Thursday, January 31, 2013

New City-Wide Policy Makes Generation Of Real Estate Deals The Library System’s Primary Purpose

Library Trustee meeting Tuesday night at Brooklyn Heights Library proposed to be sold to a developer
Do we want a shrinking library system for a growing, wealthier city? . .

. . .  It’s what we are going to get as the principal purpose of the library system becomes the generation of real estate opportunities for developers.  This new city-wide policy has, in a very harmful way, turned into a perverse incentive for the city to defund libraries and drive them into the ground.

Read Michael Kimmelman’s article on the front page of the New York Times this week to learn more about the plans to shrink, and consolidate into each other, three of the most important midtown libraries, a plan that involves irreversible elimination of the irreplaceable research stacks of the main library at 42nd Street.  See: Critic’s Notebook- In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions, January 29, 2013. Mr. Kimmelman is the New York Times new architectural critic.  At the time of her recent death, Ada Louise Huxtable, the first Times architectural critic, for whom that post was created, had gone on to write for the Wall Street Journal.  Her very last column in December is also stingingly critical of the plan to shrink and consolidate Manhattan's main libraries:  Undertaking Its Destruction, by Ada Louise Huxtable, December 3, 2012.

Meanwhile, the same thing is going on elsewhere in the system.

Brooklyn Heights heard of parallel plan this week, also to create real estate opportunity for a developer (the library system's spokesman for the plan said that envisioned deal could quite possibly be made with Forest City Ratner, owner of the adjoining site, through a no-bid arrangement with the city).  Once again system libraries would be shrunk for consolidation purposes, this time Brooklyn’s Downtown Business Library would be moved out away from the business district and to move into already existing library space the main branch would have to give up at Grand Army Plaza.  A much smaller library of more limited purpose would remain in Brooklyn Heights built into what a developer builds on the site.  (See: FIRST PUBLIC AIRING: Plans to rebuild Brooklyn Heights library, move Business branch, face a skeptical audience, by Mary Frost, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 30, 2013 and also LIBRARY SHAKEUP: Business library quits Downtown; questions shroud future of Brooklyn Heights branch, Carnegie libraries, By Mary Frost, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 16, 2013 and Tale of the Tweets: Brooklyn Heights Library Hearing, By Homer Fink on January 29, 2013.)  The Brooklyn Heights library is at 280 Cadman Plaza West at the corner of Tillary Street.

At the same time,1.2 miles away the system is proposing to sell the Pacific branch library in Boerum Hill next to another Forest City Ratner property, the very highly subsidized "Barclays" arena spearheading the Ratner mega-monpoly.   That library is at 25 4th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11217, on Pacific Street right near the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue.  (See:  Brooklyn Public Library plans to sell two dilapidated  branches and move them into smaller locations, Brooklyn Heights and Boerum Hill branches on the block, by Reuven Blau, New York Daily News, Tuesday, January 29, 2013.)  Presumably, Forest City Ratner will have the inside track to expand its government-assisted mega-monopoloy at that location.

Josh Nachowitz in the Brooklyn Heights Blog
At the meeting this week in Brooklyn Heights Josh Nachowitz, the spokesman for the library's plan, denied that the system was looking at real estate deals system-wide and had been doing so for some years.  This was despite the fact that I interjected that system had been looking at doing such deals for a number of years.  In 2007 I was interviewing with a developer for a position and was given by them a list of library sites in Brooklyn (not otherwise discussed in this article) the city was reaching out to developers about.  Instead, the representation made at the meeting was that the library system was responding to a recent and unanticipated financial crisis.

But that crisis is a manufactured one.  The Brooklyn Heights Library usage has gone up 77% in circulations and 41% in attendance between 2002 and 2011, but funding was cut 20% since 2008.  Kimmelman in his New York Times article discussing representations made by library spokesmen about the condition of the stacks at the central library and said that it suggests to him “a kind of demolition by neglect.”  Demolition by neglect is time-honored but nefarious strategy real estate development-oriented people use to achieve indirectly what they could not do directly.  Cutting off funds to libraries in this fashion allows library officials to promote sale of the libraries by saying, for instance, “The two libraries on the block, the Brooklyn Heights and Pacific branch in Boerum Hill, are in need of crippling repair costs the system can't afford.”

While there is an eagerness and real estate deal incentive to make such representations, the veracity of such representations with respect to the condition of the stacks 42nd Street was challenged in an interview Scott Sherman and Caleb Crain did on The Leonard Lopate Show: Controversy at the New York Public Library, Monday, March 12, 2012.  I highly recommend that interview (click below to listen) in which you can hear an incredulous Mr. Lopate sound increasing convinced that library system representatives were giving misinformation to his show's reaserchers.

Scott Sherman, participating in that interview, wrote an article that appeared in The Nation about the planned consolidation and sell off of the Manhattan library real estate:  Upheaval at the New York Public Library, Scott Sherman November 30, 2011.  

However eager system officials are to close libraries for real estate deals, real estate deals don't always proceed smoothly.  The heavily used and much loved Donnell Library across from the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street in Manhattan was closed in the spring of 2008 to make way for a real estate deal.  That deal fell through, although the library remained closed.  The last projection is that if all goes as now hoped, the library will be replaced with a new building, a ritzy high-end hotel including some library space (29,000 square feet) sometime in 2014The new policy of pressing for real estate estate deals isn't system wide?  Ironically, collections from the Donnell Library were sent to and consolidated into the Mid- Manhattan branch library which is now, in turn, proposed to be one of the three Manhattan libraries consolidated into the 42nd Street library building behind behind the lions named Patience and Fortitude by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.    

The last time the site for the Brooklyn Heights library was bulldozed (urban renewal) part of the larger site, right next to the library, remained vacant and was used as a parking lot for the better part of three decades.  Then, that part of the site that had been vacant for so many years was given to Forest City Ratner on a no-bid basis, together with subsides and incentives.

The property being sold in Brooklyn Heights is not actually an asset of the library.  At the meeting in Brooklyn Heights this week Mr. Nachowitz said the building has been managed in such a way that it now needs $9 million dollars in capital investment, but if the building is sold that money goes to the city and it is already established that the Bloomberg administration has a policy of cutting back on library spending.  There is a theoretical promise that the library system will be allowed to have more funds if this deal is consented to by both the library system and the public but that promise is unenforceable.  Even if a pot of money X is put on deposit somewhere, money is fungible and, as with parks (see Parks Commissioner Benepe's remarks), the city can take away with one hand what it gives with the other.  (This is very similar to the same game played in cutting back of state college funding to encourage sale of school land for hydrofracking.  See:  Monday, October 15, 2012, Do They Really Think People Just Don’t Know What `Fungibility’ Is?: A Good Question To Ask As The Fracking Industry Tries To Pull Another Fast One.)

Let's put some of this in financial perspective.  Mr. Nachowitz says the entire Brooklyn Public Library system “has $230 million in capitol needs systemwide, and we get $15 million a year from the city.”  (Even though the real estate sell-offs are city-wide there are technically separations between the Brooklyn and Manhattan library systems.  This becomes less relevant if you take into account city funding and, for example, the fact that Mayor Bloomberg appoints eleven of the trustees to the Brooklyn system. The Brooklyn borough president whose "charities" are funded by the mayor appoints another eleven and the balance are elected.). . .  Bloomberg is sending $350 million of his personal funds to Johns Hopkins University this year (he's over one billion dollars now including past gifts to Johns Hopkins), but he's going to withhold $150 million in taxpayer money from the libraries unless they consent to the sell-off of the midtown properties?  The closing of the Donnell Library reportedly grossed a $67.4 million purchase price (that is not net of expenses) and yet the city still starves the library system for money.

The consolidation plan for the Manhattan libraries involves irreplaceable elimination of the research stacks of the Main library at 42nd Street.  In other words research that could be done in a day might take weeks as each additional book you request as you realize that you need it would now take a day or more to retrieve rather than being immediately available.- And, no, there isn't a digital solution or reason to be doing this.  Perhaps in the future researchers will be better off taking a train to Baltimore to do their research in Johns Hopkins libraries.

At one point Mr. Kimmelman makes these points in his article:
As for those alternatives, the Mid-Manhattan site at present has the potential to be redeveloped as a 20-story building. The library could also sell some 100,000 square feet of unused space at the site, or seek city permission to transfer air rights (there may be more than a million square feet) from 42nd Street. A new Mid-Manhattan branch should cost a fraction of gutting the stacks and could produce much better architecture. 
Not mentioned by Mr. Kimmelman is that the the Bloomberg administration recently unveiled plans to almost double-- starting in 2017-- the density of Manhattan’s already very dense Midtown business district, that entire district surrounding Grand Central and the MetLife (formerly Pan Am) building, from 39th Street to 57th Street on the East Side.  The Mid-Manhattan site is just barely outside of the tentative proposed boundary lines.  (See map, click to enlarge.)  Want to make a bet about whether somebody tries to change that?

The zoning for the Brooklyn Heights library site (C6-4) currently has an FAR of 10 (for residential equivalent of an R10), which is fairly high, but it could be increased still further, something a developer would be interested in seeing happen.  Because there would be a condominium unit for a small library in the new building (a community facility), the entire permitted structure could be bigger than normally permitted under R10.  Mr. Nachowitz represented at the meeting this week that it would not be possible for the library system to sell air rights rather than selling the site itself.  Right now some of the site is open space, a small bit of decorative park that has unfortunately (and ill-advisedly) been closed to the public for years, and space that has been used for parking.

Move the business library out of downtown Brooklyn?  Judy Stanton, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, commented to the Brooklyn Eagle:  “This is the third largest business district in the city. . .It seems odd to move the business library further away.”

The reason to move the business library out to the boonies (away from all the downtown transportation) is that Downtown Brooklyn/Brooklyn Heights real estate is more valuable to developers and the site also has the higher density zoning.  (The 60,000 sq ft Brooklyn Heights library would shrink to 16,000 sq ft in a new building.)  The Pacific library site is also being targeted for a sell-off because of the value of that site to real estate developers.  Other sites are further down the priority list for sale because the real estate is less valuable, building at high density is likely more problematic and large-scale endeavors are likely to require the mobilization of more subsides.

It should also not be overlooked that local neighborhood libraries also provide community space with all its potential value.

Can the trustees and the librarian administrators of the system be counted upon to stand up and speak out to tell us what truly ought to be happening?  I already mentioned that many of the trustees are appointed by the mayor and, under his influence, the borough president.  About the Manhattan consolidations Kimmelman says this:
The parties in charge are earnest in their conversations. While remaining hard to pin down on the dollar amounts, they are eager to demonstrate that every conceivable alternative strategy has been explored, weighed, re-examined and rejected. Proceeding in any other way than by investing in this potential Alamo of engineering, architecture and finance would be irresponsible, they’ve concluded. I have found this to be a not-uncommon phenomenon among cultural boards, a form of architectural Stockholm syndrome.
If you listen to the Scott Sherman and Caleb Crain interview on the The Leonard Lopate Show it sounds far worse, with browbeaten librarians concerned about being fired and losing their pensions as the system lays people off to contract.  Obviously, management can try to sell their ideas to the workers.  Those who buy into the spiel can be brought to the fore.

One of the very worst things about what is being proposed is the idea that it is being promoted as a "public private partnership" as if this were a desirable thing.   Such things are better thought of these days as "private public partnerships" because public officials habitually put private developers in the driver's seat and compromise their integrity as inter-tangling motives mix.

These arrangements create situations where it becomes impossible to assure that the public has benefitted from fair deals and honest bids.  It probably no accident that this is the kind of environment in which Forest City Ratner chooses to operate almost exclusively and, as an example of how it can be abused, Forest City has repeatedly taken advantage of these situations to blackmail the public by threatening to withhold a promised benefit unless it is delivered more favorable terms than originally agreed upon.  One situation was quite comparable to what is envisioned here occurred with Ratner's Gehry-designed building on Spruce Street on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge: The Ratner organization was given a site in exchange for the promise of building a school in it (like promising to include a library) but it then threatened to halt construction unless the local community board agreed to confer greater benefits upon it.

One possible hint that Forest City Ratner may have its sights set on being given the Brooklyn Heights library property is that it just managed to obtain a lowering of its real estate taxes (its second) on its adjacent property, something that could have relevance later on: Monday, January 28, 2013, Daily News: Ratner's One Pierrepont Plaza office tower gets taxes lowered $160K/year in reassessment.  Will it also be going after the Pacific library site that is next to its arena property?

When people running charitable organizations take their eye off the ball and get distracted with real estate instead, disaster can befall: St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village was in the middle of a distracting real estate shell game when it suddenly declared bankruptcy.

Can the public help by contributing the funds needed to close the gap?  When the real estate development bug takes hold it is hard to defeat: Further south, Brooklyn Heights and neighboring Cobble Hill are facing the loss of another charitable institution, Long Island College Hospital.  Not long ago LICH received a huge donation increasing its endowment but that funding was raided and taken away.  Th fact that it now stands depleted of funds is being used in the arguments to allow closure of the hospital and sale of its property for real estate development.

There is one remaining piece of very bad news for those* trying to figure out what to do in Brooklyn Heights.  Sometimes there can, indeed, be good rationales for redeveloping or further developing a site.  If there are such rationales one inevitably is going to face very slippery slopes in defending the public's interest.
(* There is a new committee of citizens being formed to oppose the real estate deal.)
Irrespective of whether there could be some good rationales for developing the site further (as there actually likely are) there is a problem putting trust in those whose bad judgement can be seen in the bad priorities behind effectively eliminating Manhattan's central 42nd street research library to create a real estate deal.  There is also a problem with rewarding the strategy of defunding libraries by authorizing the deals as a result of such calculated behavior.  Let's start by insisting on what we want and properly need in terms of a library system and properly funding it first, before anything else is done.

Handing out real estate deals should not be the priority.
Some of those who heard about and turned out for Tuesday night's Brooklyn Heights Library meeting 
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PS (added February 9, 2013): The following recent article (with links to others) that ends with a link to a petition to stop the defunding and skrinkage of the library system for the sake of creating real estate deals: Saturday, February 9, 2013, Libraries That Are Now Supposedly “Dilapidated” Were Just Renovated: And Are Developers’ Real Estate Deals More Important Than Bryant Park?

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