Monday, March 18, 2013

Community Alert! Community Alert! The Brooklyn Heights Association’s New Community Alert Says The BHA Favors The Sale And Shrinkage Of The Neighborhood’s Library!

With little fanfare the Brooklyn Heights Association posted a “Community Alert” on March 14th that says it is in favor of the sale and shrinkage of the neighborhood’s Brooklyn Heights library with a more than 50% shutdown of that library starting in just a few months.  It should, indeed, be a matter of neighborhood alert and it looks as if, for some reason, the board of the BHA has voted to sell the community out.  (It is also a sell-out of all the citizens of New York City).

The sale of the library to create a developer deal culminating in a huge new tower on the border of Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn is still a matter of breaking headlines but those who know what’s going on will be aware that this is just one in of a number of proposed real estate deals where libraries are being sold, the library system shrunk and the whole system intentionally underfunded to promote the sell-off of these public assets.  In response, there is a petition in opposition to these practices and Citizens Defending Liberties has scrambled to organize and lead the resistance.  Here is a link to the petition: Save New York City Libraries From Bloomberg Developer Destruction

As you will see, every word of the BHA’s March 14th Community Alert is set forth sequentially below in italics with ensuing analysis of what exactly those words mean in terms of selling out the community.  You may want to contact the BHA, especially if you are a member, to let them know that the positions the board has taken are absurd.  Making sure that everyone you know signs the petition will also help serve as a rebuke to the BHA’s cavalier attitude about protecting the community. 

BHA’s Statements of Position (indented and in italics) Followed by Noticing New York’s Analysis

Like other cultural institutions, the Brooklyn Public Library has faced cuts in its City-provided funding in recent years.
This is extremely misleading: The libraries are not like other cultural institutions; they are a basic city service that are supposed to be funded by the city.  This is one reason why many libraries like the Brooklyn Heights library were actually put in city ownership with express agreements that they be city-funded and funded to a certain level of service.  What is true is that, especially since Bloomberg got his third term (immediately prior to which the mayor bumped up library funding in his run-up to the election), the libraries have been targeted by the Bloomberg administration for starvation.

The starvation was a calculated prelude to an intended fire sale of the real estate.  Even library spokesmen such as Josh Nachowitz (who transferred to the Brooklyn Public Library from the Mayor’s development agency, EDC, just in time to work these real estate sell-offs) says that there would be no need for these real estate sell-offs if the libraries were actually receiving the adequate funding they are supposed to.  It's just that Josh says that it is assured that the mayor is not going to provide this funding.  According to the recent Center for an Urban Future "Branches of Opportunity" report: “More people visited public libraries in New York than every major sports team and every major cultural institution combined.”   Usage of the libraries is up 40 percent programatically and 59 percent increase in circulation.  And yet we are not funding them to the same degree we fund the heavily subsidized, privately-owned “Barclays” arena and we are not funding our libraries even at the level that Detroit, a city on the verge of bankruptcy, funds its libraries. 

Bottom line, Mayor Bloomberg is defunding New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth and the purpose is to force the sell-offs of these public assets.  The Brooklyn Heights Association’s complacent statement in the face of this reality is simply a flat out adoption and parroting of the BPL’s talking points designed to serve Bloomberg’s aim to have a fire sale handout of this building to a developer before December 31st, the conclusion of his third and now final term.   
The Brooklyn Heights branch library building is situated on an under-built City-owned plot outside of the Brooklyn Heights Historic District.
The rather pat conclusion that Brooklyn Heights branch library building is on an under-built parcel of land is definitely subject to debate. In fact, the library was built in 1962 as part of an urban renewal rebuilding effort which was specifically intended at that time to reduce the density of what was replaced.  The Brooklyn Heights Association has not opened up for public discussion the question of whether the parcel is “under-built” or whether it should therefore be made a priority target for demolition, no matter the likely disruption and setbacks the public will experience with such a sale and demolition.  It is very possible the majority of residents in the neighborhood and the majority of Brooklyn Heights Association members would disagree with the assessment that the library needs to be torn down because the site is under-built.  The assessment that the site is under-built is simply the assessment of developers wanting to get control of the site.  Once again, the Brooklyn Heights Association has adopted the position of the BPL which is indistinguishable from that of the Bloomberg developers waiting in the wings.
The BPL sees demolition of the existing branch and redevelopment of the land as a way to provide money for the library system and a new, state-of-the-art branch for Brooklyn Heights.
This is wrong in two respects.  Because the city owns the property the funds from a sale would go to the city, NOT the library system. Linda Johnson the head of the BPL, herself previously acknowledged this to the Daily News.  There is no existing enforceable agreement that any money would go to the libraries. A decision was made to sell libraries BEFORE there was any basis to say that some or how much money might be given to the libraries. That’s an embarrassment to the Bloomberg/library officials flogging these deals because it means selling the real estate is their first and likely only real priority, not doing what is best for the libraries.

“State-of-the-art” is the BPL’s euphemistic substitute for saying that what the public should expect to get will be a library with far fewer books that will be significantly smaller.   As residents on Brooklyn Heights may be the best to know, new is frequently not better than old.  New often means flimsy and cheap by comparison.  The only way they can allege that a new smaller library will somehow be an acceptable replacement is to say that this version of new will be better than old is to say the it will theoretically be something generically referred to as “state-of-the-art.”

The library proposes to downsize from the 62,000 square feet of publicly owned space now available for use by the library to perhaps as little as 15,000 square feet.  There will be a long period of construction during which children growing up in the neighborhood will have to make do with an even smaller temporary library, that being perhaps as little as 5,000 square feet.  (In a similar situation, Manhattan’s Donnell Library closed in spring of 2008, promising replacement of a smaller library in 3 ½ years but is now not expected to be complete until at least some time in 2014.)  

Furthermore, the diminishment of the library would commence immediately, even before construction begins, and persist over a far longer period of time because the BPL has stated that it plans more than a 50% shutdown of the library starting in a just few months with a redeployment of library staff as soon as the whether gets warm.  The BPL further says that it plans to move the Business and Career library out of Brooklyn Heights, something that would likely occur concurrently with this 50% + shutdown.  To the extent the Business and Career would continue to exist at all it would be found crammed into the more remote Grand Army Plaza main branch where they plan to throw out books because of the insufficiency of available space.
The BPL states that the City has agreed that proceeds from the sale will go to the BPL, and that the BPL will use at least some of the funds to design and outfit a new branch.
Once again, this repeats a misleading talking point of the BPL.  Sale of the library was decided upon by the BPL without any such agreement being in place.  Because money is fungible it is actually impossible to structure such an agreement to effectively ensure any money come to the libraries.  What the city gives with one hand it takes with the other, and the city is intent on keeping the library system artificially starved to create these real estate deals.  Given that many more such deals are in the works we can expect the starvation of the system to justify them to continue for a long time.

As of last report the BPL, acting in haste after the fact to catch up with the already announced sale of the library said that they had come up with an agreement in principle to sign an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the city but no such agreement was signed.  The terms of that agreement have not been made public.  While BHA states here that BPL says that at least some of the funds would go to outfit the smaller library, the BPL’s own handout stated that the smaller library would actually be built at cost to the BPL that is, as yet, unspecified. 
The BPL has also stated that it is committed to providing interim service in a leased location (not a bookmobile) to Brooklyn Heights in the event that the sale and development move ahead.
The interim service in a leased location, at a currently proposed 5,000 square feet and without the continuation of the Business and Career library, will hardly e supportive of the neighborhood.      
The Brooklyn Heights Association board has voted that,  at this time, the BHA will not oppose redevelopment plans for the Brooklyn Heights Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library . . .
The Brooklyn Heights Association board voted without taking community input or holding community information sessions and charrettes to find out what was desired.  In fact, it was only just before the recent annual Brooklyn Heights Association meeting that the public became aware of the possibility that the library would be sold off to a developer in a so-called ”public-private” partnership (a method of proceeding sure to jeopardize the protection of public interest). Nevertheless, when the topic of the library was brought up, the opportunity for public input and reaction was precluded.
    . . . .providing that: 1) there is continuity of library service in Brooklyn Heights throughout the development period; 2) the replacement Brooklyn Heights Branch Library is of adequate size; and 3) the proceeds from the transaction go to the Brooklyn Public Library.
The biggest, most startling news here is that the BHA is endorsing (although its language is subtle and not obvious) a much smaller library and the exile of the Business and Career library which will be part of that significant assured shrinkage.  BPL statements indicate that by expelling the Business and Career library it will be easier to have a differential where there will be relatively shorter hours for the Brooklyn Heights branch.  Previously, based on earlier statements of Judy Stanton, the BHA’s Executive Director, that questioned the wisdom of eliminating the Business and Career library from Brooklyn Heights, BHA members and the public expected the BHA would likely oppose this reduction in services.  Again, the BHA’s decision to accede to this reduction was done without public notice or input.

Not only is the BHA in this language acceding to the shrinkage and reduction of services associated with deporting the Business and Career library out of the neighborhood; it is also acceding to the idea that the “Branch Library” that remains in the neighborhood may also be shrunk down to an unspecified “adequate size.”   . . . The city is growing. . .  If this site is redeveloped (internally the BPL has talked about a 40-story building replacing it) it will be an example of how the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood itself is growing more dense, together with immediately bordering Downtown Brooklyn that is also intended to be served by this library.  Accordingly, instead of consenting to a shrinkage of the library the BHA should be asking for a bigger library with more services.

The obvious insufficiency of interim service that is to begin with the more than 50% shutdown of and redeployment of library staff in just a few months and banishment of the Business and Career library has already been discussed above.  Once again, this will be multi-year insufficiency, likely to outlast quite a few childhoods.

When the BHA implies that it is bargaining for the proposition that “the proceeds from the transaction go to the Brooklyn Public Library” it is participating in a ruse designed by BPL officials working in conjunction with Bloomberg development officials (some of them like Josh Nachowitz, who began as a development official and is now nominally a library official, are indistinguishable from each other).  Aiding and abetting in the promulgation of this ruse does not serve the community.  The BHA would serve the community and the needs of the city as a whole, if, like Citizens Defending Libraries, it called for the immediate (and very affordable) restoration of adequate funding to the library system which would also mean that no forced sell-offs  the library system’s irreplaceable assets would be considered necessary.  There should be a moratorium on deals like these designed to serve developers until adequate funding is restored and until the deals sought to be implemented do not manifest such an an obvious and obsequious willingness to sacrifice the public good to the dictates of crony capitalism.
All on the BHA Board agree that the library is an important part of our community and that the BHA should be part of the planning process.
The BHA can either represent the community in this planning process or fail to do so, but if the BHA is not representing the community and the “part of the planning process” the BHA plays is simply to adopt the BPL’s position then the BHA is being turned into a tool, being used simply to squelch the community’s voice and opposition to the sale, shrinkage and underfunding of the libraries.  At the very least the BHA should be protesting (not acquiescing to) the BPL’s exclusion of Citizens Defending Libraries from the planning process discussion.  The BHA is said to have suggested the recent community meeting but they have so far operated as a tightly-controlled charade dominated by the BPL as it tells participants the goal is to set up the sale of the library at a “fast trot.”
Through our membership in the Community Advisory Group, and by working in tandem with the Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch, we expect to be strong advocates for a new library that meets the needs of our community.
At the moment, in this statement, the BHA has advocated for nothing other than 100% acceptance of the developer deal the BPL says it wants to push out the door, signing the library over to a developer before December 31st, the last day of Bloomberg’s term, with the almost immediate more than 50% shutdown of the library.  The BHA is accepting that BPL wants both the shutdown and the hand-off to the developers to occur before the required public reviews.  In other words the BHA has advocated for nothing.  It is, in fact, as if the BHA’s statement was written by the BPL (as it may have been). And the BPL’s statements are as if they were written by the development community (which they probably are).  Therefore for the BHA to say in their community alert that they “expect to be strong advocates for a new library that meets the needs of our community” is a very strange statement indeed, unsupported by the evidence.

Below is a chart showing how the BHA’s so far stated positions are almost exactly identical to the BPL’s and to the position one can infer is that of any developer wanting take over the site.  It also shows how the Citizens Defending Libraries positions representing the community differs pretty much across the board.

Click to enlarge: Chart comparing positions of BHA, BPL, and inferred developer and Citizens Defending Libraries
The Brooklyn Heights Association should, if nothing else, be learning from the lessons of the Donnell debacle, the development model for which has essentially been imported lock, stock and barrel into Brooklyn Heights. 

Here are additional positions that Citizens Defending Libraries has asked the Brooklyn Heights Association to take, which the BHA has, after discussions, been unwilling to do:
    •    “Air Conditioning problems,” the excuse being used to start shutting down the Brooklyn Height library so soon are very suspicious in a number of respects.  The absurd and escalating numbers given for repair.  The BPL’s refusal to let Councilman Stephen Levin pay for the repair last summer.  That the air conditioning repair became a problem only several months after BPL head Linda Johnson said she had some real estate deals like this in mind.  That every time library officials decide they want to sell off a library they questionably cite air conditioning problems and conjure up extraordinary costs: Donnell, the research stacks at the Central Reference Library at 42nd Street in Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, the Pacific Branch.  And now when they saw they want to “leverage”/sell all the real estate in the BPL’s portfolio they put out a long list of libraries with insurmountable air conditioning problems.  As suspicious as this is, the BHA refuses to ask for evidence that the BPL’s claims are supportable.

    •    The BHA won’t ask for an audit of the library system or these sales.

    •    Deed restrictions could, among other things, impose a limitation on the height, size and bulk of any new building that replaces the library.  Since the land proposed to be sold is public land and given that it was also part of an urban renewal plan, the imposition of such deed restrictions would be a fairly conventional request.  Nevertheless, the BHA is not seeking to negotiate any such restrictions on height or building size although now would be the time to do so.

    •    The BHA is refusing to take a position on the larger question of the underfunding and sale of libraries throughout the city and throughout the Borough of Brooklyn.

    •    The BHA is not opposing a developer-driven “public-private/private-public”partnership hand-off to a developer.

    •    The BHA is refusing to request that developers with a history of (and expertise in) abusing such developer-driven “partnerships,” such as Forest City Ratner, be disqualified from buying the library property and building the smaller library for the public.

    •    The BHA has not requested assurance that normal construction rules should apply (as opposed to what happened with 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 enabled to enforce compliance.
One last thing: The position the BHA is taking on libraries is seriously undermining the position it is taking about preserving Long Island College Hospital.  Given how similar each situation is with proposed deals to seel off public assets being driven by the craving of the real estate industry it sends a weak and inconsistent message not to oppose both.  Also, once upon a time, a very long while ago, the Brooklyn Heights Association did fight to save the library. You don’t want to send the message that all it takes is for the real estate industry to keep circling back for a second or third try until it finally does co-opt the local protectors or find them off guard.  That just invites future attacks on all our public assets.

Why is the Brooklyn Heights Association refusing to take positions that protect the community?  It’s a mystery but more background can be found here: Saturday, March 16, 2013, Read All About It: Library System Burglars Are Getting Inside Help - AND - The Mystery Of The Brooklyn Heights Association.

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