Saturday, November 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

1 comment:

Sonia Collins said...

Thanks for this exhaustive expose contrasting what is promised and what is delivered.