Oh, for a straight answer. . . What would you give to really know about the plans that were originated during the Bloomberg administration to sell and shrink New York City libraries, eliminating books and librarians in the process? And wouldn’t it be nice if the library administration officials like those at the Brooklyn Public Library would give you straight dope when asked?
. . . I was at the first meeting, Tuesday, January 29, 2013, where the Brooklyn Public Library's plans to sell and shrink the Brooklyn Heights Library, one of its central libraries were unveiled. I asked what other libraries is BPL looking at similarly selling? It’s just this library we were told by the BPL spokesperson presiding over the question-and-obfuscated-answer session!.. . Not so by any means!. . .
. . More than a year later, at a June 3, 2014 City Council hearing on the library budget, Public Advocate Tish James asked BPL president Linda Johnson about the BPL’s plans to sell off the rest of the library system as is set forth in BPL’s strategic plan. Johnson, more frank than she had been before, actually admitted that she was, in fact, looking at all the libraries for “opportunities,” but, when pressed, said there were no present existing plans to sell any other library but Brooklyn Heights. Also, rather far from the truth . . . .
Oh, for a straight answer! We actually start to get a straight answer reading the BPL minutes.
Documented: Secret Plans to Sell Libraries
The minutes document the BPL strategy of keeping such plans of sale secret, and its intent to lock in the de Blasio administration, as a successor to the Bloomberg administration, to the sales. Even now not fully disclosed, the plans were years in the making, mostly being implemented after a statutorily enabled restructuring of the BPL board giving Bloomberg greater control, sort of the library equivalent to the mayoral assumption of control of schools.
The plans were structured to make the case for selling libraries by hiring consultants, including as a first essential lynchpin to the scheme, a former senior Forest City Ratner official, to formulate a new evaluation of the library system's capital needs that would make what was intended to be a convincing argument for selling libraries. Ultimately, the first two libraries publicly announced as prioritized for sale based on this capital needs analysis were right next to Forest City Ratner property. Furthermore, as the plans were launched, the BPL consciously and intentionally deferred capital improvements thus building up these `convincing' numbers further.
You’ve heard about the air conditioning breaking down in all the libraries the BPL wants to sell to developers? Those breakdowns arriving on cue have generated a lot of suspicion already. There’s intriguing information about that in the minutes too! *
(* If you are impatient and want to see a bulleted list of to let you know in advance the many revelations that will be covered in this extensive article, click here: Sunday, August 31, 2014, A Multiplicity of Scoops: An Astounding List of Things You'd Discover By Reading The Brooklyn Public Library's Minutes- All About Its System-wide Plans To Sell And Shrink Libraries!)When the BPL’s spokesman at that Tuesday, January 29, 2013 meeting where the BPL first unveiled its plans to sell the and shrink the Brooklyn Heights Library said that no other libraries were being looked at to be sold the desire to mislead was detectable: I knew that the development community had previously been furnished with a list of libraries to look at for redevelopment. In addition, the New York Times sat on the chair beside me, with an article on its front page by architectural critic Michael Kimmelman lambasting the consolidating shrinkage of the New York Public Library’s Central Library Plan with its sell-off of the Mid-Manhattan and the Science, Industry and Business libraries. Kimmelman’s article trod in in the venerable footsteps of Ada Louise Huxtable’s critique of the plan appearing the month before, the very last article she wrote before she died.
It was therefore easy to guess that such plans to sell city libraries were widespread and integrated.. . .
. . . Upon checking further, the list of Brooklyn libraries being looked at for redevelopment was in the hands of the development community in the summer of 2007 (possibly sooner, of course), and that same summer of 2007 was the one that, as a review of NYPL’s minutes by Scott Sherman of The Nation subsequently disclosed, Mayor Bloomberg and his First Deputy Mayor Patricia E. (Patti) Harris blessed the NYPL’s plan to sell and shrink a number of its important central libraries. The NYPL's approach was embodied in the Central Library Plan and first unveiled to the public in disturbingly concrete terms November 7, 2007 when the NYPL announced the sudden secretive sale of the Donnell Library, a beloved central library across the street from MoMA, for a pittance. The NYPL netted less than $39 million for that sale. It’s true that someday, perhaps in 2015, there is supposed be a replacement "Donnell" library, but that replacement library will be less than one-third the size, barely more than a quarter of the former 97,000 square foot Donnell, largely underground and bookless. Had the NYPL negotiated for a full-scale replacement of Donnell it would have lost millions on the seemingly senseless transaction.
Knowing that the plans to sell and shrink libraries go back at least to 2007 in two of the city’s three library systems is important, but leaves many details unknown. When exactly did these plans begin?
NYPL Libraries Being Shrunk Were Previously Being Expanded
The NYPL’s sale and shrinkage plans for Donnell and the Central Library scheme were overseen by its Chief Operating Officer, David G. Offensend, who arrived at the NYPL in the first half of 2004 from Evercore, a private equity and investment firm that spun off from the Blackstone Group, an investment company which has, as just one of its many lines of business, the world’s largest real estate investment company, and which is headed by Stephen A. Schwarzman. Mr. Schwarzman transferred $100 million to the NYPL when it was his understanding that the Central Library Plan would then proceed. Oddly, months before the relatively contemporaneous Donnell sale was publicly known, there was weird speculation in the press that Schwarzman and his Blackstone Group would be involved in an acquisition of Orient Express, the company that it was revealed had contracted to purchase Donnell when information about the apparently bidless sale came out.
Offensend didn’t have much time after his arrival at the NYPL to turn prior NYPL policies around: Throughout the Giuliani administration and into the early Bloomberg administration, which began January 1, 2002, the NYPL was expanding instead of shrinking and selling off libraries. The 42nd Street Central Reference Library that would have been part of the Central Library Plan was expanded with completion of a project in 2002, because, as the then President of the NYPL said, additional space was needed. At the end of the Guiliani administration there was a plan to nearly double the size of the Mid-Manhattan Library across the street and those plans survived, persisting until at least 2003, just before Offensend’s arrival from his investment banking firm.
|From a 2012 Brooklyn Eagle story, Janet and David Offensend|
Expansion of Queens Libraries While Other Libraries Shrink
|At the MAS forum, the three library heads, Marx, Galante and Johnson|
We continue to expand out the size of our facilities. Over about 15 years, with the funding we have in place we will have seen a 30% growth of our footprint in Queens. And it still won't be enough.And though all three library heads were complaining about funding cutbacks by the Bloomberg administration, Galante indicated that with elected officials like former Queens Borough President Helen Marshall contributing funds, he had no problems obtaining the capital funds needed for such growth.
|A PowerPoint from the Queen minutes showing how over the years, including those every recent, the Queens system has been growing, enlarging its footprint substantially|
Up Until 2005 Brooklyn Libraries Were Being Renovated, Built and Expanded
Looking at the BPL’s minutes for the last ten years we see that during the initial years of the decade covered, 2003 through 2013 into the beginning of 2014, the BPL was regularly renovating libraries and building new ones and expanding its libraries.
Library BranchesThe November 18 2003 minutes provide this overview of capital projects: “There are currently over $76 million in capital funding that involve 42 separate projects in 33 of our 60 buildings.”
Although Janet Offensend makes two preview appearances in the minutes that are very interesting in themselves, she has no official position at the BPL until the end of 2005. The minutes for the February 15, 2005 meeting provide a snapshot of renovation activity before her arrival. There is note of the reopening of renovated Williamsburg Library, celebrated with a January 26th reception where Borough President Marty Markowtiz and City Councilman David Yassky “toured the beautiful new branch” with a ribbon cutting planned to occur in two days (February 17th). Further, we read that:
This spring Mapleton , Mill Basin, Bedford and Stone Avenue will reopen after renovation. Macon and Kings Highway will close in spring to undergo restoration.*
(* Mapleton- a stunning, $1.7 million renovation that took two yearsNot mentioned among these is the Highlawn Library for which the BPL would hold a community forum later that year in Novermber and then reopen the following November after a $572,000 renovation, or the Bay Ridge Library reopened September 22, 2004 after a $2.6 Million renovation the library resulting in thirty public access computers, a “five Years” space dedicated to children, new lighting, furniture, shelving, express check-out machines, a new roof and is ADA-compliant with the installation of a new elevator. (Reported as $2.1 million here).
Mill Basin- a two-year, $867,000 makeover
Bedford- spectacular $2.9 million renovation of one-hundred-year-old 16,780-square-foot library
Stone Avenue- two-year, $1.7 million renovation of the 14,252-square-foot library] will reopen after renovation.
Macon- $2 million renovation funded by the New York City Council to restore historic details, improve the library's interior and resources of the two-story, 17,968 square foot, Classical Revival red brick library
Kings Highway- $7.5 million renovation that was held up by extensive construction delays before completion of the 24,000 square foot renovation.)
Touted in many of these renovations, almost all of them, is the creation of children's reading rooms, "First Five Years Reading Area for infants and pre-schoolers furnished with age-specialized, foam furniture suitable for the rumble tumble of youngsters' play," rooms "for early-childhood programs," "reading room for babies!" cheerful places "for babies and preschoolers to discover the world of literacy through board books, learning tools" and similarly, in some, rooms and equipment for teenagers. The Williamsburg Library is one: "A First Five Years Reading Room for preschoolers, which offers age-specific furniture, computer software, books and videos, and will host Baby Story Time and other preschooler programs." . . .
. . . And yet, now as the Williamsburg Library is planned to be shrunk by another "renovation" using the Spaceworks firm, which has as one of its main missions the shrinkage and privatization of library space, it appears that the Children's room space there is part of what will be sacrificed.
Grand Army Plaza LibraryFurther, those same February 15, 2005 minutes tell us about the construction at the Grand Army Plaza Central Library: ongoing boiler replacement, electrical load upgrade, which began last October, scheduled to be complete in June, launch of the Plaza and Auditorium, and the expansion over the rear garage, which will commence construction early next month. . . . These renovations are to the same library that in very recent weeks the BPL somewhat suspiciously complained to the Daily News was in shockingly serious disrepair: Brooklyn's central library branch needs $100 million in repairs for a wrecked roof, cracked windows, creaky elevators and faulty air conditioning, by Marco Poggio, Reuven Blau, July 1, 2014.
The complaints to the Daily News came after these renovations plus after another $5 million dollars more of very recent renovation of the library finished in January of 2013 (just in time to announce the sale of the Brooklyn Heights and Pacific Branch Libraries), the Shelby White & Leon Levy Information Commons. A New York Times article extolled the “Commons” as being appropriate for a:
diversity of new uses, most of which have little to do with reading or books, that the library says is part of a larger campaign to maintain relevancy in an increasingly digital world.The most featured example of such a diverse new use cited in the article is its impromptu conversion into a wedding space when the weather outside is bad. (See: Public Spaces- At Brooklyn Library's New Center, Books Are Secondary, by Eli Rosenberg, May 9, 2013.) Use for a wedding, depicted as an accidental use forced by the weather, echos the fact that the NYPL has recently hired a wedding planner for grand events held in the famed Rose Reading Room of its 42nd Street Central Reference Library, epitomizing a shift in focus and mission.
The Times puff piece introducing the Shelby White & Leon Levy Commons to the public describes it as “a $3.25 million addition to its central branch” making it sound like another “expansion,” but it wasn’t an actual "addition," because, for better or worse, books and bookshelves were removed to create it. Additionally, according to the BPL‘s minutes, it cost $5 million to jettison the books (February 23, 2010), not the figure given by the Times, which lower figure in the Times, was the amount of Leon Levy Foundation gift money paying for this. One figure the Times gave doesn’t include, for instance, is the $1,334.764 that came from Albany by virtue of taxpayer largess (June 15, 2010 minutes).
The verdict to be reached?: Whether the White/Levy Information Commons was intended in the main to be a digital distraction from the library sales and shrinkages about to be unveiled.
150,000 square foot Visual and Performing Arts LibraryBack to to the time of the February 15, 2005 minutes when there was an actual really true expansion of the Grand Army Plaza library. Unlike similar smaller libraries in Queens that were being expanded as they were renovated, most of the Brooklyn renovations happening around 2005 do not involve expansions except for the Kings Highway Library renovation which increased the library by 2,000 square feet to a total interior space of 24,000 square feet.
Nevertheless, there was on very major expansion of the system afoot, a very fancy and ambitious one: The creation of another new central library, a new Visual and Performing Arts Library across from the Brooklyn Academy of Music that would be designed by Enrique Norton of TEN Arquitectos in Mexico City, originally proposed to be 150,000 square feet. A 150,000 square foot library would be almost three times the size of the central Brooklyn Heights library that is now proposed to be sold and shrunk. It would be ten times as large as the mere 15,000 square feet that the BPL proposed to shrink the Brooklyn Heights Library down to when it announced its plan to sell that real estate in January of 2013. If the BPL’s Grand Army Plaza library is 350,000 square feet that would make such a new central library nearly half its size even though the Grand Army Plaza Library also contains central administration space.
Spread around the BPL system's sixty buildings, 150,000 square feet of space could double the size of twenty libraries the size of the small 7,500 square foot Red Hook Library that the BPL is now proposing to use Spaceworks to shrink down to just 5,000 square feet. As of 2004, the proposed size of the Visual and Performing Arts Library ("VAP") was scaled back to about 110,000 square feet, smaller but still huge.
The creation of the new Visual and Performing Arts Library might have been a good idea, but consider: Although handing off library real estate for private use by developers (at great expense) in deals like Donnell, and the Central Library Plan (that was going to cost $500 million) should definitely be viewed as boondoggles, the building of the Visual and Performing Arts Library and public expenditures on it, even the chosen spot for this concentration of public resources, may also be viewed as a another, more traditional form of boondoggle. . .
. . . The Visual and Performing Arts Library was proposed to be built just around the corner from another Boondoggle costing the public billions of dollars, the Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly handed off without bid to Bruce Ratner and his Forest City Ratner company. The VAP would be across the street from, and a sort of extension of, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) with which Ratner had thoroughly involved himself, even assuming chairmanship of BAM's board. See: Friday, July 1, 2011, Cultural Circus? Mr. Ratner's Attempt to Rechristen His Arena A "Cultural Center."
Among other things this involvement meant that the reputation of BAM was put on the line to promote the highly controversial "Atlantic Yards" whose original name is now so thoroughly besmirched by scandal that it has just in recent days been euphemistically rechristened "Pacific Park" in an attempt to outrun criticism But Ratner's involvement at BAM and promotion of its expansion offered other possible advantages for his Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly. . .
At the outset, the VAP Library plan was considered "a main feature of the city’s plan to surround the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a Lincoln-Center-style campus that includes new housing and cultural institutions” which, as one can imagine, would by virtue of its proximity have greatly increased the value of Ratner's Atlantic Yards, probably one reason Ratner was at one point approached for a cash contribution. (See: Bruce to the rescue? Library courts Ratner for big cash infusion, by Ariella Cohen, September 2, 2006, The Brooklyn Paper)
Arrival of Janet Offensend, Officially As of the End of 2005
Janet Offensend makes her first appearance in the BPL’s minutes of September 21, 2004, about half a year after her husband David’s assumption of the position of Chief Operating Officer at the NYPL. When did shrinkage plans start at the NYPL? In a meeting with Citizens Defending Libraries,* David Offensend said, somewhat imprecisely, that NYPL’s consolidating shrinkage Central Library Plan was originated in 2005/2006 with a group of people that came in with him when he started in 2004. And the 2007, suddenly announced, Donnell Library sell-off was first in the works as of when?
(* I am a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries and was at this meeting.)Ms. Offensend makes her appearance as a benefactor of the BPL offering a grant. She makes her gift in conjunction with Marilyn Friedman who had made a donation the previous year so Ms. Offensend's arrival is less conspicuous in one way, but since the grant is “contingent upon 100% donations from all the trustees” it is as if she has tapped each and every one of the trustees on the shoulder to announce her arrival and her generosity.
In the same minutes that document Janet Offensend’s grant with Ms. Friedman it is recorded that the trustees have learned from staff “the library was confronting some very serious space issues” so that the board decided it needed to appoint an ad hoc space committee to deal with the “major causes for needing more space, as well as some possible solutions.” Also at that meeting, the trustees approved the contract with architect Enrique Norton for the Visual and Performing Arts library that would have expanded the system's space at least at the location across from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
|VAP Library New York Times, August 15, 2006|
(* The June 21, 2005 minutes have a report about a gala where Ms. Offensend served as one of the chairs, not one of the BPL’s own galas, but that of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation where her husband David Offensend was on the board. The relevance of the gala’s mention in the BPL’s own minutes seemed to come from the fact that a number of BPL trustees were invited to serve on the gala committee with Janet Offensend, including Antonia Yuille-Willaims and Albert Wiltshire (long-term) and new trustee Danny Simmons. According to the minutes:According to the December 20, 2005 minutes announcing Ms. Offensend’s first truly official arrival at the BPL, Ms. Offensend:
“On June 13th, the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation held is annual gala dinner. Restoration is celebrating 38 years of service to the Bedford Stuyvesant, Ocean Hill/Brownsville and Crown Heights communities. Trustees Albert Wiltshire, Chairman of restoration Corp., and Antonia Yuille Williams served on the Gala Committee. Both Trustee Wilshire and Trustee Williams are also member of the Board of Directors. Trustee Danny Simmons served on the Honorary Committee and Foundation Trustees Bob Catell and Janet Offensend served as Vice Chairs of the gala.”)
. . . conveyed her appreciation to the board for their willingness to have her attend these meetings. It is her goal that the trustees will look ahead and work even more closely together.At that same meeting Ms. Offensend was also immediately put on the advocacy task force for construction of the high profile Enrique Norten Visual and Performing Arts library.
Ms. Offensend’s stay at the BPL just slightly exceeded three years. Her departure is announced in the minutes of the February 24, 2009 meeting, with the information that due to “family considerations” Janet Offensend was unable to continue as a trustee.
In those slightly more than three years a lot happened and a lot changed. Ms. Offensend introduced herself saying that it was “her goal” that trustees of the Brooklyn Public Library and the board BPL’s foundation “will look ahead and work even more closely together,” but by the time Ms. Offensend leaves that goal was more than exceeded: State legislation* was speedily passed in summer 2007 that merged the two BPL boards with Mayor Bloomberg, thus as a practical matter, gaining substantially more control over the “streamlined” organization with new appointments that included Ms. Offensend becoming a regular trustee on the principal board she had once visited to express “her goals.”
(* S6233/A9160 introduced June 2007 and signed into law by the governor as Chapter law 569 on August 15, 2007)There appears to have been little resistance to the Bloomberg takeover, but the September 16, 2008 minutes record that there was lengthy discussion about who the trustees would be and one trustee, Mable W. Robertson, was presciently concerned about mayoral and borough president control over the trustees. As Bloomberg was generously funding Borough President Marty Markowitz's charities in multiple ways this, as a practical matter, translates into a concern exclusively about the control the mayor would exercise either directly or through Markowitz.
The board restructuring was, for the most part, going largely unnoticed by the public, but Janet Offensend spoke to the New York Sun to explain it, saying a single board is the "normal structure" for a not-for-profit. (See: Brooklyn Library Looks To Raise Private Funds, By Kate Taylor, September 19, 2007.) Notwithstanding, the Queens system still has two boards and in a recent CSPAN interview with NYPL president Tony Marx the interviewer assumed that the NYPL has two boards (it doesn't).
In this same New York Sun article announcing the board restructuring, Janet Offensend, explains the BPL's abandonment of its plan to expand mightily by building the BAM Visual and Performing Arts Library:
there have also been setbacks. In May, the city announced it was scrapping plans for a $135 million Visual and Performing Arts Library designed by Enrique Norten, which was to have been part of the BAM Cultural District. The Brooklyn Public Library had not been able to raise the funds.This foreshadows much that is to come, including the plans that develop to sell the family-oriented Pacific Branch to furnish a relatively small library across from BAM that the future head of the library will refer to as a "cultural condominium" library.
Ms. Offensend said that, given the large number of branch libraries in need of maintenance, a project on the scale of the arts library did not make sense. "We are still hoping to have a presence in the BAM Cultural District of some sort or other; it's just not likely to take that particular form."
2007- BPL Library Shrinkage Plans Begin To Go Into High Gear
Although a first indication that Brooklyn libraries would be sold for redevelopment crops up as early as April, 2005, plans for selling off real estate go into high gear starting in 2007, particularly so after the board reorganization legislation is passed. What turns out to be a central feature of this effort starts off in what could seem an innocuous enough description in the February 2007 minutes of a “Capital Budget Request” discussion:
The discussion included-- working with the City to construct a system-wide building condition survey; developing a master plan for capital construction and hiring a construction management firm to supplement staff efforts to complete the many projects that are in various stages of activity as the Library considers a different kind of staffing plan to support Brooklyn Public Library’s capital program.These minutes speak of the "master plan" having as an objective to “right-size” the “construction portfolio,” but it later turns out that the examination being launched ran the gamut of the entire BPL real estate portfolio with “right-size” being the euphemistic term for putting on the table a change in size for all the branches throughout the system. What kind of change in size?: Shrinkage!
Postage Stamp-Size Libraries?
So, if Brooklyn or NYPL libraries were to be shrunk, as per the Donnell and Central Library Plan coming to light as being pursued by David Offensend at the NYPL that 2007 autumn, how small might a “right-sized” library be? Maybe very small. The Red Hook library is considered by many to be very small at a mere 7,500 square feet, yet the BPL recently unveiled plans to shrink it down via the Spaceworks corporation and its efforts focused on the privatizing and shrinkage of library space. The BPL/Spaceworks proposal: Shrink the Red Hook Library by 2000 square feet down to just 5,500 square feet. . .
. . . . But conceptually, libraries could shrivel down to even smaller virtually postage-stamp size spaces. That autumn of 2007 the BPL was considering creating a very much smaller library, a “new library model” it was piloting referred to as an “Out-Post” library in DUMBO. The library would have been only 1,700 square feet. The lease was considered in the September minutes. At the December 18th meeting the BPL hoped to actually start the lease in January. Problems with the lease for the “new model” were mentioned in February 26, 2008 meeting minutes. As of the April 15, 2008 minutes, alternative locations for the “Out-Post” library were being considered. Subsequently the subject of this DUMBO library has not yet come up again.
The details on only a few library shrinkage plans have been made public, so we have only seen what we have seen, but the model of NYPL shrinkage being implemented by COO David Offensend at the NYPL with shrinkages of libraries down to between one third to a quarter of their former size is convincingly aggressive and was followed by the BPL almost exactly when it ultimately unveiled its plans to sell and shrink its Brooklyn Heights central library.
Forest City Ratner Connection to Right Sizing: Ex-FCR VP Hired to Produce Real Estate Analysis Argument For Selling and Shrinking Libraries
There is something ominous and not so innocuous in the February 2007 minutes saying that there would be a “system-wide building condition survey” and a new “a master plan for capital construction,” the “hiring a construction management firm” and “a different kind of staffing plan to support Brooklyn Public Library’s capital program”. . .It is that this would be done “working with the City.” That would be city in the form of Mayor Bloomberg and his First Deputy Mayor Patti Harris who, at that point, were just a few months away from formally approving the NYPL’s shrinkage schemes launched with the sale and shrinkage of Donnell.
By the end of 2007, according to other BPL records, the construction management consultant that would formulate figures to justify the "right-sizing" sale and shrinkage of Brooklyn libraries would be chosen and the firm would start work, including, right off the bat, putting together a projection of needed capital expenditures at the Brooklyn Heights Library that would be used to argue for its sale and shrinkage. The capital needs evaluation for the Brooklyn Heights Library has long been regarded as suspicious and inflated.. .
. . The firm that was hired that did it was Karen Backus & Associates. Karen Backus was Vice President at Forest City Ratner until 1997 when she left to start this firm. The Brooklyn Heights Library is immediately adjacent to Forest City Ratner's One Pierrepont Plaza building. Development rights from the library, about half of them, were transferred out to Forest City Ratner in 1986. The library's development rights are so so intertwined with Forest City Ratner's adjacent property as to constitute Forest City Ratner a gatekeeper to the development of the property and Ratner stands to profit from the library's sale whether or not it actually develops the property itself. For a more detailed analysis see: Friday, September 20, 2013, Forest City Ratner As The Development Gatekeeper (And Profit taker) Getting The Benefit As Brooklyn Heights Public Library Is Sold.
The second library that the BPL prioritized for sale based on the Karen Backus analysis was the historic Pacific Branch, across the street from Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards property and within sight and yards away from the Ratner/Prokhorov "Barclays" arena.
During the time I was researching and writing this article, Karen Backus & Associates, like Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards at the same time, changed its name and website. The firm's new name is "U3 Advisors" apparently the delayed "result of the January 2014 merger of U3 Ventures, LLC and K Backus & Associates."- Karen Backus & Associates was formed 1997. Karen Backus and a preponderance of others who were at her firm had backgrounds with New York City's development agency, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC). Most of the team on her site recently were new arrivals with the exception Steven Jacobs who joined Backus in 2005, another one of the Backus team that came from EDC. Before that Mr. Jacobs worked with the Mayor’s Office of Transportation. Mr. Jacobs was lead manager for KBA's work with NYU’s much-criticized Abu Dhabi campus construction. The Backus firm has worked on Brooklyn Bridge Park (there is a great deal of overlap between those working on Brooklyn Bridge Park and those working to sell and shrink libraries, including, to mention another one, David Offensend's position on the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation board) and on “Upper Manhattan Redevelopment Studies,” for NYCHA the owner of New York City’s public housing (where efforts are similarly being made to sell-off those public assets). Thor Equities, the firm that led the dismantling of amusements at Coney Island was a client. . . . Oddly, the firm did not list the Brooklyn Public Library as having been one of its clients.
Community Needs Assessment- Another Consultant to Strengthen Rationales For The Plan
Someone thinking about it might have considered that it would appear rather silly to structure a system-wide sell-off and shrinkage of libraries around the thinking of one real estate consultant, one with questionable allegiances at that. After all, when it comes to building and designing buildings, isn't one supposed to start with what one wants to accomplish and the needs one wants to serve? Not to worry: The BPL plans evolved to make things look better; a second consultant would be hired to retroactively fill in this gap with a "community needs assessment."
While BPL records indicate that Backus had assessments already in place in 2007, the BPL September 16, 2008 minutes, about a year later, indicate that an RFP (request For Proposals) for a community needs assessment would be done in an effort to catch up. (The minutes do not appear in any way to indicate that such a competitive bid or process was used to select the previously hired Backus firm.)
By the way, an almost axiomatic fact of life in the realm of public administration is that, if you are going to do something that might look really stupid, that, in fact, may actually be really stupid, you should hire a consultant to tell you that the potentially very stupid thing you are going to be doing is actually a very smart thing. In retrospect, the NYPL's Central Library Plan and sale of Donnell appear to have incredibly stupid decisions but the NYPL, ahead of time, hired high-priced consultants to explain for the record that they made all the sense in the world. Booz Allen Hamilton was just one of them. In his article about the NYPL's real estate plans culled from examination of their minutes Scott Sherman wrote for The Nation:
Finally, what was the role of Booz Allen Hamilton—the gargantuan consulting firm whose tentacles reach into the defense, energy, transportation and financial service sectors—which was hired by the NYPL in 2007 to formulate what became known inside the trustee meetings as “the strategy”?For more details about whether Booz, and what possible other "consultants" might have been involved specifically in the Donnell sale and other real estate matters, and at what point, read Mr. Sherman's entire article: The Hidden History of New York City's Central Library Plan- Why did one of the world's greatest libraries adopt a $300 million transformation without any real public debate? August 28, 2013.
* * * *
In January 2007, Booz Allen Hamilton was hired to assist the trustees with “the strategy.” On February 7, the trustees went into executive session (the substance of which is never covered in the minutes) to discuss “certain real estate…matters.” Booz Allen appears to have finished its work by May, because the board held two “special meetings” the following month (June 6 and June 28), at which the strategy was unveiled and discussed. (At this time, First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris was told of it, and she and her colleagues expressed “initial enthusiasm.” NYPL officials also met with Mayor Bloomberg in 2007.)
* * * *
The NYPL is known for its institutional sluggishness. But the minutes show that the trustees moved swiftly in 2007. Offensend, at the first special meeting, reminded the trustees that “Booz Allen, based on its extensive experience with large organizations, recommended that the strategy be implemented as soon as it is approved by the Trustees.” Three weeks later, the trustees passed a resolution approving the new strategic direction, and board chair Catherine Marron, who served in that capacity from 2004 to 2011, noted “the crucial assistance provided to the effort by consultants Booz Allen Hamilton.”
The BPL didn't hire Booz to do its "community needs assessment," but, before the ten year's worth of minutes runs out, the BPL did hire Booz as another of its consultants, apparently upon instigation from City Hall and Patti Harris, yet another consultant to advocate that "right-sizing" was advised. This we will return to.
November 18, 2008- A Most Remarkable Set of Minutes, "Strategic Real Estate Plan" Unveiled
|November 18, 2008 minutes- appearing all collectively, an interestingly related set of matters receive board attention|
It is a remarkable set of minutes:
- Backus is introduced to present her "initial findings" about the condition of the entire system's real estate facilities "along with preliminary ideas for maximizing BPL's ability to provide library services throughout Brooklyn."
- "As these findings continue to be developed, they will be further evaluated together with those of the soon to be initiated BPL Community Needs Assessment Plan." (emphasis supplied)
- A task force is created "to work on a timeline and communications plan for the Strategic Real Estate Plan."
- "BPL will continue [continue?] to explore all possibilities regarding the emerging mixed-use [like Donnell/Brooklyn Heights?] real estate opportunities"
- The BPL will, at city request, start deferring expenditures for its "uncommitted city funded capital projects"
- The BPL retains Pfeiffer Partners and Associates, the architectural firm that proceeds to do the $5 million Grand Army Plaza White/Levy Commons, to "create a Master Plan for Central Library."
The task force created at the meeting to promote the "Strategic Real Estate Plan" is to be led by Trustees Sharon Greenberger and Eric Eve. Although Mr. Eve, the son of an important politician, has held a number of positions over the years, “a veteran corporate and public policy strategist” was “senior vice president at Citigroup” and “Verizon,” “held the senior intergovernmental relations position for New York State comptroller Carl McCall," all indications are that Bloomberg-appointed Sharon Greenberger was the true leader of this task force.
Ms. Greenberger, Chief of Staff for Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding Dan Doctoroff when she was appointed to her five year term as BPL trustee in December of 2004, is interesting, including her familial connections with politics and real estate. The following is from a New York City Department of Education press release about her departure a number of months following the brief troubled tenure and departure of Schools Chancellor Cathie Black, a Bloomberg appointee from the public relations world without education experience.
Sharon Greenberger first joined the Bloomberg Administration in 2002. She served as Chief of Staff for then-Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding Dan Doctoroff from 2002- 2005. She then briefly left the Administration to become Vice President of Campus Planning and Real Estate for New York University. Ms. Greenberger returned to the Administration in 2006, when she was appointed President and CEO of the New York City School Construction Authority. She served in that role until 2010, when then Chancellor Joel Klein appointed her COO of the Department of Education.(See: Chancellor Walcott Annouces the Departure of Chief Operating Officer Sharon Greenberger; Veronica Conforme, DOE'S Chief Financial Officer Will Assume the Role of Chief Operating Officer, 10/05/2011.)
Greenburger was also involved with and was described as having "bolted" from the NYU expansion plan in 2006, and was criticized by Greenwich Village Historic District Director Andrew Berman for her involvement in selling air rights to developers, quipping that the same thing might now happen to NYC schools, ultimately a very valid concern. (See: Planning czar bolts N.Y.U. for Bloomberg schools job, By Lincoln Anderson, April 19 - 25 2006)
While the initiation of the city-requested deferral of capital items is partial, "approximately 20 percent," it is important because the build-up of deferred capital items that begins here in late 2008 will later be cited as the pretext or rationale for selling off libraries. Just recently in this year of 2014 we read this:
Driving the proposed sale, BPL claims, is a whopping $300 million in deferred capital repairs, including $82 million in immediate needs. . . . capital funds must come either from selling off assets or from the budgets of public officials.(See: Who Can You Trust in Brooklyn Heights Library Sale? By Michael Randazzo on June 5, 2014.)
Prior to this meeting and build-up of deferred capital costs, the December 18, 2007 minutes show capital needs of $109 million of which approaching half was for acquisition and upgrades.
The total request of $109 Million is broken down into three categories.This is the fall of 2008, but you probably shouldn't conclude that the deferral of capital expenditures is in response to the Wall Street crisis, September 15th being the date of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, because the script was written ahead of time. The minutes reference this arrangement as being something that the NYC Office of Budget and Management has approved after the BPL's Capital Planning & Facilities Oversight Committee had submitted the plan early in September. This description and the entirety of the minutes make no reference to the bankruptcy that was topping the financial headlines. In fact, it is not until the meeting of February 24, 2009, skipping over the December meeting, that the first recognition of a potential long-term fiscal downturn appears in the minutes. Even then there is no connecting mention to the deferral of BPL capital improvements, plus the "Master Plan" for the Grand Army Plaza Library was discussed as if it were still going at a good clip.
Critical Neighborhood branches ($67M)
Site Acquisition ($5.8 Million) for Browar Park
Infrastructure Upgrade projects ($36.4M)
It is worth noting how much the Master Plan for the Grand Army Plaza resembles the NYPL's Central Library Plan, starting with how the Levy Commons shoves aside books to add technology without adding space. . In fact, in both cases, library space was also being discarded elsewhere in the system.
It is also key to observe that the deferred capital repairs and immediate needs are built up in two ways, by actual deferral, and by Backus's identification of potential capital costs that will become reasons to target library buildings for sale, including her analysis that the Brooklyn Heights Library is massively in need of a staggering shopping list of necessary repairs, including the need for a new and very substantially upgraded air conditioning system. She concludes that the air conditioing is needed despite prior evaluations of the city's Department of Design and Construction to the contrary. . .and . . according to BPL records, Backus was able to conclude this about five years before the Brooklyn Heights air conditioning breaks down and 'can't be repaired,' an event that happens right on cue only months before the scheduled January 2013 announcement to the public that the building was going to be sold.
Ms. Backus's next appearance is at that 2009 meeting which is also the meeting at which Janet Offensend's departure from the board was announced. The minutes say:
Trustee [Sharon] Greenberger introduced Karen Backus, President, K, Backus and Associations, Inc. (KBA). KBA has completed their study of the Real Estate Plan for the Branch Libraries and p[resented their findings to the Board. The Task Force will continue working with KBA on other aspects such as cost estimates that can be included in the presentation to the full Board in April. At that point, there will be a discussion on implementation strategies.The minutes then say something relating back to something in the December 18, 2007 minutes, around the time Backus had first started work for the BPL. No thought might have been given to it by the average person then: Those earlier minutes simply said that new trustees website was being implemented. Now, in connection with delivery of Ms. Backus's study, the trustees are informed:
Staff will make available through the Trustees' web site, assorted documents from the Backus report. All comments should be directed to the committee.The delivery of Backus documents through the website could make an audit trail more difficult, making it more difficult to see what documents said what at a particular time and putting things where auditors may be less likely to pick up on them. Maybe not. Perhaps time will reveal. . . . Presumably, "the committee" (above) to whom comments should be directed was Ms. Greenberger's task force working on the Strategic Real Estate Plan.
"Community Needs Assessment" Underway
While Ms. Backus's study was now stated to be "completed" we learn from Bloomberg appointee Laura Ensler that the "community needs assessment" is "underway," being conducted by the Ivy Group. The Ivy Group is a marketing agency from Charlottesville (1001 E. Market St.), that does web design, graphic design, branding, marketing, public relations, video, advertising, and digital strategy services. A segregated set of web pages pitches its services for libraries, advertising that the BPL is one of the four libraries for which it has done "strategy projects" (the others being the Hershey Public Library and the Des Moines and San Antonio public libraries). The board was told the community needs assessment would be presented in April.
Can you guess whether the Ivy Group's recommendations would support real estate deals to reconfigure the system's real estate? Since a soupçon of suspense is good- we will get to that in a while.
Ms. Ensler was appointed by Bloomberg to the BPL board in March of 2003 and recently, in 2012, was also appointed by Bloomberg to the board of the now besieged Queens Library board.
Board Changes- Laurel Blatchford, Another Board Member With a Doctoroff Past- South Street Seaport's Bankruptcy
The first meeting of 2009, the February meeting, reflects a number of concurrent changes of trustees on the board in addition to Janet Offensend's departure announced at the tail end of meeting. There are too many to make it worthwhile to go into complete detail though interesting stories might be told. There are the trustees that Janet Offensed is involved in recommending to leave behind in her wake, those that are reelected by the rest of the trustees, Borough President Markowitz makes some reappointments including attorney Nicholas Gravante who in this year of 2014 became the new chair of the board. Two of those leaving the board are Elly Klienman (with a record of Medicaid abuse going back to 2005, although politically active) and Danny Tsoi (owner of the Ocean Palace Restaurant in Sunset Park and described sometimes as a community leader).
The departure from the board that provides some of the most telling insights is covered by the announcement from Board Chair Thomas Amon (Bloomberg appointed) that "Laurel Blatchford, who represented Mayor Bloomberg as his designated representative on the BPL Board of Trustees has moved to Washington, DC to serve in the Obama Administration's urban development."
Ms. Blatchford, who served for the mayor on the BPL board 2007-2009 (roughly the same time as Offensend) was going to work under Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, who himself went to the Washington from his job with the Bloomberg administration as housing chief, where one of the things he had worked on before he left was privatizing NYCHA property. According to the HUD page announcing her appointment by Donovan:
Ms. Blatchford worked for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for six years, first as a Senior Policy Advisor to Daniel Doctoroff, the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding and then as Chief of Staff and Deputy Commissioner for Strategy Planning, Policy, and Communications at New York City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). . . . She played a leadership role in many major initiatives while at HPD, including the Mayor's 165,000-unit New Marketplace Housing Plan, the rezoning of Greenpoint/Williamsburg, and the City's response to the mortgage foreclosure crisis.. . . .During her tenure in city government, she worked closely with city agencies and private partners on major mayoral initiatives, including the redevelopment of the Far West Side of Manhattan and the transformation of the High Line.Although still representing Mayor Bloomberg on the BPL board, Blatchford was no longer working for the city when she went to work for Donovan:
She joined the Obama Administration from General Growth Properties (GGP), a Chicago-based real estate investment trust that has holdings across the United States and abroad, where she was Vice President for Development and Project Director in the New York City office. During her tenure at GGP, she directed the company's plans to redevelop the South Street Seaport, a GGP property.Bankruptcy Unlikely to Shut the South Street Seaport, by Charles V. Bagli, April 17, 2009. While some might say that General Growth Properties work was a "redevelopment" of the historic Seaport district, others would more acerbically christen it a dismantling of the original vision intended to benefit the public. The bankruptcy and theoretical inability to profitably run the shoreline property bordering Wall Street canyons has been the pretext to dishonor the prescriptions of the original lease with the city and thereby build sky-scraping towers instead, essentially acquiring a vast amount of building rights without paying for them.
Blatchford's job at General Growth Properties had her outspokenly selling its plans to the press and community:
"I think we've done a lot of work to engage the community and really feel we've made connections with people and gotten input all along the way," said Laurel Blatchford of General Growth Properties.(See: Plan To Restore Tin Building Divides Manhattan Neighborhood, By: Rebecca Spitz, 10/23/2008.)
More Plans to Sell Real Estate Previously Unmentioned
The minutes for this eventful first meeting of the year in February has a major revelation that comes out of the blue: Even while the Backus real estate study and Ivy Group "community needs assessment study" were being readied as a red carpet to welcome library system real estate deals, there were other plans existing with an independent, previously undisclosed, life of their own. Described here and never mentioned before or afterwards in the minutes, is an intent to sell the Sunset Park Library for redevelopment and another study, referred to cryptically as "the Revson Study," marshaling library buildings as candidates for redevelopment. The apparently somewhat secret study almost became the reason to deprive Sunset Park Library of a renovation the community was awaiting:
Emerging Mixed Use Real Estate Opportunities was also discussed.* The Library currently has a capital renovation project at Sunset Park that has project funds totaling $1,390,000. The project is in design and expected to start construction in summer 2010. Sunset park has been identified in the Revson Study as a potential candidate for redevelopment and the Committee [Capital Planning & Oversight Committee- co-chaired by Sharon Greenberger and Alice Fisher Rubin] weighed the calculated risk of holding off on the capital project and redesignating these funds to another project, versus continuing as is. The start of the Revson project may be delayed given the complexities and challenges that the Library is faced with the current economic downturn.
The Committee recommended that Brooklyn Public Library proceed as planned with the capital project at the Sunset Library because the Revson project does not, as yet, have a confirmed schedule.
(* The underlining is in the minutes, probably indicating a trustee's requested revision before final adoption.)There is nothing in the minutes from which to make any sort of suitable guess about what "the Revson Study" is. By referring over to the Queens system minutes one might speculate that it could have something to do with the Fifth Avenue Committee, but the Queens minutes themselves have no reference to such a study. The fact that the Revson Foundation is also a supporter of and contributor to the library-shrinking Spaceworks firm also provides little clue.
While we have been focusing on documenting the progress towards formally implementing a system-wide strategy of library real estate deals that surfaced in at the beginning of 2007 with the plan of hiring a real estate right-sizing consultant and progressed as the 2007 board restructuring legislation was passed and then with the hiring of Backus and plans for the community needs assessment, now is probably the best time to mention that there were other independent indications that library real estate was going to be up for sale and redevelopment.
Redevelopment of Crown Heights Brower Park Branch library
|Brower Park Library- BPL asked a developer to submit a more formal proposal respecting putting a 7-floor residential tower at the site|
September 18, 2007 Minutes- "The Library's current lease at this site ends in May 2008. The Landlord has proposed the following to BPL: demolish the building and build a 7-floor residential condominium; a new library would be on the ground floor; the library space would be available for purchase by the City; BPL has expressed interest in this opportunity subject to further due diligence, board approval and the availability of capital funding."The December minutes also include in the preliminary capital budget request figures, $5.8 million for site acquisition for Browar Park.
December 18, 2007 Minutes- “Brower Park Branch– Developer has agreed to submit to BPL a proposal outlining an offer for a new branch library on the site in a more formal and detailed manner.
Libraries That Are Leased- BPL's Use of Eminent Domain
In most cases, New York City owns Brooklyn's libraries. The city owns them even though Andrew Carnegie donated many of the libraries specifically with the intention that they be libraries. The BPL occupies the building legally as a tenant of the city although it needn't pay rent. In some cases though, as with a newer library like the Brower Park Branch, the BPL, as tenant, pays rent to a private landlord. It's an expense the BPL wouldn't have if the asset were publicly owned, and it also puts investments in longer-term capital improvements at risk, because they stand to be lost if the lease isn't renewed due to escalating rent.
The May 20, 2003 minutes provide an overview:
Staff provided an information item about the status of property lease renewals and extensions. Leases are being extended for Crown Heights, Kensington, Paerdegat and Ulmer Park. The lease for Brower Park has been renewed. It was expected that Sheepshead Bay would soon be renewed.Buying a library like Brower Park, leased from a private owner, for public ownership expands the library system, increasing its overall capital assets.
BPL currently leases about 72,000 gross square feet for branches around the Borough, at an FY'03 cost of about $1.3 million for rent and taxes. These costs have escalated and are budgeted at $1.5 million for FY'04.
|Ulmer Park Library - Acquired by the powerful tool of eminent domain|
|Gravesend Library- described by BPL as part of its "strategic real estate plan," City Councilman Domenic Recchia found money for that purpose. The plan?: It would be acquired by eminent domain.|
reminded the Board that the strategic real estate plan included the purchase of several leased branches and reported that Councilman [Domenic] Recchia had found funds for BPL to purchase one of those branches, Gravesend.Going back to February 20, 2007, the minutes indicate that the BPL was also proceeding to acquire the Gravesend Library site (nearby Ulmer Park) via eminent domain at that time.* Some plans are in the works a long time.
(* Added 9/1/'14- I didn't pick up any cue in the BPL's minutes, but the Real Deal, which reports focusing on real estate matters, reported this year that the McKinley Park Branch library may soon also be taken by eminent domain. See: the City could seize Brooklyn library to save on rent, March 10, 2014, and the Brooklyn Paper, at that same time reported the BPL would similarly acquire all seven other branches that it doesn't own, with their spokesperson David Woloch saying, "I would not be surprised if we pursued a similar path down the road for some of the others." See: Brooklyn Public Library wants to seize Dyker branch building, By Will Bredderman, The Brooklyn Paper, March 10, 2014. In that Brooklyn Paper article Woloch engages in some standard coy devlopement-speak, saying that although an eminent domain court proceeding was brought and pursued with respect to the Ulmer Park branch, eminent domain wasn't used, because the owner, confronted with the seizure, settled before the end of the proceedings.)Sale of Midwood Library
|Midwood Library- Wanted by a developer|
Without there being any preamble or prior hint of any sort, the minutes of the meeting April 19, 2005 recite that a developer was angling to buy the 12,200 square-foot Midwood Library:
A proposal regarding the sale of the Midwood Library was presented to the Executive Committee for review at their January 25, 2005 meeting. President Thomas affirmed that the Executive Committee voted not to pursue this issues. This decision was presented to the Board for discussion at the meeting. After discussion,Where might such a possible sale stand now with the BPL and its reconstituted board looking at real estate "opportunities" with respect to all its portfolio? Some plans are in the works a long time.
Trustee Alice Fischer Rubin MOVED to ratify the Executive Committee's decison not to pursue this issue. Trustee Danny Simmons seconded it. A VOTE of hands was taken with 12 ayes, 1 nay (Morris Missry), and 1 abstention (Thomas Amon), MOTION carried.
Approving and Promoting An Unconvincing Real Estate Strategic Plan
According to the February 2009 minutes the next meeting, April 28, was supposed to be the meeting where the Ivy Group would present the "community needs assessment," but it wasn't ready although Nancy Davis, Cathi Alloway and Pam Fitzgerald from the Ivy Group did come to talk about their work on it. That didn't mean that the Backus "Strategic Real Estate Plan for the Branches" wasn't ready for adoption with the "community needs assessment" still destined to catch up. Likewise the Central Library Master Plan presented by Pfeiffer Partners that would "maximize the Library's ability to deliver the library services needed in the 21st Century" (i.e. not books or real estate) could outpace the assessment.
Ms. Backus presented her findings from which the trustees picked one of two options (the differences not identified in the minutes) recommended by the Capital Planning & Oversight Committee, co-chaired by Sharon Greenberger and Alice Fisher Rubin. According to the minutes:
The adoption of the plan will enable the BPL to begin discussion and take actions that support a strategic vision. As opportunities arise, the BPL will have the benefit of the plan to guide its response. The plan will enable the BPL to take a proactive approach to the improvement and right-sizing of its physical plant.The plan was adopted specifying that certain further specified actions, moved by Alice Fischer Rubin and seconded by Laura Ensler. First of the list of those additional actions to be taken was that there be (emphasis supplied):
a continuation of KBA’s [Backus'] analysis that will strengthen the argument for the approved strategyIt is interesting to speculate in what ways the trustees thought that Backus' analysis might, at that time, have been making an insufficiently convincing argument for the strategy so that further work was required to strengthen the argument. It is also noteworthy that the instruction here is not an instruction to pursue truth or a factually balanced and correct analysis.
|The BPL board votes unanimously to continue the Karen Backus "analysis" to "strengthen the argument" for the real estate strategy. . . In the meantime, they will begin promoting that strategy.|
- The beginning of an exploratory conversation with key government officials
- The development of short-term and longer-term communications strategies for Trustees and staff as they promote the plan with elected officials and stakeholders
The BPL was getting its ducks in a row in another respect. Apparently, the city Landmarks Commission was asked to inventory the BPL portfolio to identify what libraries were historically significant. Landmarks, like libraries, was another city agency affecting real estate overseen by First Deputy Mayor Patti Harris. According to the minutes, the BPL was going to juggle the possibility of landmark designations to meet its real estate needs, a rather frank acknowledgement that the system works in ways we often pretend it doesn't:
Landmarks informed BPL that they had completed their survey of our branches and found that we have 8 branches that are potentially eligible for designations as landmarks. The Committee [Capital Planning & Oversight Committee, co-chaired by Sharon Greenberger and Alice Fisher Rubin] recommended that in response to Landmark's request to prioritize these branches, the Library will respond that we are conducting a comprehensive analysis of our real estate portfolio and would like to wait on any decisions on landmarking individual sites until the Board has reviewed and approved the findings of the analysis.Lack of Trustee Involvement- Brooklyn Heights & Pacific Branch Covered By Plan
There's one statement in the minutes at which to be aghast:
Since the presentation of the Strategic Real Estate Plan to the board in February there have not been any questions from trustee attendees.All the BPL's real property is going to be put up for a reshuffling down-sizing, right-sizing of the system through real estate deals and not one trustee has any questions?
Also disconcerting, although the "Strategic Real Estate Plan for the Branch Libraries" will be referred to again in subsequent meetings, never will the subject of the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library ever appear in the minutes before the public announcement that the BPL intends to sell it. That announcement, like announced sale the sale of Pacific Branch library will be based on the "Strategic Real Estate Plan," sidestepping any transparent trustee involvment.
What references to the Brooklyn Heights central library appear in the minutes?
- The December 16 2003 minutes discuss book donations to Brooklyn Heights, observing “this is one of our larger collections, with a number of donations from the community.”
- June 21, 2005 Minutes- Brooklyn Heights Library was a great success for the Spanish Spelling Bee with a May 21st photo in the NY Times.
- June 21, 2005 Minutes- The Adult Summer reading kick-off was on June 29th at the Brooklyn Heights Library. (According to weather Almanac it was 87 degrees, so presumably the air conditioning was working without any problem that day.)
- September 19, 2006 Minutes- Acknowledgement that Brooklyn Heights is a distinct Central Library
- June 17, 2008 Minutes- Trustee Ensler mentions that a "Power Breakfast" will be held the next day (June 18th) at the Brooklyn Heights Library (either they were planning ahead for a cool morning or expecting the air conditioning would work if needed.)
Representative [Carolyn Greer of the Borough President's Office] reported that the Borough President’s Office had received many complaints and concerns about the Library’s plan for the Brooklyn Heights branch. She said her office would be represented at community meetings to listen to these concerns and would pass them along to BPL as needed.In the minutes it is exceedingly rare that something causes an ex-officio's representative to speak up on a topic.
Libraries Will Always be There?
The public was going to be taken by surprise by the sell-off plans, and with good reason. As the BPL board was approving the real estate sell-off plans Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz was soliciting the public's donations for the libraries, running a "Support Our Shelves" campaign where he was flourishing assurances that the libraries were going to be there through good times and bad:
"Brooklynites may be forced to tighten their belts, but guess what?" Borough President Marty Markowitz declared at the "Save Our Shelves" kick off event held at Grand Army Plaza on Thursday. "Libraries are still there for us. Through good times and bad, libraries are shining beacons of knowledge, places where you can fill your mind without worrying about breaking the bank."(See: BPL to readers: `Don't be shellfish, donate money, by Joe Maniscalco, March 19, 2009.) Markowitz was coordinating with the BPL and sending his then representative Carlos Sissura to represent him at the trustee meetings so he certainly should have known better.
"Community Needs Assessment” Finally Arrives November 2009
At the November 17, 2009 meeting, seven months after adoption of the Strategic Real Estate Plan and the BPL's proceeding with the Grand Army Plaza Master Plan, the “Community Needs Assessment” was finally presented by Pam Fitzgerald and Nancy Davis of the Ivy Group. This could easily have been problematic were the results not preordained.
The results of the “Community Needs Assessment” were quite the opposite of problematic . .
One of the “Community Needs Assessment” findings?: The Brooklyn Public Library should be engaged in "support for economic development"!
The report also found that system weakness included: "a large number of facilities, aging facilities, and a risk averse culture."
Other things the report recommended the BPL focus on included: "technology," "innovation and risk" and “alliance and partnerships.”
There were twelve points in all, the first two supporting reorganizations at BPL. "Philanthropic Support" was third and fourth was "Branding, Marketing and Public Relations."
At least, the report had to acknowledge that in New York, where libraries are very heavily used, the BPL was first in usage among the city's three systems.
The minutes say that in a cautionary instruction Fitzgerald and Davis said that the board “must act swiftly to move the institution ahead.”
At this point the BPL is on the cusp of further changes. There will soon be a new executive to head the library, replacing Executive Director Dionne Mack-Harvin. The recommendations in the "community needs assessment" alluding to reorganization ("organizational development") could have foreshadowed this. (The April 27, 2010 meeting minutes have some additional difficult-to-interpret references to implementing Ivy Group recommendations.)
Dionne Mack-Harvin's departure was very well covered in the press. Ostensibly, Mack-Marvin quit the first week of March 2010, and the reason she quit was, ironically, stated to be that BPL board was angry with her that the firing of 13 BPL employees had been so well covered in an article about the work of a firm of corporate "downsizing" experts. That article had appeared in the Washington Post the previous August. Another possibility?: Ms. Mack-harvin may herself have been on a longer list. June 15, 2010 is the last board meeting Ms. Mack-Harvin attends before departing. Those fired in the summer of 2009 included four long-time chefs working in the Grand Army Plaza libary. . . to make way for the new Master Plan?
Air Conditioning Contract With Performance Mechanical Corporation Delivers Performance Contrary To What One Might Expect
Transitions can be funny twilight zones. The minutes of the last meeting Ms. Mack-Harvin attended that June describes the approval of "two major service contract renewals," one of them a $1,200,000 5-year contract (described as "up from $978,900") for Performance Mechanical Corporation, "a Brooklyn-based company that will service BPL's system-wide HVAC needs." . . .
Rather than being Brooklyn-based, Performance Mechanical Corporation actually seems to be based in Long Island (New Hyde Park L.I. or 932 Tooker Avenue, West Babylon, NEW YORK, 11704) and/or New Jersey (Belmar, NJ 07719).
There is very little that can be picked up from the internet to glean information about the firm, but from NYS Secretary of State filings it looks like one of the individuals associated with the company is Scott R. Cohen, an attorney who is apparently listed as practicing in Bellmore L.I. and Cherry Hill, NJ 08034 (Touro Law School, admitted 1990). A general practice lawyer, he handles a range of cases in areas including real estate, malpractice, criminal defense and corporate and commercial litigation. Another individual the firm appears to be connected to from those filings is Chris Gomes, a consultative real estate professional with international business experience in commercial real estate development, investment and management. According to the web, Chris Gomes joined the National Hospitality Group at Marcus & Millichap's Dallas office in 2009 as an Associate, bringing over 15 years of hospitality brokerage, advisory and operations experience to the firm. Prior to joining Marcus & Millichap Gomes worked as a Senior Consultant at PKF in Dubai.
The minutes do not indicate that the $1,200,000 5-year contract was bid by competitive process, something the Queens library system's minutes routinely assure. From the minutes it appears that Queens bids each new iteration of a contract, so that a `renewal' would not be an exception from competitive process. Also, the Queens system does not put all of its HVAC responsibilities in the hands of one one single contractor; instead it breaks up responsibilities. The Brooklyn minutes do not indicate how long the prior version of the contract being renewed at this time was, or whether that previous contract was bid. That makes it impossible to detect how much of a jump in price the renewal actually amounted to and to know how far back the contract might have been competitively bid. There is no information about the firm's prior performance, or whether there were problems with it.
Information respecting some of these questions may or may not have been put before the board at the time it acted, notwithstanding their exclusion form the minutes, but the questions are important . . . . The questions are important because, almost exactly two years later, the summer of 2012 that preceded the planned winter announcement of the first of the system's library sales, massive problems start being reported with air conditioning in libraries throughout the system. One of those affected libraries is the Brooklyn Heights Library whose air conditioning system (only partially broken) is declared to be entirely unfixable. (See: More libraries fall as heat nears 100 degrees, by Mary Frost, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 6, 2012.)
At the time of these widespread breakdowns the Performance Mechanical Corporation's contract still had three years to run. Now, two years later, the problems persist with a high coincidence of libraries being affected that that are also targeted for eventual sale like Clinton Hill and Sunset Park. (See: Sunset Park Library Goes Weeks Without Air Conditioning, Residents Say, by Nikhita Venugopal on July 29, 2014.) This July, when the BPL presented plans to sell to Spaceworks and privatize a portion of the Red Hook Library, the meeting was held in the Red Hook Library with the community attendees sweltering. The air conditioning was off as the BPL explaining that the air conditioning would be fixed if the library space sell-off and shrinkage occurred. (See: Red Hook residents angered over proposed sale of library, by Jess Berry, Jul 30, 2014.)
|The Red Hook community showed up at a sweltering CB6 Land Use Committee meeting to protect their library against proposed shrinkage even as they were told that the air conditioning would be fixed if the library could be shrunk|
Linda Johnson Arrives as New BPL Head To Floor The Accelerator on Library Real Estate Sell-off Plans
July 20, 2010, the meeting after the hiring of the air conditioning firm, Linda Johnson arrived at the BPL as the new interim Executive Director (a position eventually corporately rechristened "president,"). She comes from National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and before that Free Library of Philadelphia. Johnson says the first “great challenge” she faces is “getting the organization to think strategically” and says that the good news is that “we’ve done some great work we’ll be able to build from. the community Needs Assessment and the Real Estate Plan which is certainly going to be the foundation that we’ll build from.”
Digression On a Problem- Who Runs Libraries- Do You Need To Be a Librarian?
Linda Johnson immediately announces that she is expanding the senior management team from three people to nine and, at the next meeting, augments that expansion further. We'll skip the details of itemized names, but it appears that there are a number of title changes that appear to be promotions that probably aren't truly (you know, like grade inflation at colleges) mixed appointments that insert new people into higher level positions- Traditional change of management slieght-of-hand.
One senior appointee to keep track of in all this is librarian Richard Reyes-Gavilan. Reyes-Gavilan first came to the BPL (November 2007 minutes and beginning work January 2008) from the NYPL just as it was announcing the sale and shutdown of Donnell. He had worked at Donnell earlier in his career, but came from NYPL Central and there in no evidence that he worked on the Donnell sale. At the October 11, 2011 meeting the board approved him as Director of the Library and Chief Librarian, a newly created position escalating him from being in charge of just the Grand Army Plaza library. In this new position he oversaw the library sell-offs ultimately before the public although he seems always to have been amenable to the new `vision' of things. It is Reyes-Gavilan who explains in the December 15, 2009 minutes that the White/Levy Information Commons is a space with “lots of different things happening all at the same time, mostly technology."
Rising to his new position Reyes-Gavilan tells the Brooklyn Eagle, “I look forward to working with Linda to lead the transformation.”
Reyes-Gavilan's appointment to the newly created position is critical to solve one problem. Linda Johnson did not have the professional qualifications to meet the New York State professional librarian requirement for public library directors.
NYCRR TITLE 8 - EDUCATIONDid it leave the BPL somewhat in the lurch when Mr. Reyes-Gavilan departed for Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2014, leaving the increasingly publicized library sales behind him?
§90.8 Appointment of library personnel
(3) A library which is a member of a public library system and serves a population of 7,500 or more shall employ as director only persons who hold the public librarian's professional or provisional certificate or a certificate of qualification. The library shall employ in all other professional librarian positions only persons who hold the public librarian's professional or provisional certificate, a certificate of qualification or a conditional certificate.
Ms. Johnson's predecessor, Dionne Mack-Harvin, has a master’s in library science from SUNY Albany’s Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. It's an ALA-accredited library school. She began her career in 1996 as a librarian at BPL’s Crown Heights branch.
Thomas Galante, president of the Queens Library system, has a Master of Library and Information Science from Queens College. NYPL president Marx apparently doesn't ahve such qualifications, but, as Linda Johnson was doing, covers the lack with Mary Lee Kennedy who has an MLS and is the Chief Library Officer, and with Ann Thornton who has an MLS and is the Andrew W. Mellon Director of The New York Public Libraries. Anne Coriston has an MLS and is the VP for Public Service.
Johnson Charging Ahead
At the next meeting, September 21, 2010, Linda Johnson says that “everything she would be doing over the coming months would tie back to strategic planning so that the BPL would be a strong institution in the long-run.” Invoking the word "strategically" yet again she says it is “important to think strategically while making financial and operational decisions.” She then proclaims that her first step would be an October 1st and 2nd Board retreat.
Board retreats for substantive discussion, if quorums of the trustees are present, are likely violations of the New York State Open Meetings Law. The reason is obvious: Since there are no minutes and the retreat was not open to the public no one can say what of substance may have occurred at such a meeting except for the fact that Johnson tells the trustees that the retreat would focus on board responsibilities with Jennifer McCrea, “marketing and branding” with Ed Tettemer (out of Philadelphia- on Twitter a “brand therapist” and “dot connector”) and Mo (Maureen) Craig. She also tells the board members that there will be a presentation by the founders of a company, Espresso Book Machine, that is setting up to print, on demand, books that aren't at the library, but only if those books are in the public domain.
Prospect That Dormitory Authority Would issue Bonds?
Then, at this her second meeting Ms. Johnson did something unexplained that was unprecedented in prior minutes and about which there is no discernible follow-up in later minutes. She:
asked the Board to fill out the questionnaire from the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY). This documentation must be executed in order to receive funds from DASNY.The Dormitory Authority of the State of New York provides funds by issuing tax-exempt bonds for non-profit institutions. The questions respecting this seeming priority of Ms. Johnson is, what kind of bonds would DASNY issue for the BPL and how would it issue them . . .
. . I worked many years for the state's financing authorities and participated in the issuance of quite a few billion dollars worth of bonds. Pardon if I get technical here, but one doesn't normally issue bonds unless they are backed by an income stream or an entity with income streams that make it a suitable credit, even if one can put up assets such as real estate as security. A library building is real estate that can be forfeited if put up as securities, but libraries don't generate income with which to pay off bonds. An entity like the NYPL with a substantial endowment expected to generate income from it plus a expectation of large future gifts might do some borrowing based on its own general credit based, but it makes little sense for the BPL, dependent on the fluctuating support from the city, to issue bonds, especially when the city is cutting its funds.
But if the idea was that the BPL might be involved with library sell-offs to create mixed use projects. . . If it were envisioning air or development rights like those over the Brooklyn Heights Library were going to be converted into tall towers. .
In the early 1980s the Museum of Modern Art pushed the envelope of what could be built with tax-exempt, so-called `municipal bonds' in a very convoluted scheme to finance, Museum Tower, the 52-story luxury condominium tower next to it on a tax-exempt basis. (See: Museums Turing To Air Rights For Revenues, by Howard Blum, January 7, 1983.)
In an article, "Government by Subterfuge," for the City Journal (Winter 1995), Michael S. Gruen described the transaction:
the State Legislature concocted another special tax exemption, this time to benefit the Museum of Modern Art, which faced financial problems and needed additional space. MoMA owned several brownstones west of the museum building. It wanted to acquire additional property and then develop the entire site to provide both exhibition space and a steady source of income. The city, state, and MoMA developed what the Court of Appeals described as a "highly intricate and imaginative scheme" to finance a 50-story Museum Tower housing museum facilities on the first six stories and condominium apartments on the other floors.Gruen notes how the Court of Appeals ruled the scheme legal, but dissenting justices considered it:
But how to ensure a flow of income to the museum? Condominium owners don't pay rent after all-but they do pay property taxes. MoMA needed a way to tap the taxes for itself. The city obliged: it would exempt the property from taxes but require the condo owners to make tax-equivalency payments to the museum.
"gimmickry" designed to conceal a subsidy from the public and irrevocably commit longterm support to a single institution.A point those astute justices and Mr. Gruen may have missed, however, is that, like similar diversions/conversion of tax revenues into "tax-equivalency payments," like Brooklyn Bridge Park (or the Atlantic Yards arena), depending how things are sliced and diced and depending on how these things are `negotiated,' this financial benefit also readily becomes a subsidy to construction of the luxury towers themselves.
Was the MoMA scheme, or something like it, involving creation and difficult-to-understand use of the Trust for Cultural Resources to get around what would otherwise have been prohibited, a one-shot aberration? or was it likely to be repeated? Defending the plan after the first New York Times article, William S. Paley and Blanchette H. Rockefeller wrote this in a letter to the Times editor (emphasis supplied):
The museum's expansion project, a model for cultural institutions seeking to secure their financial future, deserves correct depiction if others are to consider similarly innovative solutions.(See: The Modern Museum's No-risk Project, January 18, 1983, January 18, 1983.)
One might hope that bonds issued by DASNY for the BPL would only be used for good, librrary purposes, not to help sell libraries off.
This year a law was passed in Albany (Assembly Bill 9241 and Senate Bill S6931, introduced April 2nd, signed into law by the governor August 11, 2014) that lets DASNY finance projects of the Brooklyn Public Library among those previously eligible for the financing of projects through the Dormitory Authority. The legislation was sponsored in the State Assembly by Lentol, Brennan, Cymbrowitz, Abate, Brook-Kransy, Camara, Davila, Jacobs, Millman, and Mosley, and in the Senate by Marty Golden, who has a history of support for and connections to Forest City Ratner.
On April 24th, Citizens Defending Libraries met with Assemblymen James Brennen, one of the bill sponsors, and received critical assurances that the legislation would under no circumstances authorize DASNY to issue bonds for any kind of mixed use project like the Museum Tower or a skyscraper at the Brooklyn Heights Library site. But what is its intent really?
Bonds could be issued to catch up on any true deferral of capital expenditures for libraries if the general credit of the city or the state were put on the line, but that wouldn't be through DASNY. That was what many were hoping for when Governor Andrew Cuomo was proposing this year to issue $2 billion in state taxpayer-backed bonds for education purposes that could have included libraries. See: Cuomo pushes $2 billion school-bond issue, by Jessica Bakeman Jan. 8, 2014 and the end of this video about extending the bonds to libraries, NY Library Association's concerns over funding cut, 01/24/2014.
Time For More Booz and a Gracie Mansion Patti Harris/Mayor Bloomberg "Summit"
Ms. Johnson's fourth meeting (February 8, 2011) is the one where she tells the trustees that Booz & Co. has been hired. It's as simple as that: She does not say anything about there having been an RFP or one having been needed. She says that Booz has "extensive experience with libraries" and would be involved with right-sizing, but it is not recorded in the minutes that she said this experience was connected to sale and down-sizing of Donnell at the NYPL. She says that Booz would be "helping BPL for a two month period" (emphasis supplied) but does not say that, after the three city library systems met at the "summit, hosted by First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris," Booz would work for a much longer period for all three library systems:
Ms. Johnson spoke about the engagement with Booz & Co. to increase efficiency within BPL and to develop strategic cost-cutting measures. She reported that BPL staff had tried to strategically change service delivery models but found it difficult, if not impossible, to be objective about cuts; BPL hired Booz & Co. to help in the effort. Booz came to BPL with extensive experience with libraries and would be helping BPL for a two month period. The goals would be to reduce cost, right size operations, improve efficiency and generally improve service to patrons. The consultants had gathered information and were analyzing it. The consultants met with various Library stakeholders including staff and Board members. DC37 had not yet been involved but both Booz and BPL staff had reached out to them in hopes of including Union representatives in the discussion. The expectation was that Booz would develop a list of possible improvements in time to meet FY12’s adopted budget but it would beThe "summit," described alternately in the Queens Library minutes as a "retreat," was at Gracie Mansion Monday, March 7, 2011 from 9:30 AM to 4:00 PM, and also attended by the Mayor's Office of Management and Budget. Ideas such as "collaborative opportunities like Shared Service Agreements" were discussed. One gets the sense of interest in a possible merger of the systems under mayoral control. Mayor Bloomberg himself was present at the retreat.
up to BPL staff to implement.
Ms. Johnson reported that the three City library systems would be meeting at a summit, hosted by First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris and underwritten by the Revson Foundation. The goal of the summit would be to find areas for collaboration amongst the systems to improve the operations and reduce the operating costs of all three.
|From the Executive Director's log in the Queens minutes- Mayor Bloomberg attends the "summit"|
At that same February meeting, Karen Backus again presented the Strategic Plan for the Branches. It turns out the plan was at this time going to cost the BPL around $1 million. Ms. Johnson says:
that Ms. Backus had presented to the Board before but BPL wanted to update Board on what had been happening in the meantime. She added that the reason to bring it to the Board at this time was that BPL needed $925,000 to move forward with the plan and wanted the Board to approve this funding. She also noted that this was a business plan and was not set in stone. Ms. Backus presented the plan, noting that the most important aspects relate to the facilities’ renovation needs, staffing efficiently and meeting changing community needs. The Board discussed the plan, including how it could affect low-income communities, the equitable distribution of closures and improvements across geographic and demographic areas, the changing footprint of the branches, branch performance, changing technology, community response and potential maintenance needs.
|Who gets hurt most when libraries are sold, shrunk, books eliminated? The above image, from a PowerPoint presentation in the Queens Library minutes was retweeted a number times when I tweeted: "Library Service most important to low-income users: 2/3rds visit at least weekly, & almost 30% visit every/most days."|
Blueprint to Merge Library Operations
When the next meeting (April 4, 2011) rolled around, Ms. Johnson updated the board that the three systems:
had submitted to the Mayor’s office a blueprint for future collaborations. Possibilities included: one library card for the three systems; a centralized processing operation; and centralized purchasing operation; shared digitized collections and more. She said the most important aspect of the summit was the breaking down of barriers between the systems an the opportunity to start thinking about how best they could work together.Minutes Document Intended Secrecy About Sales. . . And Identify Pitfall of Such Practice
|Names of "affected" libraries were removed from the real estate plan causing problems for OMB. . . still, the were shared only "in strict confidence."|
The next meeting (May 17, 2011) would be just one month later, as would be the one after that. Its minutes explicitly document the BPL's decision to keep information about the libraries' sales secret, even from the city's Office of Management and Budget (though probably not from the mayor having so many appointments, nor his senior staff). OMB points out a fatal flaw with such secrecy (emphasis supplied):
Ms. Johnson stated that, per the Board’s recommendation, BPL presented the real estate plan to OMB, removing the names of the affected branches. She said the meeting went well but that OMB was reluctant to give funds to any branch in the future as, from the presentation, they were unsure if the branch would be used as it was currently. She asked the Board for their goahead to present the names of the affected branches to OMB to help them understand the plan further and to build good will. She stated the information would be shared in strict confidence. The Board voiced no opposition to this proposal.Sharing such information about branches to be sold "in strict confidence" exclusively with the city's Office of Management and Budget does not solve the problem of telling all the funding decision makers what they need to know to make an appropriately informed decision: The New York City Council also reviews and approves the city budget and would be left in the dark. Similarly, other library funders like the state and federal governments would be left in the dark. So would private funders. The NYS Education Department regulating and requiring annual reports for state aid plus submission of a five year plan of service would be uninformed. The general public being regularly appealed to for donations and supplying tax money would be too. And obviously, as was intended by this secrecy, every library-using constituent and intended beneficiary of the library's services with inalienable political rights, no matter whether they were rich or poor, would be denied the ability to protest or complain about such plans or appeal to their elected representatives.
It's perhaps all the more deceptive because this kind of secrecy is the opposite of what we expect from those who run libraries, Not so long after confirming that information about the sales should be kept in "strict confidence," Ms. Johnson on a Municipal Art Society forum panel on libraries, Libraries as Cultural Hubs, in April of 2012, is addressed by Sam Roberts of the New York Times as moderator who says (at 21:41):
As a journalist I have often found that librarians and archivists are really some of my favorite people. I deal a lot with people in government whose job is to withhold information [audience laughter]: It's a pleasure to deal with people whose job, and intent, and instinct is to share information.This, and Ms. Johnson's reaction, is viewable as a clip here (click through to YouTube for best viewing): Linda Johnson's Secretive Moment at MAS Libraries Forum.
The plan had to be kept secret because, if disclosed, its expected unpopularity would likely sound its death knell. Similarly, it was anticipated that other electeds, those of the next administration, would not favor the secret plan.
Plotting to Lock In the Next Mayor- Mr. de Blasio?
|"the goal was to get far enough into the plan with this Mayor [Bloomberg] so that when a new Mayor takes office [de Blasio], the plan will be deep in progress and he or she will not derail it."|
At the October 11, 2011 meeting, Ms. Johnson made absolutely clear on the record the goal of locking the next mayor into the real estate plans that were secretly underway (emphasis supplied):
Ms. Johnson continued with a report on the real estate plan. She reminded the Board of past conversations about the plan and let them know that the goal was to get far enough into the plan with this Mayor so that when a new Mayor takes office, the plan will be deep in progress and he or she will not derail it. She thanked Board Chair Crowell and Trustee Kimball for their work helping with moving it forward.Board Chair Anthony Crowell, whom Ms. Johnson thanked for moving the plan forward was Bloomberg's legal counsel, a senior policy adviser to him, and one of his earliest and longest-standing BPL trustee appointments, first appointed in January of 2003. Is this to say that such incipient plans may have gone back even that far?
|Candidate Bill de Blasio, July 12, 2013, running for mayor, calling for a halt to the sale and shrinkage of New York City libraries. . . Linda Johnson and the BPL wanted to constrain him, intending that he be powerless to bring about such a halt.|
How much more of this history is there to tell?
- Though it is not in the minutes, in October of 2011 Ms. Johnson meet with the Daily News to speak with mysterious abstractness of plans to sell certain valuable real estate with the pretext of paying for "repairs."
- As noted, the summer of 2012 became she summer air conditioning breakdowns are complained of around the system, including the air conditioning system of the Brooklyn Heights Library which is proclaimed unfixable.
- January 2013, the BPL announced the sale of the Brooklyn Heights and Pacific Branch libraries, but ddid not identify what other libraries were to be part of its plan.
The next really significant thing in the minutes about real estate deals shrinking libraries is in the board's June 27, 2013 minutes where the board votes "to approve [apparently without any competitive bid] signing the license agreements with Spaceworks for the spaces in the partnership projects taking place at Red Hook and Williamsburgh." . ..
. . . Ironically, this vote to shrink libraries with long-term leases (evasively dubbed "license agreements") was on the same day that New York State Assemblyman Micah Kellner was holding a powerful day-long hearing about the sale and shrinkage of libraries. The public turned out en mass to oppose these sales and nearly everyone engaged in this fight to save libraries was there. That's why I wasn't at this particular BPL board meeting even though I had begun observing these meetings in person, a helpful practice because the BPL had begun to shorten its minutes, paring them down to uninformative sparseness.
It's A Snapple?
Let's digress to elucidate . . ..
The 2007 legislative restructuring of the BPL board before launching the real estate deals gave Bloomberg augmented, surer influence over the BPL board, but it is instructive to know that the BPL board was pretty tractable to his wishes before that. This can be seen with respect to one of the board's first ill-advised forays into “partnership” with the private sector.
To appreciate the story fully you will have to remember that before Mayor Bloomberg was against sugary drinks he was for them and he was pushing them on New York City residents and school children. The minutes for November 15, 2005 meeting (the meeting the month before the December 20, 2005 meeting when Ms. Offensend arrives at the meeting as Trustee Foundation chair) record the following:
BPL is building on New York City’s partnership with Snapple and is prototyping the installation of Snapple Machines in seven branches and Central. BPL will be the first public library in New York City to participate in the Snapple relationship, and it is expected that this will provide a new source of revenue to the institution.The New York City Comptroller had already criticized Bloomberg’s Snapple partnership deal as having been done without a proper competitive bid, and sued. Separately, Bloomberg used mayoral control of schools to put the machines in schools for children. More than a year before coming to the libraries the two contracts Bloomberg put through for this “first-ever marketing deal” to make the beverage the city's exclusive brand aggregated $166 million and was much criticized already.
The Queens Library and its head Thomas Galante took a different tack as set forth in its February 17, 2005 minutes:
Mr. Galante reported that the City’s Marketing Office has sought the installation and sale of Snapple beverages in libraries and he had advised the City that the Queens Library was not interested in participating in the City Program.Too bad the BPL didn't follow the prior action of the Queens library as its model. Just four months after the BPL’s going forward with the Snapple “partnership” the New York Times was delivering a postmortem on the Snapple program’s embarrassment and failure calling the criticized contract “a symbol of unfulfilled potential, with the deal failing to generate the revenues the city had hoped.” See: Snapple - News Analysis- Why Snapple Deal Shrank, By Sewall Chan, March 10, 2006.
That Times article explains that Daniel L. Doctoroff, the deputy mayor for economic development, was also the chairman of the non-profit Marketing Development Corporation, in charge of the Snapple partnership. This Marketing Development Corporation was set up with a loan from the city's Economic Development Corporation also under Doctoroff’s auspices and the Times article explains how the “deal has cast a spotlight” on the somewhat questionable operations of this oddly-created entity. Doctoroff communicates apologetically in the Times article:
that the Snapple arrangement "proved more difficult" than he had anticipated, in part because officials "assumed it would be easier to get machines located in properties controlled by the city."Partnering With . . . Ratner?
Remember that one recommendation of the Ivy Group was that the BPL enter into more "partnerships"?
What might more "partnerships" look like?
Ms. Johnson's "President's Report" in the December 13, 2011 minutes is a brief jumble that uninformatively tells one that certain things were discussed, engagement of Booz, more of that shared coordination putting together the systems that Booz was working on, the BPL's Master Plan for the Grand Army Plaza Library. . . "and possible partnerships with the Brooklyn Nets." . . .
. . . In about nine months time the Ratner/Prokhorov so-called "Barclays" arena would be opening so no doubt some publicity would be appreciated.
Even before the November 2009 Ivy Group recommendations that the BPL enter into more partnerships and should engage in "support for economic development" the BPL board was apparently predisposed to support Ratner and his Atlantic Yards.
In February 2007 community “free-speech advocates” charged that the BPL was censoring “a politically charged art exhibit inspired by Atlantic Yards” ("Footprints: Portrait of a Brooklyn Neighborhood") by removing from it images critical of Forest City Ratner and its mega-project, including a “portrait of Yards opponent Daniel Goldstein” that:
showed the activist staring calmly at the viewer - and its creator thinks it was cut not because the image itself was too hot to handle, but merely because of the political baggage Goldstein carries in the fight against Yards developer Ratner.The show, which portrayed the “condemned 22-acre area where Atlantic Yards is slated to be built, capturing those who live and work there on the eve of the land's condemnation,” consisted mostly of “documentary-style depictions.” (See: Atlantic Yards-Images the Brooklyn Public Library doesn't want you to see- By Ariella Cohen- The Brooklyn Paper, February 17, 2007.)
Queens Library System Independence
During this same decade the Queens Library system under Galante diverged to show independence in ways other than refusing to "partner" with Snapple and the fact that it was growing substantially, intending to grow more, while the other two systems were looking to sell off libraries and real estate that would shrink them.
The Queens system elected not to merge its book-sorting operations in a new central operation with those of the NYPL and BPL even though that book sorting operation called "BookOps" was to be established in Queens, its very own borough. BookOps would enable the NYPL and BPL to buy fewer books and drive down the price of books, while keeping far fewer of them on-site at local libraries, so that in some banter between Ms. Johnson and Chairman Crowell, not recorded in the minutes of the October 22, 2013 meeting, it was noted how unfriendly this `model for urban libraries around the country' would be for struggling independent booksellers, yet another factor that might drive them out of business. All those minutes record about the presentation and discussions at that meeting:
PRESENTATION- BookOpsAs noted, the BPL minutes have become much less informative.
The minutes of the February 21, 2013 Queens trustees meeting set forth the following about why the Queens system was not participating in BookOps:
As we have discussed, Queens Library decided not to merge into this for several reasons: It would not save us money, in fact, it would have cost us money. But this doesn't mean that we couldn't have citywide services. We are moving ahead with plans to accept universal returns from BPL and NYPL. This would be a great service for all New Yorkers. It is not contingent on a consolidated NYPL sorting center at all. We can return NYPL and BPL books through our existing self-check in system and the upfront cost is only $45,000 for the self-check software updates to implement this.The Queens minutes refer to Wall Street Journal coverage of the BookOps sorting operation: NY Region- Libraries in Four Boroughs Plan to Unify Some Tasks, by Jennifer Maloney, February 15, 2013. In the Journal article, Galante, the Queens Library head, offered more specifics about the costs and absence of savings while endeavoring not to appear obstreperously uncooperative:
Queens Library President Thomas Galante said relocating book processing to Long Island City from the library's current hub in central Queens would increase trucking costs and wouldn't achieve any labor savings.The NYPL's David Offensend is quoted to present opposite thinking:
But, he said, even without merging back-office operations, the Queens Library could still collaborate with the other two systems to make a universal library card and citywide book returns possible.
"It's going to be an all-for-one, one-for-all thing," he said. "This is not like Queens not wanting to play ball."
"It actually makes it far more economical," said David Offensend, chief operating officer of the New York Public Library. "The logistics side flows all through one place. You take out huge labor costs."More in that vein comes from BPL and NYPL officials as follows:
The "Book Ops" merger is expected to save the Brooklyn Public Library $2 million per year and the New York Public Library about $1.5 million per year, the libraries said.Were the NYPL and BPL officials using calculations from the Booz firm? Probably, given the many, many meetings attended by the firm about consolidating operations. The Journal reports the obvious: that although "the Queens Library isn't participating in the merger. . . city officials had hoped that all three libraries would join operations." The article also mentions the Gracie Mansion "summit" at which Mayor Bloomberg appeared.
Library officials said the upfront costs totaled $340,000, and the consolidation won't involve any layoffs or involuntary relocations. The Brooklyn library will still select its own materials, Ms. Johnson said.
There are hints, partly in the form of a denial, of thoughts being given to a merger that would take away the Queens system independence:
New York ended up with three separate library systems through a quirk of history.One example of independent identity and programs?: Spaceworks! The Bloomberg-created private firm that is pursuing, as a principal mission, the privatization and shrinkage of NYC library space, and which lists the BPL and NYPL as two of its principal partners. . . but Queens isn't `partnering' with Spaceworks.
* * *
While they are exploring ways to improve access to patrons across the city, the libraries have no plans to merge into one citywide library. They will retain their own identities, programs and services geared to local communities.
|Queens minutes document the Queens board rejection of Bloomberg's appointment of Haeda Mihaltses, Chief of Staff for Patti Harris.|
The rejection apparently resulted in a fair amount of pressure on Queens president Galante, including calls with Patti Harris, Nanette Smith, Bloomberg council Michael Best. One might also wonder about what happened in visits Galante gets from others, such as developers around this time. November 6th, the day that after the new mayor, de Blasio, was elected, Galante meets with Michael Best at City Hall.
The picture at the NYPL was different, November 4th, the eve of the de Blasio election, the NYPL was having a "Literary Lions" gala event honoring Bloomberg despite his history of unprecedented cuts in library funding so often complained of by the NYPL and the other two systems and despite Bloomberg's then known role in selling off and shrinking NYC libraries.
In the end, the Queens Library's rejection of the Haeda Mihhaltses appointment was less than entirely successful: In December, the final month Bloomberg was in office, Mihhaltses became a trustee when Bloomberg had other of his trustee appointments resign to clear the way for her ensconcement. A few month's later, The New York Mets ensured Ms. Mihaltses would be adequately looked after in terms of employment while she went forward acting as a a trustee: The Mets named her to the "newly created position of Executive Director, External Affairs."
Now, in events people that have heard about widely, the composition of the Queens board, under siege, is in the process of changing wholesale. Via enabling legislation passed in Albany, the board has been largely cleared of the appointees of former borough president Helen Marshall, whose term ended at the end of the year along with Bloomberg's. See: 8 Are Removed as Queens Library Trustees, by Tatatiana Schlossberg,* July 23, 2014, Mayor de Blasio and Queens borough president dismiss library trustees in ongoing investigation, by Claire Kelley, July 25, 2014, Former Qns Library Trustees Sue BP Katz, by Joe Marvilli, August 7, 2014.
(* NOTE: One of these articles is by the daughter of Caroline Kennedy, someone who, in his busy schedule, Mr. Gravante once took on a tour of Queens libraries- according to the Queens system minutes.)Without stopping to parse some of the less significant details, the chief and major complaint about these dismissed Queens Library trustees is that they tolerated a salary for Galante, $392,000, that is considerd to have been too high. But there are significantly higher salaries being paid at the NYPL and nobody is making congruent objections. His first full year at the NYPL president Tony Marx was rewarded with a compensation package of $781,000 (perhaps not including his expense account) and his predecessor, during his last year in office, recieved total compensation of $1.4 million. A level down, NYPL COO David Offensend in 2011 was being compensated, $372,712, not all that different from Galante. See: Saturday, March 16, 2013, Read All About It: Library System Burglars Are Getting Inside Help - AND - The Mystery Of The Brooklyn Heights Association.
Open Meeting Law
Most of the history consolidated here could not have been written were it not for the New York State Open Meetings Law that requires meetings of the three library system trustees to be open to the public, minutes to be kept, and those minutes to be available to the public. Once upon a time, opportunity for the public to attend or read those minutes was not taken advantage of,. Nevertheless, perhaps someone gave thought to this possibility.
In Decemeber of 2003, the year Bloomberg's counsel Anthony Crowell was appointed to the BPL board, the BPL requested an opinion as to whether the BPL was subject to the Open Meetings Law. . . in other words, whether its activities were going to be subject to a certain amount of sunlight. The answer was that they were.
|"TMI"? Queens minutes stack up providing much more information than the BPL's|
Corporation Takeovers- Ducks In a Row
One of the things that one likely does if one is going to take over a corporation or an entity and steer it in new directions is to initially do inventory and check on the rules. This might look like a certain amount of housecleaning, there may be changes on the board. Lawyers and other hired professionals may be taking a fresh look at what's what. Checking on application of the Open Meeting Law can be an example of such inventory. . . restructuring the board another.
One of the groups that has been key in spearheading support for the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library is a group named "Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library" that has existed for many years. In 2012, just as the library's air conditioning was about to break down that group went through a lot of housekeeping and trustee changes and then the new trustees were told that they could not oppose the proposed sale or shrinkage of the library and resignations were invited from those who didn't agree. See: Saturday, April 13, 2013, Condoning The Sale and Shrinkage Of The Brooklyn Heights Library, Does The Brooklyn Heights Associations Think Of Friends Group As A Fig Leaf? It Should Think Again.
Conflicts of Interest
If you were going to use a public library system for the purpose of "supporting economic development" and start selling off its libraries, questions about "conflict of interest" would be some of the housekeeping and inventory you would want to do. Readers of this article have probably already found themselves wondering why all these real estate machinations were not violative of some conflict of interest rules or something of that ilk.
The meeting of January 20, 2004 (the same meeting where it is confirmed that the BPL must observe Open Meetings Law requirements) a "Conflict of Interest Policy" was inserted into the Trustees "handbook." A draft conflict of interest policy was then later reviewed at the February 15, 2005 meeting.
At the January 17, 2006 meeting something very interesting happens. The minutes report that trustee Mark Lieberman (a Fox Business Network Senior Economist and on-air commentator) raised the question of Anthony Crowell’s conflict of interest as an employee of Bloomberg in proposing the library’s budget message. At that meeting it was agreed to request a ruling from the Conflicts of Interest Board before the February 28th meeting. Do you think of government as being slow, especially when tackling difficult, thorny questions? . . (That's something Fox commentators might rail about.)
. . . in short order, in time for the February 28, 2006 meeting, the Conflicts of Interest Board opined that it would not be a conflict of interest for Anthony Crowell to perform activities on behalf of the BPL (case number 2006-041, dated February 6, 2006) Which means it took exactly 14 business days to prepare and submit the request and receive a Conflicts of Interest Board response. Express or not, the permission granted by that Conflicts of Interest Board opinion was also likely deemed to apply to new trustee Jordan Barowitz, appointed by Bloomberg at the January 17, 2006 meeting, the “First Deputy Press Secretary at City Hall.”
Having a possible conflict of interest because you are working for a mayor who wants to turn libraries into development tools is one kind of possible conflict. Barowitz went on to have others. In November he married Elisa Beth Zuritsky (a writer-producer for the HBO series "Sex and the City") whose father was the chairman and chief executive of the Parkway Corporation, a parking and real estate development company in Philadelphia. Her mother was on the board and the chairwoman of fund-raising for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. It tends to be difficult go to work for big New York real estate firms without familial connections, but shortly after that Barowitz left the Bloomberg administration and went to work for the Durst Organizatin, one of the city's biggest.
One might hope that library trustees entrusted with preserving billions of dollars of public assets paid for by taxpayer money would be subject to the same public disclosure filing requirements as other public officials. Those filings are intended to shed light on and prevent conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, library officials don't have to file them, although State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky thought he had closed this loophole with legislation.
In 2008 the Queens Library decided to go to the city Conflicts of Interest Board seeking an exemption from disclosure filing rules. The BPL trustees, observing, decided to follow suit and did likewise, per their November 18, 2008 minutes. The COIB granted the exemption, ruling over the objection of such people as Senator Brodsky. See: Gray Areas Seem to Grow in State Law on Disclosure, by Alison Leigh Cowan, October 12, 2008 and September 13, 2008, Note to Civic-Minded: Prepare to Reveal Riches, by Alison Leigh Cowan.
In the first of the two Times articles above about the "sort of hairsplitting" whereby the Conflicts of Interest Board found the disclosure would not apply although “state lawmakers who had hoped to shine a light on civic groups that operate in quasi-governmental capacities,” Assemblyman Brodsky is quoted as follows:
"That kind of wiggling around is not acceptable," said Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat who is chairman of the Assembly's Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, which had a hand in developing the law. On Friday, Mr. Brodsky announced that he would hold a hearing on compliance with the law in coming weeks.
"If people want to argue that we've captured the wrong kind of organizations, we're going to listen very carefully," he said. "But we're not going to accept wild gyrations that turn words on their heads."
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“The law is written broadly,” he said. “What we said was if you’re acting in the place of government, you should be treated like government.”
It is not that the Conflicts of Interest Board wasn't willing to take actions showing that it could be tough and sensitive to infractions. Days after the the COIB threw out the disclosure requirement it sought to fine a librarian at Brooklyn Technical High School, Robert Grandt, for pridefully promoting his daughter's new graphic novel version of of "Macbeth." (See: A Brooklyn Librarian Is Fined for Promoting His Daughter’s Book, by Alison Leigh Cowan, October 21, 2008.)
Are you now convinced that the public can rest assured that the Conflicts of Interest Board is doing its job?
In 2009, the New York Times wrote about how the Conflicts of Interest Board was likely not so reliable for discerning conflicts pertaining to Mr. Bloomberg: City Board Set Up to Monitor Ethics May Have Conflicts of Its Own, By DAVID W. CHEN, Published: September 6, 2009:
But even as they scrutinize the ethics of others, several board members, all five of whom were appointed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, have ties to city funding and the mayor's fortune that raise questions about their own potential conflicts.
Ultimately, while still a BPL trustee, BPL Board Chair Anthony Crowell, by virtue of Mayor Bloomberg's appointment, himself became a member of the regulating Conflicts of Interest Board.
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Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a nonprofit government watchdog, said, "There may be reason to question how strongly they are monitoring the activities of senior administration officials, given that they have ruled against a number of lower-level city employees for rather minor mistakes or judgments and then appear not to be as equally fair-minded in their review of higher-level folks."
In a well-functioning democracy it would be hoped that Conflicts of Interest Board opinions would be easily and readily obtainable, that the city government would, itself, have a robust system for researching and accessing these and related documents and/or that one could walk into any library to find them. There isn't such a robust system. Finding and obtaining the rulings above is a challenge, but one porthole through which such information can be pursued is through a private source, the site linked to by the Conflicts of Interest Board site, . . .New York Law School's. Yes, that's New York Law School where Anthony W. Crowell is President and Dean. This is probably too much privatization and too much conflict.
I called the Conflicts of Interest Board and asked about Spaceworks and its creation. The lawyer on duty opined without equivocation that it violated the conflict on interest rules and was almost incensed that I would propose such an outrage- But will that be what the COIB holds when they find out that this scheme for shrinking public space is another Bloomberg-formulated plan?
There is probably even more to write than this. Among other things the Brooklyn Public Library minutes speak euphemistically of the `21st Century Library' and they say this and that about initiatives to do some things digitally, but they are virtually silent about the elimination of books from the system or the fact that the system's shelves now are strangely empty of books pursuant to apparent direction as has been reported at the NYPL. (For pictures, see: Saturday, September 14, 2013, Empty Bookshelves As Library Officials Formulate A New Vision of Libraries: A Vision Where The Real Estate Will Be Sold Off. . .
. . . I attended the most recent meeting of the BPL trustees, June 26, 2014. The trustees were told that there had been a recent dip in the number of "old-school type analogue books" (i.e. BPL jargon for physical books) that library users were reading- breaking the rule that the public doesn't participate at these meeting, I called out, "That's because you can't find books on the shelves."
Along with books, librarians and other essentials are similarly disappearing.
And what are we spending to get rid of these invaluable resources? The minutes document that just one consultant was paid close to $1 million at the outset. And so many consultants what were the total costs for consultants and their studies?: Karen Backus & Co., The Ivy Group, Booz & Co., The "Revson Study," the "branding" and PR consultants, among them Berlin Rosen. The lobbyists? If the libraries are not required to use competitive bid processes to hire contractors, what does it mean when they accommodate City Hall, which ought to be subject to such requirements, hiring firms to spend vast amounts sidestepping such oversight or constraint?
As the BPL minutes document, the plans for selling libraries, though they go back to 2005, are secret; the intention is to push them so far along that, when disclosed, elected officials will already consider themselves locked in. These plans are fraught with negative ramifications for the public that will assuredly make them unpopular. Nevertheless, when Linda Johnson was asked by Public Advocate James at last June's hearing what other libraries are in the works and being looked at for sale, Ms Johnson did not describe the plans or even begin to list libraries closest to being sold. . .
. . . Shouldn't Ms. Johnson at least have disclosed what the BPL minutes themselves publicly document? That there is a long list of libraries being considered for the sort of real estate deals that sell and shrink them, that there is a "Strategic Real Estate Plan" prepared by former Forest City Ratner Vice President Karen Backus that includes, to name only a few, not only the called-for sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library, but also: Pacific Branch, Sunset Park, Williamsburg, Brower Park Library, Midwood Library, Gravesend Library, Clinton Hill Library . . . and what others? To start naming libraries is to promote opposition and it also deprives the BPL of its divide-and-conquer strategies. . .
And, speaking of disclosure, what would have happened if Ms. Johnson had admitted that the purpose of Ms. Backus's study of the branches was to "strengthen the argument for selling libraries," . . . . which goes along with the BPL's having started to defer capital repairs at the same time?
The minutes of the Brooklyn Public Library tell us much about those who are supposed to be protecting our public assets . . . and what really directs them instead. They don't tell enough, but the template of what is being done is clearly visible. It is a template that applies to, and can likely shed light on, many other stories unfolding in this city, many of which have made cameo appearances here. Those stories often involve the same people in power with respect to other public assets being sold or dismantled in very similar fashions: Long Island College Hospital, Brooklyn Bridge Park, South Street Seaport, NYCHA's public housing, New York City schools, NYU's expansion through Greenwich Village, the hand-off of a swath of Brooklyn to Forest City Ratner once referred to as "Atlantic Yards. Those who have been granted such power operate mostly out of the public view, utilizing pretext and predetermination towards results that, when announced, they would have the public believe are inevitable, but aren't. . . results that most of us would consider contrary to the public interest, which is why they are pursued by stealth and misdirection.
I am uncertain whether an Open Meetings Law review of documents respecting some of these other sell-offs of public assets could be as revealing the BPL's. If not, it's all the more reason to study the revelations of this chronicle for insight.
I have set forth this particular history, such as it can be discerned, in exhaustive, but I hope not exhausting detail. I hope these explorations engaged you throughout. Still, despite the great deal that the minutes do disclose, all that can be deciphered only points to how much more needs to be investigated. Certainly, we have identified here a great deal that should be addressed and covered by the next (now ongoing) audit by the New York City Comptroller. There are also all the other elected potential investigators we elect and pay to work for the public: The State Comptroller, the State Attorney General, the New York City Public Advocate, the City Council, the New York State Department of Education regulating libraries, the State Legislature, the federal government. . . . the mayor can investigate too. . .
. . . But there is so much about the City's library sell-offs that has already been disclosed to public officials urging them to investigate that has not been followed up upon. That's why it is is good that the public has tools under the state sunshine laws to investigate these matters on its own just as was done here, . . .
. . . and it's why those tools should be used by the public to investigate these matters further.