technically, the hearing was about whether the community group Save The View Now was within the statute of limitations when it brought its lawsuit.  In bigger picture terms, the discussion and questions being asked by the judges involved who knew what when in terms of protecting the community from the encroachment that now blocks the iconic view of the Brooklyn Bridge the public previously enjoyed when visiting the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

It was explained to the court by a lawyer defending the development and the quasi-governmental Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation that oversaw it that there were decisions to alter the building by putting additional (view-blocking) mechanical equipment on top of it because of Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York City as Superstorm Sandy October 29, 2012.

When after that was it that, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation made the decision and was the building’s taller height ever made official with any sort of publicly released and available approval document?  That did not appear clear from any response to the judge’s questions.  And, presuming something like that actually happened, when it was incumbent upon members of the public to notice that the assured height limit negotiated in 2005 was being cast aside so that the public needed to take action to protect itself.

One thing I found particularly interesting during the hearing arguments of the lawyers for the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation and the developer (Toll Brothers) was to watch Hank Gutman (Henry B. Gutman).  Although sitting in the audience, Hank Gutman tends to be very much a central player:
    •    Mr. Gutman is on the board of the  Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, which, with him there, has been promoting maximum development within the “park” for some time now.

    •    Mr. Gutman is also a trustee on the Brooklyn Public Library board, which has been promoting sale of its libraries to turn them into redevelopment projects, like the Brooklyn Heights Library sale benefitting developer David Kramer and his Hudson Companies (plus also benefitting Kramer’s architect, Marvel Architects, the same firm working on and doing the calculations determining how tall the Pierhouse Building would be.)

    •    Mr. Gutman was also on the board of the Brooklyn Heights Association (having also been an officer there too) until the beginning of 2011 when he resigned in protest over a lawsuit the neighborhood brought against improper development in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

    •    Lastly, Mr. Gutman (along with a fellow BBPC trustee also involved in pushing library sales, David Offensend) was one of the first to buy condos in the extra-tall Pierhouse building that was the subject of the litigation.  In theory, any applicable law was interpreted such that the trustees’ purchase of apartments was not considered a breach of ethics.
What was interesting to watch about Mr. Gutman was the way he was nodding his head affirmatively to help communicate to the court that everyone knew that the building was going to be extra tall, so much taller than originally expected.  `Did the community know?’  Gutman nodded his head.  `The Brooklyn Heights Association knew?’: This was when the fellow in the chair immediately in front of Gutman swiveled around happily excited to confer with the nodding Gutman.  That man looked like a lawyer; you know, the briefcase, the suit, the haircut, etc.  Gutman is a lawyer too.
Nodding Mr. Gutman was first out of the court house.
The nodding, or subtle gestures to hopefully communicate with the court, is typical and permitted courtroom decorum.  Members of the audience are not supposed to actually talk or be disruptive, but, like a public hearing, you sort of hope that maybe you’ll have a lot of people on your side of the case in the court room and that subtle facial expressions during the arguments will get picked up upon. . . .  Then there is the subject of chuckling (sometimes absurdities will provoke that reaction in you if you don’t want to actually cry): The United States Justice Department is prosecuting a woman who chuckled during a United States Senate hearing when it was asserted that the record of racial discrimination by Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions was a “clear and well-documented” record of “treating all Americans equally under the law.”  Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced and kicked out of the Senate Chamber for attempting to introduce facts that would have set the record on this straight.

I was fascinated by how firm and opinionated Mr. Gutman seemed to be about how everybody knew what they supposedly knew.  I remember back to February 3, 2015 when the there was a vote by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Community Advisory Committee (CAC) calling for a halt to the building’s construction.  The CAC is supposed to be comprised of members from the community to represent it and is supposed to exist to help keep track of what is happening with respect to Brooklyn Bridge Park.  The CAC that night voted for a halt in construction partly based on the fact that the CAC had not been informed of how the building would be extra tall blocking the views that were supposed to be protected.  The CAC may have no actual powers, but at the meeting the BBPC described the CAC as the “primary vehicle for communicating with the public.”
Brooklyn Eagle coverage of the CAC vote meeting attended by a public very upset about the oversized development.

At the meeting the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation representatives provided their explanation of how the building had become so extra tall.  What I remember asking myself and listening carefully for at that meeting was what the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation board knew and approved.  That’s the BBPC board that Mr. Gutman is on.  It seemed to me that violating the agreed upon view protections, something so important to the community, something giving so much extra benefit to the developer in terms of extra building rights, was something that the BBPC board should have approved. . . What did the BBPC board know and when?  - It would seem that in a rational world the board should have had to debate and formally approve it.  I didn’t hear anything about that.

Instead, I heard the most obfuscatory explanations about how the much bigger building just sort of happened at staff level, ostensibly for a conglomeration of strange and obscure technical reasons.  I quote:
When you are dealing with height, height should be a very easy thing to understand, but when you are dealing with a building’s it’s more complicated to understand, which involves a question of where are you measuring from and where are you measuring to?  One of the questions I like to bring up on that is with respect to One Freedom Tower and, is it the tallest building in America or not.  Do you count the spire as height?  There are a lot of questions. . . .[the public audience got impatient at this point and started complaining volubly] . .

     . .  So we got questions from developers about where do you start counting from and where do you count to?  And we went to the ESDC [the Empire State Development Corporation, the nominal state authority parent of the city-controlled BBPC, an obscure quasi-governmental authority famous for having the freedom from being exempt from rules and getting to make them up instead.  The exemption enjoyed by ESDC and BBPC as its nominal subsidiary includes exemption from the standards of NYC zoning and NYC’s normally applicable ULURP process for public review]  A construct that ESDC uses for a lot of project plans is that whenever you have project plan those project plans are specific, and then you have a design attached to them. The general plan you have for Brooklyn Bridge Park, as you saw, is actually very general, and people have had problems with people asking questions that are not covered in the general project plan.  And what they have done in order to deal with that discrepancy is that in those cases they would defer to the local zoning plan [from which they are exempt].  The project plan does not actually say what the hundred feet is or where you measure it to.  Let’s look at how the New York City zoning code answers those two questions, and then the New York City zoning code there is a height restriction and there are lots of ways to calculate .
One would think that in order to implement the agreement with the community about preserving views, one would naturally look first and foremost to the BBPC's overall basic project plan for the building.  That plan had no need to be subject to any limiting constraints, but the BBPC representative went on to explain how BBPC instead chose to go outside the project plan to refer to NYC zoning (to which it was not subject) to pick a higher-up starting point to measure the building (referring to the floodplain calculations) and also allow things like “basically mechanical things, back of generators, HVAC equipment, elevator overrides, things like that . . to exceed height restrictions.”  He said, they then told developers they could exceed the height limitations these ways, “having got that instruction from ESDC.”

Thereafter when Superstorm Sandy happened, the BBPC representative said things got even worse for the community in terms of the building’s extra height.  The representative explained, floodplain elevations were changed to raise the building up higher “and that changed all the math that was involved.”  That extra elevation for the starting point at the bottom of the building was additional to the other changes blamed on Sandy at the court hearing about moving view-blocking mechanicals to the roof to make it taller at its top.  Naomi Klein warns us about “disaster capitalism”: When disasters strike, the monied interests take advantage of those disasters in self-serving ways.

The logic of these calculations didn’t go by unchallenged when they were explained at that February 3, 2014 CAC meeting: Local community activist Tony Manheim said that given that the BBPC project plans "trump" New York City zoning when desired, “It’s a little bit disingenuous to take advantage of avoiding New York City zoning when it’s convenient to do so and then cherry pick zoning practices to allow the exceeding of height limitations by bulkheads which somehow seem to also include a bar and café.”

The Sandy related changes that made the building still bigger were, according to the ESDC representative, being made until September 2013.  If construction of the building started in summer of 2013 as was stated at the court hearing, that would mean that Sandy related design changes were being made even after construction started.  At the hearing it was discussed that people in the community were first beginning to notice that the building was getting too tall in September 2014.  The plaintiff organization Save the View Now was formed because of this in December of 2014.

Mr. Gutman’s nodding of his head doesn’t necessarily indicate anything beyond that fact that he wanted the court to rule that the community knew and that Brooklyn Heights Association knew about the extra large size of the building at times early enough to cause the statute of limitation impediments the team of development supporting attorneys were arguing should defeat the case.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that Mr. Gutman (a BBPC board member), or the BBPC board knew at these or these (or other even earlier) times of the building’s extra large size.  (Rather than it being just the BBPC staff engaging in technical interpretation somersaults).  But it makes me wonder and sort of gives me that feeling that this was pretty much the case. . . .

. . . And if that is so, I have to ask: Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation is a governmental entity endowed with enormous governmental power- Doesn’t it thereby stand to reason that it owes a responsibility to the public to be absolutely clear, and should clearly alert the public when it is not planning to honor an agreement about protecting an important identified and agreed to public interest?  Is the BBPC entitled to play cat and mouse games about what it is doing?

Notwithstanding Mr. Gutman’s head nodding, it was not until very late in the game that public really figured out or knew what was going on.

At the hearing the development defending attorneys argued that the community reacted to the size of the building with “Rip Van Winkle” tardiness.  It was asserted that community had “inquiry” notice, “constructive” notice, and “actual” notice of the bigger building and the mechanicals “above the roof of the building.”  Leave it to lawyers to come up with assertions involving such parsed out multiplicities.   There was no assertion of “information gotten by pulling teeth” notice, “cat and mouse game triumph” notice, or “able to decipher technological gobbledygook” notice.  I also heard no direct explanation of what notice the Community Advisory Committee, the BBPC’s “ the “primary vehicle for communicating with the public,” got when it believes it got no notice and that instead the BBPC “dribbled out” information in a way that was deliberately intended to be uninformative.

It was even hinted that maybe notice letting the public know didn’t even matter: A development lawyer made the dodgy assertion that the “view was improved” by the project.  It was affirmatively asserted there was no stealth or concealment on the part of BBPC.

Respecting the Brooklyn Heights Association the argument was particularly interesting.  The lawyers defending the development’s size argued that by virtue of a December 2011* letter from BHA President Jane McGroarty that referred to an acceptable height for the building that was “exclusive of mechanical equipment” the record showed that Brooklyn Heights Association, the “the dominant civic organization” of a community of what was “not a bashful community,” had notice and was aware and was not objecting to the ultimate height of the building.

    (* Hank Gutman had left the BHA board earlier that year.)

Really?  Is that a good argument?  December 2011 was nearly a year before Superstorm Sandy and the cascade of rejiggering alterations with all the “math” involved changing (concluding September 2013) that, among other things, put an unexpected and atypical amount of extra stuff on the building’s roof making it taller.

There is other stuff we could brawl about here like what people are referring to the “bulkheads” being permitted on top building.  If you think you know buildings “bulkheads” might sound relatively innocuous and if you Google images of “bulkheads” for examples, the small slant-roofed minimalist protrusions you’ll see are not likely to suggest to you what has been constructed atop this building under the “bulkhead” rubric. .  including, as Tony Manheim put it, “a bar and café” ?
Crowd lingers to analyze after the hearing. Plaintiff attorney Jeff Baker on highest steps.
 This article is not intended to parse the exact legal arguments that forayed into the field at the Friday appellate court hearing, nor analyze the relative strength of the arguments and why certain arguments should perhaps logically prevail.  This musing over the situation is more for the purpose of giving a general feel for what is happening and the overall context in which it is taking place.
Closer up: Plaintiff attorney Jeff Baker on steps, Steve Guterman in red tie.
Will the appellate judges issue an order that could result in 30 feet being removed from the top of the unexpectedly tall view-blocking building?  People find that outcome startling to imagine, but it is absolutely within the judges' power to do so, although situations of this type presenting precedent are rare.  And, as counsel for the plaintiffs told the court, the defendants knowingly proceeded to build at their own risk.

The judges by their tone and skepticism seemed to at least consider that the community was likely treated badly.  But when do judges these days ever decide against the money?  One thing we might expect is something we have seen before in these situations: An opinion that scolds the BBPC and public development officials (including its board?), but then protects the monied interests from lose of their ill gotten gains despite such a judicial upbraiding.
This was in the first posting of Save The View Now December 31, 2015 to alert the community about the building's height.