Saturday, October 18, 2014

“We’re Starting From Scratch!” Says Developer Getting Brooklyn Heights Library Site- So How Tall Luxury Building Replacing Library Will Be And What It Will Look Like Is Unknown!

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe- What might the luxury tower proposed to replace the Brooklyn Heights Library looks like?  We don’t now how tall or what shape, or anything, because the developer is “starting from scratch” stealing shamelessly from his competitors
The big, takeaway-with-a-gasp headline from the Tuesday, October 7th “Community Advisory Committee” meeting about selling and shrinking the Brooklyn Heights was that the developer said that he couldn’t say how tall the luxury tower replacing the Brooklyn Heights Library will be or what that building will look like, because, now that his company has been awarded the bid for the library site, they are “starting from scratch . .  just beginning” and that he could “now shamelessly steal” from his competitors to design what might actually be built.

Invisible Dog, Invisible . . . .

Ergo, a tricky feat was managed: While the CAC meeting had aspects of a dog and pony show where Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson and cohorts were self-congratulatorily announcing their plans with an odd sense of certainty and inevitability, there was a certain invisibility to both the dog starring in the show (a library proposed to be vastly shrunken) and the pony (the luxury tower).
Version of Proposal F released by the BPL- Without the Saint Ann's development rights included to make it taller?
How tall might the luxury tower be and what might it look like?  If David Kramer and his Hudson Companies are stealing shamelessly from his competitors that means that anything that was previously possible or under consideration is still possible and under consideration.  It means the tower might, in height, be the equivalent of 45 to 55-stories.  That’s what was being looked at in terms of “Proposal F.”  See the analysis done of all the previously competing designs when they were presented:  Monday, December 16, 2013, Tall Stories- Buildings Proposed To Shrink The Brooklyn Heights Library: Brooklyn Public Library Publishes Seven Luxury Building Proposals To Shrink Away Brooklyn Heights Library.

There is an incentive for the developer to make his building as tall as possible that was highlighted in the Request For Proposals (RFP) that the BPL and New York City Economic Development Corporation issued that touted to developers the benefits of buying the library site.
The site enjoys park views to the east with the prospect of achieving views of Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines, as well as of the New York Harbor and bridges.
(See: Friday, September 20, 2013, Forest City Ratner As The Development Gatekeeper (And Profit taker) Getting The Benefit As Brooklyn Heights Public Library Is Sold.)

By making two choices the developer increases the number of luxury apartments that will vault into the heavens high enough to see over the rest of the neighborhood and across the harbor: 1.) make the building tall and skinny, and 2.) go with extra tall floor to floor/ceiling heights.  Each of these choices is all the more likely to be the developer’s strategy in the New York City market where an increasingly large part of the city’s luxury condo ales are comprised of what a New York Magazine cover story referred to has high-end “stash pads,” apartments that are pitched, largely to foreigners, as money-sponge assets, ways to soak up and park illegally obtained or ill-gotten gains now that new post-9/11 laws prohibit Swiss bank accounts from performing the functions they formerly did.  See:  Stash Pad- The New York real-estate market is now the premier destination for wealthy foreigners with rubles, yuan, and dollars to hide, (Why New York Real Estate Is the New Swiss Bank Account), by Andrew Rice, June 29, 2014  and (from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) Hidden in Plain Sight: New York Just Another Island Haven, By Michael Hudson, Ionut Stanescu and Samuel Adler-Bell, July 3, 2014.

Image that appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere as if the developer wasn't "starting from scratch" and incorrectly reporting that the tower would be "20 stories"
Asking how tall the new luxury tower might be or what it would look like might have seemed a somewhat stupid, time-wasting question when it was asked, given that when the BPL issued its press release about the selection of a developer an image of a building submitted with the developer’s proposal circulated and appeared in all the press reports including the New York Times.  The question, in fact, was far from foolhardy given the developer’s response.
Two incorrect reports that the new tower would be 20 stories.  On the left the New York Times correction.  On the left, the same incorrect information in a photo caption on the Brooklyn Paper
Another reason it made sense to ask?: After the BPL press release and press conference announcing the developer’s selection there were reporters, including for the New York Times and the Brooklyn Paper, who got the misimpression that the tower would only be 20 stories tall,  The information was incorrectly reported  with corrections needing to be made later.

You also can’t trust pictures that developers release to promote their projects as really being reflective of what the buildings will look like in relation to their environs.  Right now Forest City Ratner is taking lumps for new project renderings that obviously distort, trying to make proposed new Atlantic Yards (aka “Pacific Park” as euphemistically renamed) mega-project buildings look smaller. See these two recent articles: Friday, October 10, 2014, 550 Vanderbilt condo renderings fudge transition from row houses to tower; building marketed along with Nets in China and Tuesday, September 02, 2014, Playing with perspective: how renderings suggest new 18-story tower (smallest of all) almost harmonizes with row houses.  And see these older articles:  Wednesday, December 18, 2013, What's wrong with this picture? Atlantic Yards B2 rendering skews several perspectives, suggests clock tower,  Friday, September 26, 2008, Weighing Scale, and Thursday, September 10, 2009, The Surrounding Light Smears Ratner's Atlantic Yards Arena.
A taller version of Proposal F if Saint Ann's and Ratner development rights were used?
Lastly, another reason to wonder about how tall and large the building actually built might be is that none of the seven renderings previously presented to the public showed the development using all of the available development rights.  . . . . Six of the seven did not show development using the substantial development rights that Saint Ann’s, the private school on the same block (on the other side of the Forest City Ratner building) will transfer in when its zoning lot is joined with the Ratner zoning lot, as the library property is already joined.  From recent details released (the fact that Saint Ann’s is getting a new gymnasium out of the transaction and has been briefing its faculty on the benefits of the library sale and shrinkage for Saint Ann’s) it seems clear that this developer is, now at least, doing business with Saint Ann’s.  But did the developer’s original proposal reflect that fact?  If so, then “Proposal F” by another developer depicting the tallest of the proposed towers was a depiction that didn’t already include the Saint Ann’s development rights, a proposal that when stolen “shamelessly” can be much taller when the Saint Ann’s and unused Ratner rights are transferred in.
Developer David Kramer of the Hudson Companies speaking at the CAC meeting
Here is exactly what the developer said about how the building could be just about any size or shape when was asked about how tall, how many stories the luxury building would actually be.
So we’re sort of starting from scratch and trying to figure it out.  And you know we have different options.  You can have a taller slender building.  You can have a shorter squatter building.  Uhm, and so we are going to look at different options.  So, right now, we’re sort of. . uhm,. .. we’re just beginning.  We have scratch paper and we haven’t finalized uhm, either the floor to floor height for any individual apartment or the shape of the building.

And, in fact, you know an interesting dynamic is we can now shamelessly steal from all our competitors.  There were fourteen proposals and seven finalists.  I got to see six other designs.  Some of them are good friends of mine and I asked if I could go, you know, take a look at their proposal and they greet my request with a combination of anger and (laugh) friendship, uhm . . .and uhm. .  the BHA had good and bad things to say about those seven proposal and we sort of want to, uhm. . . you now, think about it, and see what people like, and what we like, and you know-   You don’t want to have it designed too much by committee, a camel as the joke goes,  . . . But, uhm, we want to. uhm, take a little time to figure it out.
Here is Citizens Defending Libraries YouTube of the developer's statement:


Hudson Companies on Library Tower: What Design? We Have Scratch Paper.  (Click through to YouTube for best viewing.)

The Brooklyn Heights Blog has recently covered the proposed Brooklyn Heights Library sale and shrinkage in a series of longer-form articles that are more detailed, considered and informative than is often typical for coverage of such matters.  Nevertheless, covering the CAC meeting it intemperately offered the assessment that:
  . . .  the evening's presentation confirmed that BPL has crafted a well-thought out and realistic proposal to replace an aging but extremely popular local library at one of Brooklyn's most expensive real estate addresses.
(See: BPL's Johnson Holds Her Own Against Opponents of Heights Library Plan; Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Roasting Company Named as Retail Tenants, by Michael Randazzo on October 8, 2014.)

My comment to the blog article (emphasis supplied):
How can there be any confirmation that the “BPL has crafted a well-thought out and realistic proposal” when the developer said that now that he has been selected he will “start from scratch?” Further, how can the BPL size a drastically shrunken library and then decide what the design will be and ask for public input afterward?
Better cover of the CAC meeting appeared in the Brooklyn Brief: Further Details (and Concerns) Emerge at Heights Library Community Council Meeting, Matthew Taub, October 8, 2014

The Known Unknowns About the Library
Above- The existing two-story Brooklyn Heights Library overlaid on the real estate parcel (with boundaries indicated) on which it sits.  That portion highlighted in brighter orange would be the amount of similar above-ground space the proposed "replacement" library would take up.  Hardly enough to be functional, certainly not functional as the central, destination library it has been since it was built. (More here.)
Just as what luxury tower we will get is a black box perfectly set up for bait-and-switches, we similarly know nothing about the library sale, shrinkage and so-called ”replacement” except for the exact size down to which the library is supposed to be shrunk, 21,000 square feet with 15,000 square feet above ground, down from a total 63,000 square feet of space owned and available to the public. . .

. . .  We don’t know:
    •    What assets we are giving up in terms of the existing library and the associated real estate or the value thereof.  A large portion of what we are giving up has only been identified under the treacherously vague rubric of space `not currently accessible to the public’ with no identification of what actual and specific space is being referred to or even how that space was determined as somehow being `not accessible to the public’  or possible not valuable to the public.  As one can see from the visual, the BPL has inexplicably  managed to conclude that the majority of above-ground space at the Brooklyn Heights Library is space ‘not accessible to the public.’

    •    What the BPL would net (if anything) in terms of available proceeds from the library sale (or in terms of overall value in the exchange).  Might there even be losses?

    •    What the “replacement” library would consist of.  At the CAC meeting Linda Johnson was telling individuals attending: “I hope that you will actually participate in the workshop [to conceptualize, design and configure the replacement library].  It sounds like you have ideas about what the library should contain and we’d really like you to be there.”
I asked at the CAC meeting for details about the first two unknowns bulleted above, but Ms. Johnson and the BPL did not provide that information for which Citizens Defending Libraries (of which I am a co-founder) has made the following outstanding request: Open Letter To Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson.

It says something about the abject imbalance of the BPL’s  public priorities that while we as yet don’t know how big the developer’s luxury tower is, the one thing we do know is exactly how small a space the library would be shrink down to, even before consideration of what we will try to include in that space or carry over  from what is presently publicly owned.
In simple bar graph form- The BPL is proposing to drastically shrink the size of the publicly owned space in the Brooklyn Heights Library from 63,000 feet (blue) to just 21,000 square feet (on left) of which just 15,000 square feet would be above ground.  For more visuals that look more directly at the existing building and property to explore what the public would lose at the site in terms of the benefits it is familiar go HERE.
Just 15,000 square feet of above-ground library space?  The Brooklyn Heights Library is a central destination library, at least the second-most-important library in the borough, serving the downtown, and accessible to all residents of the borough, all residents of the city, in fact, at the borough’s most important mass transit hub for both subways and buses.  The last time the BPL was going to create a new, central, destination library, in 2005 before the current library-shrinking and selling regime was instituted, it planned that a new Visual and Performing Arts Library across from BAM would be 150,000 square feet, ten times the size of what the BPL plans as the above-ground replacement library in the Heights.  That’s extremely telling even if that 2005 plan might have sported some of its own boondoggle aspects.

Absence of physical books in the libraries
A mezzanine of entirely empty bookshelves at the BPL's Williamsburg  Library where patron complain there are too few books and the BPL is also shrinkingthe library by giving away an entire additional floor to the private Spaceworks firm.  (Williamsburg is another library in city Councilman Steve Levin's district.)
Set aside the BPL’s suspicious `not accessible to the public’ space calculations: The BPL’s premises for shrinking down the Brooklyn Heights Library and others, selling off their space, is really based largely on the idea of getting rid of physical books.  Physical books take up real estate the BPL wants to sell.

There are two ways in which the BPL is proposing to banish physical books from the libraries:
    •    The library would no longer endeavor to have robust browsable collections of physical books available to the public visiting libraries.  Instead, a reduced collection of physical books, a “floating collection” would be available elsewhere, upon request.

    •    The library will provide books that are digital (many books simply aren’t digitally available), while forcibly weaning patrons away from what it refers to internally as “old-school type analogue books.”
Doreen Gallo of the DUMBO Neighborhood Association is a member of the Community Advisory Committee, and was particularly eloquent about a number of matters during the evening’s meeting, including how, due to prior vetting, members of the CAC did not represent the community or its viewpoints.  Gallo, herself, is an exception to that general observation.

Ms. Gallo zeroed in on the disappearance of books from the libraries, noting how other libraries loved their books, and complaining about the absence of books from the library.  She cited her visits to the Heights library with her daughter (written about in her open letter to Borough President Eric Adams) where it had taken nine to eleven days to obtain a books that they would originally have expected to find at the library when they went and, most recently, how requested books missing from the library had taken three weeks to obtain.

Ms. Johnson's explanation and information about the books that were not at the libraries was as follows.  The BPL is not maintaining book collections at individual libraries the way it used to.  Instead she explained that it has (a smaller) collection of books that “floats” among libraries (likely being where they were last requested) and that these books could be obtained by request. She said that books not at visited libraries “are somewhere else.”  She said that she thought that “nine to eleven” days seemed like "a long time" for it to take to obtain such books and that three weeks “was unacceptable.”

Then she said that the BPL was “monitoring this closely,” maintaining statistics about how long it took to get books and asked an assistant present (Sheila), “responsible for our neighborhood libraries,”  to say a few words about how long its takes to get requested books.  Her assistant said that for patrons requesting books not at libraries there was “usually a week’s turnaround” involved (that sounds like an `average of seven days’ to me, pretty close to the nine days Johnson said was a "long Time") although books could “sometimes” be available in (emphasis supplied) even two days.”
Ms. Johnson, apparently unhappy with the answer her assistant statistic-tracker had given, then stepped in to inaccurately restate the information just provided as follows: “If you reserve a book that’s not in your local library it’s usually between two days and a week to show up in the branch where you want it to be.” (Implying an `average of 4.5 days?’ not 7.)

Of course, no matter how long it takes to fulfill a request, the valuable “browsing experience” is eliminated.

Later on in the meeting Johnson was criticized for not being a librarian and not having a respect for books.  Indeed, Ms. Johnson talking about "crestfallen" librarians and book lovers has often been quoted in the press talking about how she sees the future of the BPL’s libraries as being largely bookless although she was previously advertising that books stored off-site would be available in "24 hours."  When Jim Vogel, representing state senator Velmanette Montgomery, confronted Ms. Johnson about the absence of physical books Ms. Johnson offered somewhat lamely, "we can get very philosophical here about what it means to be a library" and said that she was sorry if people found her alternative vision for the library "mind-boggling."

It's is sad to see the children’s section of the Brooklyn Heights Library with empty shelves as a result of Ms. Johnson work and alternative vision.
Front page article in the New York Times: “reading to a child from an electronic device undercuts the dynamic that drives language development.”
As fate would have it, the next Sunday, New York Times ran a story on its front page about new studies “that reading to a child from an electronic device undercuts the dynamic that drives language development.”  See: New York Times: Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?, by Douglas Quenqua, October 11, 2014.- That’s basically in line with what a survey of the literature published in Scientific American was showing: The Reading Brain in the Digital Age-  Why Paper Still Beats Screens (Why the Brain Prefers Paper), by Ferris Jabr, November 2013.

Smaller Library to Have Fewer Librarians

Along with less space and far fewer books, the "replacement" library would, according to Ms. Johnson, have fewer librarians and a smaller staff.  Ms. Johnson was asked whether the downsizing of the library would result in a reduction in the staff assigned at that location to serve the public.  It was not surprising to learn from Ms. Johnson that a far smaller library would involve staff being cut.  Ms. Johnson said that she did not know "the exact answer" to the question about how many people would be hired at the smaller library, that “the numbers have yet to be determined," but that her hope was that when built the "new building will be a model of efficiency" with a reduced staff that would not have to compensate for the drawbacks of dealing with a library that was of an "improperly" large size.

Ms. Johnson almost made her less-is-more argument sound credible unless you stop to wonder whether libraries as places of exploration and discovery are really meant to to thrive on pared down efficiency.  Is efficiency really always good and how much is it just another pretextual euphemism in this context?

Community Reaction

Pretty much across the board the proposal to sell and shrink the library was not well received.  The opposition to the sale was not informed in advance that there would be an opportunity for the public to say anything or ask questions.   In addition to direct opposition, concerns were expressed about the paucity of dwindling public assets in the neighborhood, so that perhaps a shrinkage of the library would remove one more asset while PS8, the local public school, was still struggling to keep pace with too little space.  The developer's proposal would benefit Saint Ann's, a private school, but not the public school.  The developer said he hadn't been asked to benefit the public in this way, and that if he were required to do anything more to benefit the public he would have wanted to pay less for the property.
Monday, October 6th, the Saint Ann's faculty was getting another briefing about the benefit to the private school of the library being sold and shrunk
Reactions to the proposed sale and shrinkage were not universally, negative.  There was an interesting scattering of individuals who maybe didn't use the library but had decided to come out that night ready to express their enthusiasm for civicly engaging in the workshops to design its replacement that Ms. Johnson was extolling, a replacement they were somehow already sure would be an improvement.  At least one of these individuals wouldn't give her name afterward to an inquisitive reporter.

Certainly, all of the people that got up to speak at the meeting are real people with real lives, but one wonders what to make of remarks made by some of them.  One father who told a story about how his five daughters, hungry to read books from the library, reached the age of nine and then didn't want to go to the very "unappealing" library anymore so that as their father now, beseeched by them, had to run solitary, derring-do errand runs to fetch books.  Speaking derisively of the library, he bet aloud to those assembled that nobody could name another building designed by its architect.  I was standing behind him and named the Grand Army Plaza Library, also designed by Francis Keally.  The BPL places no information about this up on its site, but Ms. Johnson then wanted to quibble about whether both libraries were designed by the same architect or only by his architectural firm.  When others in the audience contradicted this speaker, saying that the library is, in fact, attractive the defended himself by saying, "not according to the library." 

There is a lot to be learned when we communally share our libraries as common assets.  One fellow commented quizzically about the pronunciation of "Llama" he heard used at the library when "Llama Llama Red Pajama" (drawn and written by by Anna Dewdney) by was being read to children at the library.  Llamas are domesticated animals in south America in countries where Spanish is spoken.  This fellow heard the word Llama being pronounced with its original Spanish pronunciation ([ˈʎama] locally: [ˈʝama] or [ˈʒama]).

Need to "Activate" Clinton Street?

There is probably more to say, but maybe it is sufficient to conclude this report of the CAC meeting with one last thing that may have gone unobserved.

The developer, promoting his development, said that Clinton Street, where the library is located, needed to be “activated,” asserting that this is something he knows because he walked his dog there four days a week and because it was something the Brooklyn Heights Association was calling for.  He said his project would activate Clinton Street by having on either side of the entrance to the luxury residential tower “two small retail spaces”: a coffee shop and a space curated by “Smorgasbord” that would have rotating food vendors.

Several incensed members of the community begged to differ about whether they believed this block of Clinton Street in fact needed to be "activated" or was actually better off the way it is now.  Who knows, but certainly it must be in the developer’s mind that Jonathan Butler of the real estate blog Brownstoner is the Brooklyn Flea, is Smorgasbord, and that promoting Smorgasbord and giving it space could likely improve the press Mr. Kramer and his Hudson Companies development firm get in Brownstoner for all the projects Mr. Kramer wishes to push through in the future . . . .

. . .  Which is to say, that when it comes to real estate development in New York City don't expect people in the industry to miss a trick- Something to remember whenever people in power are proposing that we should sell off our public assets.

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