|Above: The EDC and BPL RFP for sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library, a few photos of the library overlaid- There were no photos of the library in the RFP.|
It is a story that has been hiding in plain sight. You would know it by now if our press were more diligent or if library and city administration officials were more forthright about conveying information about what they are actually up to in pushing the Brooklyn Heights Library sale. I guess that’s where the blogs have a special and important role in this new, out-of-kilter world we live in.
I have been holding off on this story to see what else might fall into place before I reported it. I will say this: I don’t have all the answers to go along with the many facts reported here, but I’ve got plenty of really good questions that people should be asking.
Hang in for some surprising revelations about how much benefit stands to go to Forest City Ratner and how little benefit will go to the public with a sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library while we first review some background.
Early Suspicions About Forest City Ratner And The Libraries
Most people who have already been following the story of the library sell-offs have been suspicious of Forest City Ratner. Although, the Brooklyn Public Library’s strategic plan calls for `leveraging’ all of the real estate on which its libraries sit (in other words monkeying around like this with real estate sales), the first two library sell-offs it has been trying to push out the door are two libraries, the Brooklyn Heights Library and the Pacific Branch, that are right next to property Forest City Ratner owns, acquired from the city on a no-bid basis.
Further, as reported here before, when the Brooklyn Public Library was announcing the sale of Brooklyn Heights Library and Josh Nachowitz, spokesperson for the Brooklyn Public Library, was asked about what would be done, he immediately, and without even having to think about it, refused to entertain the possibility that the BPL might disqualify or blackball Ratner as a future owner of the Brooklyn library property it was selling off. That reflexive refusal was notwithstanding the fact that Forest City Ratner already has a very dangerously large government-assisted monopoly in Brooklyn and a record of failing to deliver on public benefit promises, with a history of blackmailing the public to change terms of agreements. See: Sunday, February 3, 2013, What Could We Expect Forest City Ratner Would Do With Two Library Sites On Sale For The Sake Of Creating Real Estate Deals?
Mr. Nachowitz moved to the library system from the Bloomberg administration’s city real estate development agency the New York City Economic Development Corp. (EDC) just in time to preside over these sell-offs and, as you will see as we proceed, EDC is involved in selling off the Brooklyn Heights Library.
Plans To Sell Libraries With Money Not Coming To The Libraries
From the beginning it has seemed odd that library administration officials would have decided that is it beneficial to be selling off a valuable library property like the Brooklyn Heights Library (or the Pacific Branch) if the money from that sale wasn’t going to the library. The money from any sale goes to the city that, in turn, under Bloomberg, has decided that the libraries should be underfunded (at a time of skyrocketing use) and there is plenty of reason to believe city conduct would continue in this vein as libraries were sold.
When BPL president Linda Johnson first publicly discussed the selling of libraries with the Daily News in October 2011, she admitted that the BPL was making plans to sell the libraries even though the rules meant that “the library wouldn't see a dime” of the sale proceeds money because it would go into the city's general fund. (See: Sunday, March 3, 2013, The Petition To Save The Libraries Is Working: Confirming Petition Points BPL Head Linda Johnson, Library Officials Trip Up Defending Plans.)
Johnson did not mention in her interview with the Daily News that an important library like the Brooklyn Heights Library was one of the ones that would be put on the sales block. Plans were in place. We now know for certain that, even though the information was being withheld from the public, the BPL had decided to shrink and sell the Brooklyn Heights Library long before this. Mr. Nachowitz told one reporter preparing a story about the library sell-offs that the decision had been made back in 2008. Although we do not vouch for her reliability, Deborah Hallen of the Friends of the Brooklyn Library group has also asserted that she discovered from Mr. Nachowitz that this decision was secretly made by library administration officials at least as far back as 2008.
|The Nation's current cover story by Scott Sherman reports on early communications with the Bloomberg administration to sell off NYC libraries|
It was not until late May of 2013, long after these library sales were planned, and long after Noticing New York was shining a spotlight on the way those deals weren’t for public benefit, did the BPL unveil an eyewash MOU ("Memorandum of Understanding") (Dated May 21, 2013) for the purpose of making it appear as if the city might send some of the library sale proceeds to help make up for its pattern of deliberate funding deficiencies.
There is something called a "Community Advisory Committee" that is meeting to be informed about the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library for the sake of having a colorable public process. The BPL has made an effort to stack that committee predominantly with community representatives it has previously vetted as favoring or condoning the library sale, like the Brooklyn Heights Association and the (now deceptively named) Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Library. Partly through the efforts of Citizens Defending Libraries (of which I am a co-founder) this “CAC” group also has local electives representative on it. At the May 23rd CAC meeting, in connection with which the MOU was unveiled, elected representatives expressed dismay and consternation that the agreement made little pretense of being truly enforceable or otherwise being effective in ensuring that the BPL would actually garner proceeds from a library sale.
|One-page library MOU: Cause for consternation and joking|
More Bad News About Why The Public Won’t Get Money Expected From The Library Sale
Now here is something even more startling about how the public won’t benefit from sale proceeds if the Brooklyn Heights Library is sold. It is something we are hearing about, with some consternation, from real estate professionals working on responses to the so-called “Request For Proposals” (RFP) that the City and the BPL have issued to sell the Brooklyn Heights Library and build a much smaller replacement and, like Donnell, shift above-ground library space underground.
On July 17th EDC, the city’s Economic Development Corporation, Josh Nachowitz’s former agency, held developer information sessions in connection with the RFP. I attended one of them and would have gone to both if that had been permitted. Mr. Nachowitz was there to participate in the presentation.
|Provision in recorded document transferring development rights to the Ratner property|
|Shaded area on the city tax map above is the Brooklyn Heights Library site from which substantial development rights were transferred away to Forest City Ratner|
End of story? Does this comport with the reports that we were getting that library officials were internally talking about how the new, probably residential, building replacing the library might be 40 stories? No, and no.
We are hearing that architects looking at the site for purposes of RFP are thinking about the need for a zoning change. That might chagrin the Brooklyn Heights Association if they are telling people not to worry and that they shouldn’t expect a zoning change. That is probably not the answer, or at least probably the whole of it.
|Bruce Ratner's signature on one of the set of documents where development rights were transferred from the library site to his|
Expectation Of A Tall Building, Taller Than Its Surroundings
EDC and library officials at the developers meeting were clearly selling the idea that when the library building site was redeveloped the new building would be at tall one. The following statements came right at the beginning of the EDC’s official’s oral presentation (it’s cute how it traffics in selling the supremacy of a potential project by emphasizing how it won't be subject to the same restrictions as its neighbors):
The views around the area are fantastic. So, that particular location has on the west side, it has a low height district. So it’s zoned on the west side, that residential area, is zoned to have a height no more than 50 feet [essentially five stories]. That’s on one side of the project. On the other side is Cadman Plaza so that’s a beautiful park. There’s another beautiful park that you have views over. So really, you have fantastic views all around.The written portion of the RFP is similar, if a tad more cautiously phrased:
* * * *.
It’s located outside the Brooklyn Heights Historic District and the limited height district, so that’s the limited height district I was talking about earlier. . So this is outside of that.
The site. . .overlooks the picturesque Cadman Plaza Park in the heart of Brooklyn’s Civic Center . . The site enjoys park views to the east with the prospect of achieving views of Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines, as well as of the New York Harbor and bridges.What would be the advantage of developing a project for its western views over toward the harbor over neighboring buildings that are limited to a five-story height restriction if your own new building, with 50%+ development rights transferred out, can only be about five stories or a little bit taller. Conforming to the FAR restrictions, one way to make building taller is to stack up the floors in a more needle-like fashion, using a smaller building footprint. The library building footprint is small enough that the building built there will probably be squatter, taking up a fair portion of the site.
What Forest City Ratner Has To Sell
But where will the development rights come from to build the taller building seemingly presumed? Normally, they would have to come form an adjacent building on the same block. The only property adjacent to the library is the Forest City Ratner building, One Pierrepont Plaza (also know by its original address of 159 Pierrepont Street). . .
. . . Is it possible that Forest City Ratner still has those buildable rights unused to transfer back? It would seem unlike a developer let acquired development rights go unused.* And one would think that we should not expect city officials to transfer city-owned development rights to a developer when they were not needed. Steve Spinola, now President of REBNY (the Real Estate Board of New York), was the city official handling the transaction with Ratner at the time.
(* Although, we have to remember that Forest City Ratner threatened to stop construction and build only a portion of its Gehry-designed 8 Spruce Street Beekman Tower building.- See: Downtown Housing Complex May Downsize, Thursday, March 19, 2009.)I checked, and, as far as I can discern, there has been no upzoning of the properties since the rights were transferred to Forest City Ratner that would now make those rights surplus so they could be transferred back. Nevertheless, it is not clear that the Ratner property actually needs those rights that the city officials transferred to it in 1986.
Public records put the size of the Forest City Ratner One Pierrepont Plaza site at about 45,780 square feet. Those numbers should never be complacently relied upon, but when I worked to do my own calculations the slightly larger figure I got was very close to this number. The Forest City Ratner building is a commercial building so the permitted FAR is 15 under the zoning. That would come to a permitted buildable FAR of about 691,845.00 square feet.
|Shaded area on city tax map above is One Pierrepont Plaza/135 Pierrepont Street site owned by Forest City Ratner. Rectangular shape at south wrapped around by it is 153/157 Pierrepont Street owned by Saint Ann's School|
Forest City Ratner’s own website boasts that the building is built on the One Pierrepont Plaza site is only 659,000 square feet; that makes it look like Forest City Ratner might be able to transfer all of the library's rights back if somebody wanted to pay the right price.
Beforehand, in 1985, the New York Times reported that Ratner was only going to build a 600,000-square-foot building. One real estate website has the Ratner building figured at 725,991 square feet and with an FAR that is a little over what is permitted (same thing with Property Shark) but which would still not use up the 140,919 square feet that was transferred from the library to Forest City Ratner in 1986.
So Ratner may actually have the development rights to send back for a price. But here is another important thing to consider: There’s another way to bring more development rights to the site, so long as Forest City Ratner remains the gateway for the transaction: There is another property on the block using less than its permitted development rights, 153/157 Pierrepont Street owned by Saint Ann’s School.
|The entire block, Ratner Property highlighted, showing what, with Ratner cooperation, could be treated as a single merged zoning lot to transfer development rights from Saint Ann's School to the library site|
|Above, Saint Ann School building with development rights that are not yet utilized. Ratner property is in the background, literally and metaphorically|
The Sale Gets Pitched: Public Officials Working for Forest City Ratner’s Benefit?
|Neighborhood Amenities in the RFP|
Whether or not Forest City Ratner becomes the library site developer in order to profit, all of this is likely to mean that:
a.) a lot, or most of the development rights for the building to be built to replace the library are coming from or through Ratner and Ratner gets to keep the lion’s share of the proceeds for these development rights, whileIf so, then any city-paid public or library administration official making the sales pitch hawking library development rights are actually working more for the benefit of Forest City Ratner than for the public.
b.) at the same time the net proceeds going in any way to the public are much reduced because of the demolition and rebuilding costs together with what the public loses as it tries to operate with a smaller temporary replacement library for some number of years.
The city EDC and library administration officials were, indeed, hawking the value of the development rights big time at the July 17th developers information session:
. . I’m going to discuss the highlights of Brooklyn Heights, and you know, more than most people, what those entail I’m sure. But, to talk about the prime location here: I’ve said this before, we do talk about prime development opportunities a lot at EDC; we use that phrase, we bandy it about fairly frequently-- This particular project really is a prime development opportunity. [appreciative developer laughter] It’s located at the heart of Brooklyn Heights. So it’s really the nexus between Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn, so we have the residential neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights to the west and then you have the financial hub of Downtown Brooklyn to the east and it really is the nexus, the apex of both of those locations, both of those districts.To reiterate, the sales pitch, like the sale of the library itself, is more for the benefit of a developer, Ratner, than the public, the kind of thing that Citizens Defending Libraries has been pointing out since it was created in February to challenge these real estate deals.
The residential neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights is among the most desirable in New York City, and that’s New York City, not Brooklyn. The sales comps that we are seeing in that area, whilst we are not brokers, and we wouldn’t want to tell you how to write your pro formas, are ahead of $1000 per square foot in that location. It’s a beautiful residential area and we want to be able to service that community as well as the surrounding downtown neighborhood.
It’s accessible to numerous transit lines. So you have the Jay Street hub, you have the Borough Hall hub, the subway lines. You have Clark Street, Court Street, High Street, all of these different subway lines are serviced at this location. There are parts of Manhattan that are not as well serviced as this particular site and you’re able to get to downtown Manhattan within minutes. I live on the Upper West Side and it takes me over half an hour to get to work here and it takes anyone else from Brooklyn heights or that neighborhood less than five minutes.
Libraries And Their Relationship To Public Transit Benefits
|From the RFP- The ease of access transportation from which the library site benefits- Click to enlarge|
Was Donnell in central Manhattan really that ill-served by subway lines? Whether that may have been so, moving library services out of the superbly accessible Brooklyn Heights and downtown neighborhood is certain to significantly diminish public services.
Gatekeeping vs. Owning To Make a Profit
There has been a lot of speculation about whether Forest City Ratner, with the inside track (and certainly all these factors help put it on the inside track), will ultimately become the actual developer of the library site, but what should be discernable from the discussion above is that it is not necessary for Forest City Ratner to itself become the owner or developer of the library site in order for it to profit greatly from the transaction. Ownership of real estate is not a prerequisite to making a profit; sometimes it is enough to be the gatekeeper of development. One way we see this now is with very recent events with Atlantic Yards, a mega-monopoly bequeathed Forest City Ratner, by our government officials. . .
. . . It has been recently reported that Forest City Ratner is trying to sell the substantial majority of its interest in that mega-project to an investor. (See: Thursday, August 22, 2013, Times: Forest City's trying to sell up to 80% of Atlantic Yards (and didn't extended deadlines help Ratner gain "layup"?).) This divestiture would be in lieu of complying with suggestions from the community that the government break up the mega-project to bid it out amongst multiple developers (something necessarily now legally under consideration as part of the new environmental assessment that is being done). With Forest City Ratner selling out to an investor this way instead, Forest City Ratner retains its development gatekeeper function. That gatekeeping function would arguably be better held by the government. Additionally, any big investor brought in is likely to help Ratner lobby against any proposed break up the mega-monopoly.
Another factor giving Forest City Ratner another inside track with respect to the development of the library site is that the developers at the information meeting were told that, aside from the zoning:
. . . this particular site is subject to a special permit, which you may have read in the RFP, that was awarded to the One Pierrepont Plaza lot next door [to Ratner] so the FAR and the height and setbacks are specified in the special permit, in fact, not in general C6-4 zoning so please bear that in mind, and if you want to look into this further you should buy a site file which has a special permit. .The “site file” was being made available on CDs EDC was producing. Although those CDs must cost mere pennies to burn and are probably also obtainable through a freedom of information at request, EDC was only making them available to those paying $50.00 for the privilege of getting one.
At the meeting, I also asked about the garage currently existing under the Ratner property and the possibility for a combined garage which would give Ratner yet another inside track. You can see if you can spot my questions in the paraphrased questions and answers from the two information session EDC has published at its website.
Will the RFP award the library property to the highest bidder? Not necessarily, and there are conundrums to be hurdled about how the final results will be achieved. Part of this ties in with how the tangles involved in so-called public-private partnerships are manipulable (too frequently for what turns out to be private benefit). In the end, outside the outlines of formal RFP, the BPL will be negotiating with the developers for them to do the “outfitting,” or the build-out of the `replacement’ library. It seems as if it will probably be done in such a way that the developer works with the BPL to avoid application of the city’s Wicks minimum wage law. This will be a big-ticket item despite the planned shrinkage of the library. The negotiation presents a way of swinging the contract outside of the formal bidding.
|"Zoning Calculation" requirement from RFP|
The BPL won't announce any details about the bids and bidders when they come in. We'll all wait in suspense as the negotiate behind the scenes.
City Officials Represent They Have Not Been Dealing With Ratner
Near the end of the information session there was a question about whether there were issues with One Pierrepont Plaza that might not be showing up, whether there was, for instance, any granting of easements for light or air, that might not show up. The question evoked this denial that there had been any previous communications with Forest City Ratner:
Well, we haven’t spoken with, uhm, Forest City, ah, yet about this particular project since it’s not really underway. What we can tell you, uhm, is that, ah, we believe that during the ULURP process, ah, because they were co-applicants, uhm, on the special permit they may need to consent to a modification of the special permit. Uhm, but that’s the only, ah, thing that we foresee, uhm, we can’t foresee any other issues with Forest City.So, without talking to Forest City Ratner, a decision was made to sell the library when half of its development rights were sold off and the only way to get back development rights for the project expected to be built would be to get them through Forest City Ratner? Really?
A Lock On Value Where Ratner Holds The Key
The perspicacity of that question is greater if you consider that one reason that the Donnell Library was theoretically sold for such a very odd low price is because the owners of 666 Fifth Avenue had a light and air easement from the library, potentially interfering with the development. It didn’t decrease Donnell’s value to the public as a library, but it did make getting value from any sale more complex. What the questioner didn’t seem to realize was that the answer to his question was staring him in the face: In a fashion essentially similar to Donnell, the development rights to the Heights library had been conveyed out to Ratner so that anyone will have to deal with Ratner to get them back.
The introduction to EDC’s RFP says the RFP “presents a unique opportunity to . . unlock economic development prospects in an increasingly valued location,”; it just doesn’t say that Forest City Ratner has the key to the lock or is the one probably going to get the lion’s share of the benefit.
Public Officials Must Stand Guard
In the end, it's all going to come down to our politicians and elected representatives to prevent these absurdities for which only the public in the end pays. Particularly important are those who may come into office in this current election cycle. Over the years, Forest City Ratner has been a long-standing and certified nemesis for many. One of them, City Council member Tish James, is now engaged in a campaign for Public Advocate in a Democratic primary now headed for final determination in an October 1st runoff election between Ms. James and state Senator Daniel Squadron. The Forest City Ratner involvement in spearheading the sale of our libraries could wind up being a boon to Tish James' campaign. . .
. . . Tish James has not only been fighting against the sale of New York City libraries since these plans were unveiled, she led the fight against Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly. Squadron, her opponent in the race, was condoning the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library, with the moving of its Business and Career Library out of the business district and away from the vaunted subway access and mass transportation access it now enjoys. Squadron has also been taking campaign money from the NYPL’s David Offensend, a key player in formulating and pushing deals for the sell-off of public libraries.
Noticing New York previously wrote about how the public funds infused into Ratner/Prokhorov “Barclays” arena to create private profit for Ratner are likely now coming to help finance and push the behind-the-scenes drive for things like the sell-off of our libraries and hospitals like Long Island College Hospital (LICH) at the other end of Brooklyn Heights. See: Tuesday, April 30, 2013, Relevance of Mayoral Debate Discussion About Forest City Ratner Atlantic Yards Misconduct To The Sale and Underfunding of NYC Libraries.
One half hour before the kickoff of his runoff campaign Mr. Squadron issued a press statement his campaign handed out at the kickoff press conference, saying that he now opposes the library sales. Mr. Squadron’s new position needs to be amplified and clarified, but it is evident that the Citizens Defending Libraries campaign is having its effects.
Because the Public Advocate’s job is to serve as check and balance, keeping the Mayor’s office on track in terms of serving the public good, who gets elected as Public Advocate will be significant for the libraries.
The Mayor And The Library Sell-offs
How important is it who becomes Mayor? It is the Mayor who largely determines the budget for libraries, but because the city’s libraries are technically run by three not for the profit corporations, the NYPL, the BPL and the Queens Library, people every now and then request Citizens Defending Libraries provide extra convincing evidence that it is Mayor Bloomberg, underfunding the libraries, who is behind these sales and is trying to push them through before he leaves office.
Last week, WNET’s Metrofocus put up this slide of information (below) provided by Mayor Bloomberg about what he wants to accomplish before leaving office. It says he wants to push through the NYPL’s Central Library Plan, and (something potentially related to its real estate sell-off plans) he wants to push through the extreme upzoning of Mid-Manhattan around Grand Central Terminal.
Deceptive Representations By New York Public Library On Its Central Library Plan: We’re NOT Shrinking Library Space, We Are Making MORE Library Space!) What Bloomberg is talking about is selling two of NYC’s most important Manhattan libraries and destroying a third.
Respecting the Brooklyn Heights Library, BPL spokesman Josh Nachowitz has said that it is the goal of library and city officials to have a contract for its sale executed with a developer before December 31st, the last day of Bloomberg’s final term.
Meanwhile, as all these transactions are benefitting the wealthy at the expense of the public, money is flowing uphill in this city to the wealthiest. Bloomberg’s annually increasing wealth just jumped again, this time from $27 billion to $31 billion in the last six months. In 1979, the year he declared his interest in politics in his biography, shortly before running for mayor his wealth (the digits reverse and a decimal point shifted) was $1.3 billion.
Thankfully, Bloomberg will soon be out of office and Citizens Defending Libraries has brought Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio to the cause of opposing the sale of the cities libraries, including the Central Library Plan and the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library. It is interesting to note that New York Times martini glass graph of de Blasio’s support shows his support fanning out to grow terrifically as of the July date when he held a press conference to oppose these library sales with Citizens Defending Libraries and the Committee to Save the New York Public Library on the steps of the 42nd Street library. All library-related support? Probably not, still the library issues are emblematic of other "Tale of Two Cities" issues where public assets are being sold off for other than public benefit, issues that went far to earn de Blasio his support.
But it is going to require more stories like this one that shine light on these transactions to keep our elected representatives on track protecting the public.