Wednesday, February 13, 2013

One-Stop Petition Shopping: Report On The Brooklyn Heights Association Annual Meeting, LICH and Libraries

Sent in by a NNY reader: The morning crowd waiting for the Brooklyn Heights downtown library to open
The Brooklyn Heights Association Annual Meeting was held Monday night and the big news of the night concerned two items of significant concern that are remarkably similar in theme and associated suspicions about underlying mischief on the part of theoretically charitable institutions misconducting themselves.

Each concern is the subject of online petitions furnished at the end of this article for one-stop shopping purposes.  You can scroll down and click on each link to sign the petition and amplify the voice of the Brooklyn community.  (You don't have to be from Brooklyn to sign though!)

One of these two events involves, the selling of Brooklyn Heights’ downtown library as part of a city-wide mayoral program of defunding New York City libraries and shrinking the library system at a time of increasing public use, city growth and increased city wealth.  The new priority of the library system has apparently become the creation of real estate deals for real estate developers.

The other event involves the selling off of Long Island College Hospital (LICH), the only hospital for the community in the immediate vicinity, once again, because there are those who are salivating to create real estate deals.

Theme For An Entire Evening

The guest speaker of the evening was Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez who spoke concerning the importance of President Obama’s pitted battles with Republicans who are right now intent on restructuring the federal budget for the plutocratic benefit of a few at the expense of the rest of us.  In other words she was speaking about matters on a federal level quite parallel to the principal local concerns of most of those attending the meeting.

Connecting LICH With The Libraries: Jane Jacobs And The Drive For Real Estate Deals

Brooklyn Heights Board President Jane Carroll McGroarty, was the one who, connecting the issues of concern, spoke to the assembled gathering about the LICH and library matters.  She did so, making a link I think she was brilliant to recognize, to precepts renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs explored in one of her least-read books:  “Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics,” (1992).*

I’ve written about those precepts here: Sunday, June 24, 2012, Sports Glummery.
(* There are those of you who may find this article on the wonky side, long and detailed in terms of law, public policy and urban planning.  That's because much of the evening's content was wonky and because this kind of analysis is what is necessary to protect the public interest when others with power are conniving against it.  You can also, if you wish, just skip down to the bottom of this article to sign the petitions without further reading.)
What Jane Jacobs wrote about in "Sytems of Survival" has very on-target application to the LICH and Library situations where those who should be protecting the public wind up not doing so because they get distracted, when they shouldn’t, by lucre.  The only problem is that, if you haven’t yet spent some time with them, the concepts in that book could be a little abstruse for an auditorium crowd.  At one point Jacobs uses the word “immiscible,” which is a way of describing things like oil and water that don’t properly mix.

Here’s what I said before:
The book, which as its title indicates, is about the morality of systems, convincingly argues the flaws of trying to mix things that should not be mixed, particularly mixing business enterprises with government and politics, because the moral systems that apply to each must necessarily remain different and incompatible (so much for the current fashionability of today’s “private-public partnerships” like Atlantic Yards).

    * * * *

Jacobs’ book is full of other examples of what happens when realms that should remain distinct (together with their associated moralities) improperly intermix, so that one gets what she calls “monstrous hybrids.” Most typically the examples she gives involve an improper mixing of business and government (but there are also examples of improperly mixing charity and business). [I went on to cite examples.]
BHA Board President's Remarks On LICH And Library

Here is what BHA Board President McGroarty said:
In closing, I want to comment on two new and very troubling events that are affecting our neighborhood.

The first is the likely closing of the Brooklyn Heights branch library because, according to the spokesperson for the Brooklyn Public Library, the facility needs millions of dollars of repairs and upgrading.*  The plan would be to turn over the site to a developer who would demolish the existing structure, build a new branch library in the new building while the business library would be removed to Grand Army Plaza.

[Polite shouts of  “No” from the audience]
[* The cost of the repairs may be the subject of exaggeration by library with a pattern of exaggerating reports of decrepitude.  The main cited repairs being talked involve the HVAC system that at one point I understand was estimated to cost $700,000, and is now estimated to cost $3 million.  Other repairs library officials say they have been able to identify might bring the total for repairs up to $9 million.  The Brooklyn Paper somehow misreported that the HVAC repairs alone would cost $9 million, implying that total costs would be millions more. $12 million? $15 million?]
The second event is the decision by Downstate and the SUNY board to close Long Island College Hospital . . .

[Polite shouts of  “No” from the audience]

 . . . which will leave a giant hole in the health care needs of residents of Northwest Brooklyn.  

SUNY claims it’s losing money operating LICH, but a letter from Carl McCall, president of SUNY, to our elected officials details the financial problems with the SUNY University Hospital, not LICH.

Many people feel that the underlying agenda is to allow SUNY to sell off the valuable real estate at LICH for development.  The final decision about LICH will be made by the New York Department of Health and, ultimately, by Governor Cuomo.  There’s information outside with the contact information for both of those individuals if you want to write or email the Department of Health or the Governor.

In light of these two institutional closings, I am reminded of the late Jane Jacobs, who wrote about two basic systems which have been developed to foster human achievement and success. One is the commercial or the entrepreneurial system, including fields like trading, business and  science.  The other is the guardian system, such as government, education and the military.  Both are necessary and both work best separate from one another.  (emphasis supplied)

It seems to me, using Jacobs’ construct, that there’s an imbalance today between the two systems, fueled by the notion that every property ought to be put to its highest and best use, in spite of any common needs that a society might have.  This imbalance has put the caretakers and guardians such as City Planning. Community boards, Landmarks, other nonprofit institutions, at a financial disadvantage as they struggle to perform their mission in society.

In the case of LICH, no one is asking how we can maintain this important and viable hospital.  But, instead, there is ample evidence that the facts are being skewed in order to accomplish the entrepreneurial goal, not the caretaker goal.  In the case of the library there appears to be an intention to continue its mission by building a more centrally located* business library.
[* What “centrally located” would mean is relative.  The proposed new location of the library, in a residential neighborhood would be a lot less central to the borough’s “CBD,” (“Central” Business District), one of the largest in the country, less central to Brooklyn’s main transportation hub and less central to the universities now near it.]
I would hope that any deal would include a healthy sum from a developer for the Brooklyn Public Library’s endowment.  We shouldn’t be in such a hurry to sell off assets so cheaply.

This concludes my report and I will be happy to take questions after our community awards and our guest speaker.
As I will get to in a moment, and as you can well imagine, many in the audience who had come to address the LICH and library issues that evening were very eager to ask those questions, particularly to ask about the stance the BHA will be taking to protect the community.

The Hazards Of Developer-driven Partnerships and Mixed Agendas (Per J. Jacobs)

First, let me comment that the reference President McGroarty made to Jane Jacobs’ “Systems of Survival,” although it may possibly be regarded as somewhat abstruse, is very apt to make the point that the infiltration of entrepreneurial greed is not good when it is allowed to reset the priorities of what should be “charitable” institutions.  Those institutions are supposed to be looking out for the general public welfare.  Jacobs' analysis cautions us about how the danger of that not happening is extraordinarily accentuated when one risks mixing the “immiscible” with so-called “private-public partnerships” where government functions get taken over and driven by private developer agendas.

So my first assumption (which I wanted to confirm in the ensuing questions I expected Ms. McGroarty would answer at the end of the meeting) was that the BHA would object to any developer-driven “public/private” partnerships if the library site gets redeveloped.  The library system has actually stated that it is interested in such a partnership and that it is not ruling out that such a partnership would be with Forest City Ratner, a development firm renowned for its expertise in manipulatingly abusing such setups for their own agenda.  As the Brooklyn Heights library property (as is another in Brooklyn) is immediately adjacent to existing Ratner government-assisted property, I have noted that the library and its demolition may be in Ratner’s sights.  During the cocktails that followed the meeting I was informed by people who have dealings with the library that the secretiveness of the library's management about what is going on gives a vibe that there is already a handshake deal for the city to give the property to Ratner (likely on a no-bid basis).

Frustrating Public's Purpose When The Public Gives Money To Charities: Money Exits Out The Back Door Via Accounting Gimmicks  

The other thing I wanted to address with President McGroarty in the open meeting was the possibility that the BHA might be tempted to think it would be smart to negotiate to have money from a library sale put into the library system’s endowment, something that would be an absolutely meaningless tactic.  (Ms. McGroarty had said: “I would hope that any deal would include a healthy sum from a developer for the Brooklyn Public Library’s endowment.”)

One of the huge frustrations in dealing with these “charities” that depend so much on taxpayer-funded cash flow to operate is how much we are ultimately at the mercy of those elected officials in control of the bigger picture, Mayor Bloomberg in the case of the libraries and Governor Cuomo in the case of LICH.

Mayor Bloomberg is underfunding the city library system at a time when usage is up, 40% programmatically and 59% in terms of circulation.  This intentional underfunding helps make the real estate deals the Bloomberg administration is looking to hand out plausibly defensible.  If members of the broader public wanted to thwart this tactic by collectively donating extra funds to the libraries it wouldn’t work, because Bloomberg has already decided at what level he wants the libraries funded and he can simply subtract out a dollar of city funding for every dollar the public donates to try to close the gap between supplied and desired services.  If you understand accounting and how money is fungible you will understand that putting money into a library endowment fund is meaningless.  The only thing the public can meaningfully negotiate for is that full, proper and complete funding for the library system resume.

One way we will know when this has happened is when, like the (bankrupt) city of Detroit, the (wealthy) city of New York is keeping its libraries open longer hours, not closing on weekends, and staff is rehired.

LICH is similarly frustrating.  Many will remember a remarkable story that unfolded at the end of the 1990s.  An unostentatious Brooklyn Heights couple, who few guessed to be wealthy, died possessed of enormous wealth.  They were the Othmers, Donald and Mildred.  He was a chemical engineering professor.  She was a former teacher and a buyer for her mother's dress stores and a charitable volunteer.  They had invested their savings with Warren E. Buffett, an old family friend.  When Mrs. Othmer died she left $340 million to five institutions serving the community in Brooklyn:
    •    Polytechnic
    •    Long Island College Hospital
    •    The Brooklyn Historical Society
    •    Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, and
    •    The Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Long Island College Hospital had already received a large sum of money when Mr. Othmer died four years before his wife.  (See: $340 Million Windfall in Brooklyn; 5 Institutions' Happy Problem: How to Spend the Money, by Jim Yardley, February 04, 1999 and Staggering Bequests by Unassuming Couple, by Karen W. Arenson, July 13, 1998.)

It is absolutely clear that the Othmers intended to benefit the community interests in Brooklyn they cared about, but in a story that is much too long and complicated to recount here the money they left to LICH was raided, siphoned off by Continuum Health Partners.

The community has complained how subsequent infusions of cash for LICH seem to have vanished.  One minute LICH is reported to be operating in the black and the next it is supposedly in the red.

Hospital accounting is far too mysteriously malleable and complicated.  I’ve written about this before when writing about St. Vincent’s Hospital, another example where people running a hospital took their eye off the ball, salivating over a shell-game real estate deal: The hospital went bankrupt and what survived was the real estate deal.  When I was a lawyer in government one of the things I used to do was finance hospitals.  In fact, I worked on the financing of LICH.  I was involved in the negotiations and policy review that applied when the community gave up parkland (there was a swap involved) so that LICH could have a new parking garage.*  At the BHA meeting one audience member astutely suggested that the parkland be given back to the community (rather than used for high-end condos) if LICH is ultimately closed.
(* This is remarkably parallel to the situation with the 42nd Street Library: Bryant Park was sacrificed, closed for over 4 years, in order to have a functioning research library, but the library’s research stacks are now being sacrificed for the sake of a big-bucks real estate deal.) 
The New York State Department of Health regulates hospitals and seeks to ensure that good health care is delivered throughout the state. At the same time, DOH also does everything it can to hold down the cost of health care. Here is what Noticing New York observed when talking about St. Vincent’s:
Hospital accounting in New York State is far from easy, counterintuitive and, at best, can only be understood by experienced insiders. Regulations involving highly complex reimbursement formulae force hospitals to operate constantly on the brink of artificially narrow and rather manipulable profit margins.
(See: Wednesday, October 8, 2008, The Subsidy Ball: The Rudin/St. Vincent’s Proposal.)

The net, net of all of this is that, just as with libraries, it is not sufficient for the community to pump money into an institution to save it because that money can be made to disappear with accounting tricks.  The only thing that works is to demand government’s commitment to making the institutions work.

What's Required From BHA To Protect The Community Respecting The Library 

I was never able to ask President McGroarty the questions I wanted to ask about how the BHA plans to protect the Brooklyn Heights community in the face of the proposed sale of the library because after Nydia Velazquez spoke, Ms. McGroarty, announcing the meeting was over, did not take questions as many of us thought was supposed to happen. (It would not have made sense to speak to Congresswoman Velazquez on the subject because the federal government has little involvement in the running of local libraries.)

Here is what I was prepared to ask questions about although I likely would have gotten only as far as protecting against a developer-driven project, barring Ratner from participation and limiting the size of the replacement building.  If the list of bullet points below appears detailed I guess that flows from the many years I spent in public service as a government lawyer negotiating to protect the public interest.  (When I was around that was the policy.)

I was going to ask whether the Brooklyn Heights Association was planning to insist on the following:
    •    No developer-driven “public/private” partnerships to build a new library to replace the existing one.  (That’s only if it is ultimately determined that it is a good idea to tear down the existing library to redevelop the site.)  In shorthand terms that means that the replacement building, particularly the library would be fully designed before it is bid.  Among other things this would curtail possibilities for bait and switching.

    •    Forest City Ratner, a developer who has a proven track record of abusing the so-called “public/private” partnerships, should be blackballed and barred from bidding on the property.  Other developers with a bad record can be similarly barred form bidding.  (Barring Ratner from bidding also has the public policy benefit of no further government promotion of the government-sponsored Ratner mega-monopoly.  Besides, Forest City Ratner should not undertake anything new in the city until Atlantic Yards is either turned over to other developers or finished.)

    •    There should be multiple developer bids for the property, at least six or more.  (The city should not be telling other developers not to bid via behind-the-scenes messages and absurdly short bid-response time frames.  In a truly open bid environment you will get lost of bids.)

    •    The library should not be shrunk in size to something less than exists now.  As any redevelopment would be part of an ongoing increasing in density in Brooklyn Heights and the surrounding area, thought should be given to specifying that any replacement library should be larger in size commensurate with neighborhood growth.

    •    The Business and Career library should not be moved from its Downtown Brooklyn site in the Central Business District, a hub of transportation, and location near the universities.

    •    There should be no selling off of any real estate used for libraries until appropriate funding to the library system has been restored.  This should be an absolute precondition and by taking this position it will put the Brooklyn Heights Association where its should be in terms of providing a united front of communities around the city, not just looking out for an enclave of a neighborhood.

    •      The library should be sold with a deed that specifies:
    •      The existing zoning cannot be changed to permit a bigger building, for instance greater density than presently permitted.  Similarly, the ability to seek variances to do the same sort of thing should also be hemmed in.
    •        Notwithstanding any imports or transfers of development rights the building will not be taller/bigger than the Brooklyn Heights Association thinks it should be, perhaps the 40 stories that have apparently been the subject of some discussion internally amongst library personnel, maybe something less, 35 stories or 28, whatever.

    •        That provision would be enforceable by the city (meaning more money would have to be paid if it was ever waived) and, for insurance purposes, would also be enforceable by the Brooklyn Heights Association.
    •    Any temporary transition library would have to be open at least as soon as the existing library were to close.  It would have to be substantially as good, not smaller and not have less staff.  So long as this is assured, assurance that the new library will open within the predicted time frame will be relatively unimportant.  It should be recognized that any additional costs of having the temporary transition library reduce the benefit of the transaction and should therefore be identified in advance.  The proceeds from the sale of the property should exceed these costs.  In addition, if the new library is not in place by the agreed upon date then all of those additional costs should be borne by the developer from that date on.  That will also amount to an incentive to complete the reconstruction on time.

    •    Normal construction rules should apply (not like the Atlantic Yards Ratner/Prokhorov “Barclays” arena).  There shouldn’t be special permissions for the developer to engage in loud and brightly illuminated construction 24/7.   The Brooklyn Heights Association should be able to enforce compliance.
Accountability of  Elected Officials To The Public And The BHA

Could the Brooklyn Heights Association demand all of the above?  Absolutely, and they should demand each and every one of the above.  That’s what a neighborhood association is for.  Was the Brooklyn Heights Association once able to demand that the neighborhood not be bulldozed for urban renewal?  Indeed, it once did and it largely (though not completely) succeeded.

This is not the same thing as a private developer looking to build a project as of right where the only restrictions would be the zoning code.  These are public assets that are being dealt with, the land underneath the library and the library itself.

The real estate belongs to the city.  As such the mayor and the City Council need to decide how and whether it is appropriate to dispose of the property, and specify, as they regularly do, what deed and other restrictions should apply.  The mayor and the city council are accountable to the public (which includes the Brooklyn Heights Association) in this process and will be subject to a ULURP review so that the public can make all of these recommendations.

The library system (this part of it being the Brooklyn Public Library sub-system) owns the library assets other than the real estate.  For all intents and purposes the current library "boss" is the current mayor, who appoints almost a third of the system trustees.  The same number are appointed by the current Brooklyn Borough President, whose entertainment charities are funded by the mayor’s personal private Bloomberg L.P. “charities” and by the Mayor’s Fund of The City of New York which the mayor controls.  And the library depends on the mayor for its operating funds.  The public, including the Brooklyn Heights Association, is entitled to demand accountability.

If there is a planned no-bid crony-capitalist deal with Ratner now in the works it might actually die on the vine when made subject to the above standards.  That, however, would not be a bad thing.  It would be a god thing.  If there is a deal to be made that wold actually generate enough benefit to make it genuinely worthwhile to the community it would survive these tests.

More information and links respecting what is happening with the libraries can be found here:
    •    Saturday, February 9, 2013, Libraries That Are Now Supposedly “Dilapidated” Were Just Renovated: And Are Developers’ Real Estate Deals More Important Than Bryant Park?
The Petitions

Here are the two petitions concerning keeping LICH open and preserving the libraries I recommend everyone sign.  I would think that because the essential issues are intrinsically the same anyone interested in signing and passing around one of the petitions would also be interested in signing and passing around the other.
    •    Save New York City Libraries From Bloomberg Developer Destruction

    •    Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYS Health Department Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah : Keep University Hospital Brooklyn at Long Island College Hospital open, by  Assemblywoman Joan Millman

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