Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Petition To Save The Libraries Is Working: Confirming Petition Points BPL Head Linda Johnson, Library Officials Trip Up Defending Plans

What could Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein have to do with the plan of the trustees of the Brooklyn Public Library to sell off and shrink libraries, the Brooklyn Heights Library and others, in highly finagled real estate deals benefitting developers?  Read on.
The petition seems to be working.

The petition I am referring to is the Citizens Defending Libraries petition: Save New York City Libraries From Bloomberg Developer Destruction, with which I am involved, now with about 7,900 signatures.  It protests how New York City libraries are being sold and underfunded and the city’s library system shrunk because the system has now shifted to a new focus: the creation of real estate deals for developers.

Why do I think the petition is working?  Because the Daily News has been covering the story and the head of the Brooklyn Public Library, Linda Johnson, and library officials are tripping up defending their plans.  The more public statements they put out there the more they succeed in confirming major points made in the petition and which have also been reported in articles appearing here in Noticing New York.

The Daily News ran the first library article in a recent series of library shrinkage articles.  It focused on the petition and one of its objections, the shrinking of the Brooklyn Heights library (where Brooklyn Heights meets downtown Brooklyn at 280 Cadman Plaza) on Sunday, February 17, 2013: Coming to Brooklyn Heights: the incredible shrinking library, patrons and residents charge-  Controversial plan to sell library building to private developer who will build apartment tower over it, by Lore Croghan.   At that time, as the article reports, the petition had about 900 signatures.  My wife Carolyn and I both appeared in the article and accompanying pictures as proponents of the petition.

That first Daily New story explained how the Brooklyn Heights library is being shrunk. The shrinking involves a proposed deal to turn the library property over to a developer (very possibly Forest City Ratner) to build a very tall tower that is supposed to have a much smaller library in it when completed.  The current Brooklyn Heights library is actually two libraries functioning on an integrated basis. One of them is the neighborhood’s branch library.  The plan includes booting the other, the Business and Career library, out of its traditional Downtown Brooklyn central business district location, at the hub of transportation and adjacent to borough universities.  To the questionable extent that the booted-out library continues to exist afterwards it will be jammed into the more remote main branch library in Prospect Heights near the park, making that library effectively smaller.

The current Brooklyn Heights library is 62,000 square feet.  The replacement is being spoken of as being a projected 15,000 to 16,000 square feet.  Library officials assert that the plan would in essence cut the size of the library only in half because the library contains space not currently directly accessed by the public and space they say the library has not chosen to fully utilize (there is space, not opened to the public that was originally a bomb shelter.)

The administration officials for the library have acknowledged that the Business and Career library ought to be keeping longer hours as it and other libraries did in the past (and still ought to be doing).  According to information from those officials, the planned exile of the Business library would facilitate having relatively shorter hours at the branch library remaining afterwards in Brooklyn Heights.  They have chosen to express this as a positive, saying that the Business and Career library might go back to relatively longer hours after it is moved.

We told the Daily News reporter that both the petition and the problem of the shrinkage of the library system and sell-off of libraries to developers was city-wide, not confined to Brooklyn Heights.  That was not the story the reporter wanted to cover at that time.  There will be more about how the Daily News is reporting that much bigger story a little later in this article.

The next article in the recent Daily News series of library articles ran eight days later when the petition signatures had climbed by may thousands.  Library CEO Linda Johnson, having her say, defended the shrinkage plan, telling the Daily News that in about four years (the time they are perhaps optimistically estimating it will take to provide a new library):
“we hope people’s objections are going to disappear when they have a better experience” in the new library.
(See: Brooklyn Public Library CEO Linda Johnson says downsized Brooklyn Heights branch will silence critics - Part of plan announced last month to sell the building to a private developer who will tear down the 50-year-old facility and construct an apartment tower with library branch inside, by Lore Croghan, Monday, February 25, 2013)

Johnson depicted her envisioned future as if it was a done deal, furnishing details of the design:
 . . a light-filled facility full of patron-pleasing technology. .

The new Heights library will be an open space with few walls, Johnson said, describing “space that’s flexible to accommodate new technology we don’t even know about.”

It will have space for community gatherings, spots where patrons can work together — and room for the branch’s book, DVD and film collections.
The next day the Daily News ran an article about how, starting in just months, there will be a more than 50% shutdown of the library, cutting its hours down by more than half in response to what officials cite as supposedly insurmountable air conditioning problems.  See: Brooklyn Heights Library patrons are going to be fired up over cuts in hours this summer: branch expects to be open only half-time because of air-conditioning troubles–  Will further inflame residents who are already angry about Brooklyn Public Library's plan to sell off the valuable Court St. site to a private developer, who would build an apartment tower that includes reduced-size library, by Lore Croghan, Tuesday, February 26, 2013, 8:12 PM

The new library hours would be 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM and the latest word from the library officials is that the library would no longer be open Saturdays.  Not mentioned in the article is that the library will “redeploy” the library’s staff elsewhere.  Would the library be reopened after the summer?  With the staff redeployed in the shutdown and library officials announcing their plan to ink a deal handing the library off to a developer before December 31, 2013 (the last day of Mayor Bloomberg’s term) that is an unlikely assumption.  After the Donnell Library in Manhattan (closed for sale and 50% shrinkage in 2008) sat idle for years local residents asked City Council for a law to compel its reopening.  It never happened.  Open libraries generate constituencies that tend to get in the way of furthering real estate sell-offs.  (During the Brooklyn Heights branch multi-year closure there would be a really small temporary replacement of perhaps 5,000 square feet.)

What are library officials telling the public?  Visitors to the Brooklyn Heights branch are getting a handout that, despite Johnson’s descriptions of what she knows the new library will look like, says:
Selling the Brooklyn heights branch will involve a rigorous public review and review by our local elected officials.  In 2013, BPL staff will present our vision for the branch to the community at community board meetings and other forums.  We expect to begin the review and development process this year.  It is anticipated that the review and approval will take approximately two years, during which time the branch will remain open at its current location.  BPL is committed to maintaining service in Brooklyn Heights throughout this period and will provide a temporary service location for the duration of the construction period.
(emphasis supplied by the BPL)
BPL handout, click to enlarge
Not communicated is that because library officials say they want to ink the deal that hands the library to a developer before Bloomberg leaves office December 31st, that inked hand-off would come well before those two years of promised review.  It doesn't say that a more than 50% shutdown of the library operation would be in place almost immediately, well before the public could provide any input about whether it wants its library shrunk, hours reduced or the Business and Career library exiled.

The handout also notes that the shrinkage and replacement of the library will involve a cost to the library that is unspecified but is cheerfully characterized as “little.”  One wonders whether that “little” cost would be less than the cost of repairing the air conditioning.

That brings us to a consideration of the air conditioning costs that have been announced.  The ostensible reason the BPL now wants to sell the library is because of the theoretically prohibitive cost of repairing the air conditioning system and the reason they say they have to sell it now while Bloomberg is in office is because of the impossibility of coming up with any temporary air conditioning solutions so that things won’t have to be rushed along as if there was an emergency.  The two-story building (built in 1963) including its HVAC system providing the air conditioning was renovated just twenty years ago.  The air conditioning costs promulgated by the library started in the $700,000 to $750,000 range, climbed to $3 million as they were about to roll out the real estate deal and then went to $3.5 million (They have been misreported by the Brooklyn Paper as $9 million). I invite you to talk to your own construction friends and advisors and decide where you think these estimated costs lie on the spectrum between “highly suspect” and “totally absurd.”

At a meeting the other night the library’s spokesperson was very firm that nobody should think about raising money for the repairs (Bloomberg might be quite chagrined if someone did), just as firm about how there was no solution for summer climate control (visiting PC Richards for a few window units or ceiling fans, etc.).

October 2011 Daily News article about plans to sell libraries
So how do these inconsistent stories fit in with the larger narrative?  To decide that it is valuable to go back in time and look at an interview the BPL’s Linda Johnson did in 2011 when she visited the Daily News editorial board to sell them on the idea of library sales: Brooklyn Public Library head Linda Johnson seeking to sell some property to raise money for repairs, by Erin Durkin, Sunday, October 16, 2011.  That interview, particularly in view of more recently unfolding events, highlights and confirms the points made in the petition and previous Noticing New York Articles. 

Confirmation that the focus is on real estate deals, the juiciest ones first

Johnson told the Daily News that her focus was on “certain pieces of real estate we have that are very valuable.”  Johnson did not then identify that the Brooklyn Heights branch or the Pacific branch (both adjacent to Forest City Ratner properties) were two of the “certain pieces of real estate” she was looking at.  In fact, the library has not yet revealed what other libraries are next in line for such treatment even though I’ve personally had some of the other parcels that are being looked at by the system identified to me by the development community.

Confirmation that the Brooklyn Heights library was not the one single library that Bloomberg and library officials are looking at selling off.

At the recent meeting when the plan to sell the Brooklyn Heights library was first publicly described, the spokesperson for the library denied that the sale was part of an overall plan involving selling more libraries.  It was asserted that it was “just this library.”  That’s obviously not so and didn’t acknowledge that the spokesperson was also dealing with the press about the sale of the nearby Pacific branch.  (The BPL’s strategic plan formally states that all the system’s real estate is in play.)  At the same time the front of the New York Times that week had the Michael Kimmelman article’s information about the sell-off and contraction of the most important libraries in Manhattan.

Confirmation that when the library is sold the money doesn’t go to the library, but to the city.

The article made clear Johnson knew that:
the city owns the branch buildings - and under current rules any money garnered from selling them would go to the city's general fund, and the library wouldn't see a dime.
It said only that Johnson was “trying to work out a deal with Bloomberg administration officials” whereby the library could get some money upon such sales.  Unfortunately, as former City Parks Commissioner Adriane Benepe made clear when speaking of such deals in the context of parks, such deals are impossible to make in any true meaningful way because money is fungible.  In fact, such a deal has never been reached.

Without a basis to believe that money would go to the library as the result of such a sale and without knowing how much money that might be, it is impossible to do any sort of analysis about why or whether such a sale would be good for the library system.  And yet, without having done any such analysis, Johnson has now decided to sell the library.  Ergo, in a failure of trust, the only goal in mind in making this decision is the real estate deal being created.

Confirmation that what we are looking at is city-wide.

If one needed confirmation that what is being done is being looked at as a city-wide strategy, proof that goes beyond the similarities between what is being pushed in Brooklyn Heights (and with Pacific Street) and what is happening with Manhattan’s libaries, Donnell, the three other libraries involved in the Central Library plan (involving the irrevocable destruction of the 42nd Street library as a proper research library), there is this: Johnson said her sales “could be a model for the city's other library systems.” 

Confirmation that the decision to sell the Brooklyn Heights library was in the works before the air conditioning problems manifested themselves.

One very interesting thing about Linda Johnson's interview with the Daily News editorial board about how she expected to sell “certain pieces of real estate we have that are very valuable” is that it was in October of 2011 (the article is dated October 16, 2011).  The following summer was when the library discovered it had air conditioner problems.  See: Brooklyn Heights Library Admits AC System Is Kaput, by Chuck Taylor on July 18, 2012.  Back then they weren’t saying the problems could be quickly solved or that temporary solutions would be worthless.

Confirmation that we need to be worried about board trustee mind-set and motivations.

Johnson shared with the Daily News editorial board that she had it in mid to “build a better board” and that her idea of building a better board would be to put Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein on the board.  (From what she says, she apparently hobnobs a bit with him.)

Mr. Blankfein would, for two reasons, be an absolutely perfect pick if the purpose to find board members to get behind real estate deals that shrink libraries while craftily conferring more benefits upon the wealthy and connected. First, Mr. Blankfein’s Goldman Sachs took advantage of special relationships and maneuvering to procure unique real estate benefits, design overrides and subsidies for its new corporate headquarters in Battery Park City.  That was written about here in Noticing New York: Monday, February 23, 2009, Un-funny Valentines Arriving Late: Your Community Interests at Heart.  Second, Mr. Blankfein is a proponent of the notion that the public needs to lower its expectations about entitlements that he is firm“they're not going to get.”


Both of these things about Mr. Blankfein were made very clear in a recent Bill Moyers essay spotlighting Mr. Blankfein: Bill Moyers Essay: The ‘Crony Capitalist Blowout’, January 11, 2013, explaining “how last week’s fiscal cliff deal gave tens of billions in tax breaks to Wall Street and corporations — what even the Wall Street Journal calls a “crony capitalist blowout” and beginning with Moyers talking about the “extraordinary rise in wealth and power of the very rich during this era of unregulated greed.”

The Moyers essay is about how a larding of special corporate tax breaks and loopholes was pushed through as part of the recent fiscal cliff negotiation and settlement, something that even the Wall Street Journal was appalled by, hence that paper’s application of the “crony capitalist blowout” phrase. Blankfein’s Goldman Sachs provided one of the very worst examples.

“You're going to have to. . lower people's expectations, the entitlements and what people think that they're going to get.  Because they're not going to get it.”  (Libraries?) From the CBS interview
Here is a transcript of part of the Moyers essay that deals with Blankfein which included a clip of CBS newsman Scoot Pelley interviewing Blankfein.
    Moyers: CEOs, lobbyists were tripping over themselves as they traipsed up and down Pennsylvania Avenue between Congress and the White House privately protecting their interest as they publicly urged austerity on everybody else.  Here's Lloyd Blankfein, CEO and chair of the global investment giant Goldman Sachs when asked by CBS news Scott Pelley about how he would reduce the federal deficit:

    (Beginning of clip)

    Blankfein: You're going to have to, undoubtably, do something to lower people’s expectations, the entitlements and what people think that they're going to get.  Because they're not going to get it

    Pelley: Social Security Medicare, medicaid?

    Blankfein; Some things. You know you can go back and look at the history of these things.  And Social Security wasn't devised to be a system that supported you for a 30 year retirement after a 25 year career.  Entitlements have to be slowed down and contained.

    Pelly: Because we can't afford them, going forward?

    Blankfein: Because we can't afford them!

    (End of clip)

    Moyers: Ah yes, but Goldman makes sure their entitlements aren't touched. 
Moyers then explained a brand-new chapter concerning the Goldman Sachs headquarters shenanigans I hadn’t caught up with.  After 9/11, Goldman used special connections to get for their headquarters tax-exempt Liberty Bonds intended to help with the city's recovery (that I knew).  During the fiscal cliff negotiations Goldman's lobbying got these benefits specially extended.  (I hadn’t heard about this and probably few others have either.)  
Goldman Sachs building under construction
So, on two different scores Blankfein is absolutely the most perfect choice as the foxiest guy to guard the hen house: The engineering of tricky real estates deals for the rich and well connected, and simultaneously telling the public they are going to have to expect and get less.

Are books getting the heave-ho with a “starbuckified” digitalization of the libraries?

Some are concerned that Johnson’s vision of the libraries is to make them all look like Starbucks.  She is prone to comparing the library to Starbucks and did so In the 2011 Daily News article as she has in other interviews.   This is not to say that digitalization is, itself, bad: I often buy digital books.  If the book is important book, I often also buy a physical copy of book at the same time, finding it efficient to go back and forth between them for different purposes.  This is what the Daily News article documented about Johnson respecting her views:
Johnson envisions more big changes,  and concedes that not everyone in the BPL family is thrilled about it.

"When I talk about what the library's going to look like in five or ten years, and talk about the fact that books become less and less a critical part of the mission - at least traditional hard-copy books - I can see that (librarians) are crestfallen," she said. "And it makes me sad too, because I love a book as much as anybody does.

"The fact is, now we're competing with Barnes & Noble and Starbucks," she said.
Confirming top-down planning for BPL system changes.

A key issue about the plans to remake the libraries as real estate deals concerns the observation that these plans and new regimes are being imposed top down based simply on what the Linda Johnsons and Lloyd Blankfeins of the world believe is best for the public.  That we are not, as Jane Jacobs would suggest, is allowing for common sense to filter up from the people actually using the services.  This was problem when Donnell Library was closed in 2008.  It is a problem with the secretively produced Central Library plan in Manhattan.  Listen to the users?  Here is what Johnson offers:
“We need to be using technology just a little bit ahead of where the customers are so we can actually be helpful, instead of letting them drag us where they want to go.”
So does Johnson already know what the new much smaller Brooklyn Heights library is going to look like? Is she already able to confidently describe it because it is already designed and being imposed from the top?  Does that mean that during the “approximately two years” of upcoming “review and approval” that the library assures that public should expect (most of which the library officials want to have occur after handing off the property to a developer that will possibly/likely include Forest City Ratner) the library officials won't actually be listening to the public because they will already be dedicated to an existing plan, unwilling for the public to “drag us where they want to go.”

Why do I say the petition is working?  Because it is flushing these issues out while library officials defending the plan fall over themselves with mistakes and obvious inconsistencies, each making it more and more clear that what they are doing was never intended to be in the public’s interest.  (Click to sign: Save New York City Libraries From Bloomberg Developer Destruction.)

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