Monday, June 15, 2015

Municipal Art Society, Once Venerable, Becomes Platform For Disseminating Misinformation Promoting Development, In this Case Backing Library Sales and Shrinkage

Linda Johnson speaking to her MAS audience about libraries as real estate- Pictures of the event are up on Flickr
I used to be a member of the Municipal Art Society.  I used to routinely encourage others to become members as well.  But now. . . .

I actually had a sort of extra-specially identification with the Municipal Art Society, a “born under the same star” thing.  The Municipal Art Society, with a long venerable history, was given birth to “in the wake of the World's Columbian Exposition, when the Great White City in Chicago ushered in” a new era of expecting more and better for New York in terms of its urban design.  Those are interests of mine.  My father’s paternal grand parents, Mr and Mrs. Peter White, were key in establishing and running the Irish Village that was part of that same 1893 Columbian Exposition, and their coming to the United State to do so is how the White family arrived here from Ireland.
Mr. and Mrs. (Annie) Peter White and the Irish Village at the Colombian Exposition
I don’t know that this gives me greater or lesser rights to be irked with what the Municipal Arts Society has become, but , like many others, I am mightily riled.  As it happens, a MAS board member told me ahead of time about the 180 degree turn around that for MAS that was intended.  Not everyone has perceived it yet, but people are fast catching on to what’s happened: Once part of the fight against such abominations as Atlantic Yards, (“the poster child for what goes wrong when process is ignored. . . a poorly designed project that has polarized the community and that squanders both opportunity and public trust”), MAS now goes out of its way to give multiple bogus awards for such developer-driven blighting of the city.

MAS Puts Its Weight Behind Library Sales and Shrinkage- Somewhat Deceptively
The 63,000 square foot Brooklyn Heights central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn.  The admired bas-relief murals are by C Spampintato.
At MAS’s February 26, 2015, Annual Members Meeting, MAS has continued to adulterate its its brand promoting, rather than holding to account, unbridled development, this time giving Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson a platform to pitch unchallenged for another prize currently being eyed by the development community: sale and shrinkage of libraries to transform them into real estate deals.  These deals benefit the developers they are handed out to, not the public.

As BPL President Linda Johnson spoke at the annual meeting MAS already had the Brooklyn Heights Library sale up and prominently featured on its website “Watchlist.”  There the proposed sale was advertised, not accurately, but as a developer would probably prefer to have things described to stay low on the radar screen and sidestep public opprobrium.
    •    The description says that BPL is `partnering' with a developer to build a 20-story condo building  on the site of the Brooklyn Heights Library.’  Was that correct?  No, not really.  Although something of a black box with the developer saying he is `starting from scratch' on the design and with no rendering furnished to the public showing all the available development rights being used, this building was last stated in the New York Time to be 38 stories tall, not “20-stories.”  (The release of this non applicable but apparently very multi-purpose rendering accompanied earlier statements by the Times that the building was going to be 30 stories.)

    •    The description said this joint venture will provide BPL with a more modern library “on the ground floor.”  It doesn't say that it will be a vastly shrunken library providing fewer functions, only 21,000 square feet (of which only 15,000 will be above ground- “on the ground floor per the description) vs. the existing 63,000 square feet.  The Business and Career functions of the library will be banished from it.  Books will be exiled.

    •    The description said that the sale will provide the BPL with “an additional $40 million,” a figure only achieved by deliberately low-balling and not disclosing all the costs and public losses that need to be netted out.  In actuality, in selling the library and shrinking down this $100+ million asset to one-third size to benefit the developer, the BPL is likely even losing money when all is considered.

    •    The description said that the money netted from the sale will be “put towards maintaining and restoring other libraries in the borough.”    In actuality, the money from the sale goes to the city and there is no assurance that it would ever be returned to maintain and restore other libraries. The only obligation to do so would be a moral one, and since the city's current unprecedentedly low funding of the libraries is already immorally low there is no assurance such moral suasion would work.  Quite the contrary, since the current low funding levels go back to the introduction of plans for low funding to justify such self-cannibalizing funding schemes, if low funding leads successfully to the sales that real estate industry salivates for there will actually be an inducement to continue such low funding level to provoke more such sales in the future.
Here is the complete language of the MAS-published pitch for the project:
Brooklyn Public Library
BPL has partnered with Hudson Companies to build a 20-story condo building on the site of the current branch library at Cadman Plaza. This joint venture will provide BPL with a more modern library on the ground floor, as well as an additional $40 million to be put towards maintaining and restoring other libraries in the borough. This innovative project is part of broader trend of leveraging development to pay for civic assets.
BPL Linda Johnson Presumes When Speaking To the MAS Audience She Should Be Talking Real Estate

Johnson, in her calibrated pitch to the MAS meetings audience began, right off the bat, with an assumption that real estate was the most important part of what she was going speak to them about:
I am pleased to be here. I feel sometimes that I'm speaking more about real estate these days than I am  about literacy, . . . 
And was careful, continuing, to assure that other concerns were driving her focus on real estate (announced to her board as her top priority when she started at the BPL):
. . . but we need to actually address the real estate issues in order to deliver the services that the library is striving to do.
Attentive to the Fact That Size Matters

Ms. Johnson later similarly soothed the audience about how she cares about adequate library size when she explains that libraries built during the Lindsay era that are "on average 7500 square feet which is woefully small."  Ms. Johnson doesn't tip her hand to the audience to say that one of contradictory priorities was to shrink such a "woefully small" 7500 square foot library in Red Hook down to just 5,000 square feet in a privatizing handing off 2000 square feet of the library to Spaceworks in a scheme that deserved and got a lot more scrutiny from the local community than Ms. Johnson wanted.

Ms. Johnson indicated that she is attentive to the concept that "because of the way neighborhoods have changed" there are "libraries that are over-served and under-served" as a result.  That principle enunciated in the abstract may have lulled the her hearers when she got around to saying that she was going to be shrinking down to one-third size a key destination library, the downtown Brooklyn Heights Library in one of the fastest growing neighborhoods and business districts of the city's fasted growing borough.

A Plan For One Million Square Feet of Real Estate

Before she actually tells the gathering about the Brooklyn Heights library deal she acknowledges something ominous: That the BPL made a deal with the Bloomberg administration (now being carried out by the de Blasio administration) with respect to "over 1,000,000 square feet of real estate" used by the library ("It's actually owned by the city of New York The library is its custodian").  She says:
We said to the city if you give us this kind of money [capital funding], this kind of funding, we'll do our part as well.  And we will do the best that we can to use the assets that have been entrusted to us to take care to take care of them, in other words, try and leverage the properties that we have to the full extent.
Of All Things To Tell a Municipal Art Society Audience! 
Book ends?:  Brooklyn's two central destination libraries, the Downtown Brooklyn Heights Library and the Grand Army Plaza Library, were both designed by the same famed architect, Francis Keally.
That's when she progresses to the subject of selling the Brooklyn Heights Library and progresses to an assertion quite ironic for her to state before an assembly of Municipal, Art Society patrons:
The Brooklyn Heights library which has been in the press a fair amount recently . . . was built in the early 1960s and it's an aging library that's no longer really doing the kind of job that it should be. There is nobody that I have heard yet who has argued that this is a building which is architecturally important or historically significant.
No one has argued that "this is a building which is architecturally important or historically significant"?  The Library was designed by Francis Keally, who designed the borough's other esteemed central destination library at Grand Army Plaza.  Francis Keally was also, in his time, the president of the Municipal Art Society.  Keally was not only an admired architect; he fought for preservation of valuable, beautiful older buildings and their neighborhoods.  As MAS president, he fought for the passage of the laws that eventually would protect them.  Landmarks historian Anthony C. Wood writes in his 2008 book, "Preserving New York":
Francis Keally stressed that what was at stake "goes far beyond Washington Square and the Village."  He asked his audiances to imagine a New York where a skyscraper had been substituted for the Church of the Ascension, or where the south side of Gramercy Square was built up "to smother the sky."  Noting the loss of the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, he paints a picture of a New York where Trinity, St. Paul's, St. Bartholomew's, St. Patrick's, and St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie have all gone "the same way."
Keally's concern about building up on the "south side of Gramercy Square . . . to smother the sky" makes one think of Ms. Johnson's assertion that one good reason to tear down Keally's library to build a tower (perhaps 38 stories) that will loom over Brooklyn Heights from its edge is to "improve the skyline."  When the first Landmarks Commission was appointed pursuant to the law that Keally had been instrumental in passing, Keally was on Mayor Wagner's nominating committee to suggest the appointments.  The commission was appointed in 1962 the same year the library opened.
Ms.Johnson posing at the MAS event with Vin Cipolla, a successor as MAS president to Francis Keally, who helped usher in era of preservation.  Cipolla that night gave Johnson a platform to advocate for the destruction of Keally's library.
Landmarks and Libraries

Contrary to Ms. Johnson's dismissiveness of Keally's architecture for the design of his second destination library in Brooklyn, both the New York Times and the New York Herald instantly pronounced the library as "handsome" when it opened, the Times saying it was a "clean-lined limestone building of two stories, with book sacks below ground" and the Herald describing it as "limestone-and-red granite." 
The admired "sculptured figures at the glass-pannled entrance" are  "the work of C Spampintato."

Further, although Ms. Johnson ventured to quickly tell the MAS assembly the building was not "historically significant," a good precaution if you suspected that any of the MAS old-timers might be around, behind the scenes the BPL had already engaged in measures to prevent the Landmarks Commission from recognizing as historic any libraries it wanted to transform into real estate projects and this library was a top such target on the BPL's and Johnson's list.  According to BPL minutes from February 2009, in a rather frank acknowledgement that the system works in ways we often pretend it doesn't:
Landmarks informed BPL that they had completed their survey of our branches and found that we have 8 branches that are potentially eligible for designations as landmarks.  The Committee [Capital Planning & Oversight Committee, co-chaired by Sharon L. Greenberger and Alice Fisher Rubin] recommended that in response to Landmark's request to prioritize these branches, the Library will respond that we are conducting a comprehensive analysis of our real estate portfolio and would like to wait on any decisions on landmarking individual sites until the Board has reviewed and approved the findings of the analysis.
Ms. Johnson, the BPL and Landmarks have been less than transparent about this.  Citizens Defending Libraries (of which I am a co-founder) have requested via Freedom of Information (and basic transparency precepts) the communications between the BPL and Landmarks about these libraries: It is just one of many things the Johnson and the BPL have refused to make public.

A Sturdy Library With a History
The Keally library is 63,000 feet of extraordinarily serviceable (and adaptable) square feet.  That includes two half-floors of underground space that, similar to the 42nd Street Central Reference Library, were set up to hold books for easy on-the-spot retrieval.  Echoing the 42nd Street library, an “automatic conveyor belt” helped deliver books more efficiently.  To say that the building is sturdy is an understatement: When it was built, it was built with space set aside for a bomb shelter with the thought that people could go there to be protected against a nuclear attack.

The air-conditioned building was built in 1962 (at a cost in today's dollars of about $20 million) and opened with a collection of 90,000 volumes.  In 1991 (completion in October 1993) it was enlarged and upgraded (at a cost in today's dollars of about $10 million).  Then, additionally, a reclamation of the space people once thought might be used as a bomb shelter added even more space for books.  (The book count was 130,000 by 1992.)

The library was built intending to serve all of Brooklyn and, being the only library addressing certain business needs and functions (“the only library in the city” for such needs), was intended to draw patrons not only from all of Brooklyn but Manhattan, including lower Manhattan’s Wall Street right “across the river.”  As well as accommodating staff according to earlier, kinder standards the BPL does not now want to meet, the building has rooms used as conference rooms and more rooms that could be similarly used.  Its construction involved “special workrooms for business researchers,” including cubicles.  Wanting to give the library over to development (secretly since about 2007) the BPL has not adapted or made these spaces available for the kinds of uses the public would likely appreciate.
When it opened, the library's “collection in depth” included books “dating from 1786.”  In one irony- I'll explain below- one of the antecedent libraries that was combined to become this library opened “in 1823 with a wheelbarrow load of books” and when “General Lafayette laid the cornerstone of the building” Brooklyn resident Walt Whitman, a child then, “was present and was kissed by the general.”

 To read more of the articles from which the above quotes come, see New York Times, Brooklyn Library, Open Today Is rich In Business Information, by Sanka Knox, June 1, 1962 and New York Herald Tribune, In handsome New Home- Brooklyn Business Library Opening, by William G. Wing, June 1, 1962.

Urban Renewal and Some Unfortunate Ironies

The 1962 library was built using urban renewal to lower the density of this area of Brooklyn Heights and the border of Downtown Brooklyn.  That same urban renewal bull-dozing destroyed Walt Whitman’s print shop on Cranberry Street.  What remains now is the vague attachment of a name, “Whitman Close,” to some urban renewal townhouses near that spot. While it's strange the way these untethered names can float away from history, there is another example: Johnson told her captive MAS listeners that by selling off the $100+ million* Keally library the BPL hoped to have just a few dollars to spend on other libraries in its system, naming as one of them, the “Walt Whitman Library,” less than a mile’s walk of about 15 minutes away.
(*  Johnson told the audience that "The value of the property was not clear to us at the time, but through an RFP process we determined that it was worth over $50 million."  The problem is that out of that $50 million the BPL is likely to net virtually nothing or less, and what price a developer will pay for the land in this kind of process in not representative of what the value of the building and the land is to the public.) 
This citing of other libraries that will supposedly benefit is a divide-and-conquer strategy on the part of the BPL as it tries to push through its destruction of the Keally library.

The “Walt Whitman Library,” which is near the Navy Yard serves those living in the surrounding projects who also regularly use the Brooklyn Heights Library to a very great extent.  One of the insidious little secrets behind shrinking the Brooklyn Heights Library is that there are those who view the shrinkage as a way of making it a library just for the increasingly upper-crust Heights and disinviting visitors from other neighborhoods who are not desired.  See: Tuesday, May 14, 2013, A Consideration of Race, Equality, Opportunity and Democracy As NYC Libraries Are Sold And The Library System Shrunk And Deliberately Underfunded.

Plan To Move On To Other Libraries

Part of the lack of transparency on the part of the BPL is its refusal to release the “strategic real estate” plan, the formulation of which involved hiring a former Forest City Ratner vice president, Karen Backus, who then prioritized for sale two libraries adjacent to Forest City Ratner property, the Pacific Branch and the Keally Brooklyn Heights Tillary Clinton Library.   The plan deals with all the BPL real estate, which they say they want to “leverage” all of, but one thing its secrecy means is that, again in divide-and-conquer strategy, the public doesn’t know which libraries are next.  Ms. Johnson frequently denies that there is a list of libraries to move down, the most valuable at the top.  But she gave the MAS listeners (who probaly thought sale of the Keally library as she described sounded great) a clue that the BPL would be moving down the list, saying that the Heights Library sale and shrinkage is:
a model now that we are taking and looking at how we can tweak it to see if there are other examples in the borough which might benefit.
ULURP Starts Wednesday

She explained that the BPL was hopefully going to “get to ULURP soon” with the plan “in the works.”  The start of ULURP is the commencement of process required for public review and to obtain approval if the library, owned by the city as public property, is to be sold and shrunk.  She was speaking in February.  ULURP (Uniform land use Review Procedure), likely an extended process, is now scheduled to begin for this proposal this Wednesday, the 17th.  See:
Brooklyn Community Board 2 Land Use Committee June 17, 2015: ULURP Hearing- First Hearing About Whether To Sell & Shrink Downtowns's Brooklyn Heights Library (Tillary & Clinton)
Libraries as Spear Points To Push Development
Is there any extreme to development that MAS would still oppose?  Some, maybe, it seems.  In his presentation that night Justin Davidson asked about super-super tall towers: Who owns the sky?
Meanwhile, in discussions, forums and reports that Ms. Johnson has praised as consistent with her aims, the provision of new or better libraries has been described as bait, or `placation,' to induce communities to accept upzonings to accommodate development.  Consider for example the Clinton Hill Library.

One plan to convert a library into a mixed-use development opportunity that was flushed out after I wrote about it here last August in Noticing New York is a plan for the Sunset Park Library.  Ms. Johnson spoke specifically about it next.  The BPL plans to make the Sunset Park Library. larger, in part because the community demanded it if there is to be any redevelopment.  It is planning to make this library on the R Train line 20,600 square feet or bigger, close to the same 21,000 square feet that it wants to shrink the Brooklyn Heights Central Library down to.

I’d like to consider that this proposed larger size for the Sunset Park Library is also because of the sunlight and focus that Noticing New York and Citizens Defending Libraries brought to the process.  As for what the original redevelopment plans for Sunset Parks were, going back to at least 2009, the BPL won’t release them indicating some embarrassment.

Libraries That Can't Grow With the City

Unfortunately, part of what the BPL is doing is saying, divide-and-conquer fashion, that the Sunset Park enlargement will theoretically be paid for out of selling the valuable central downtown Keally library.  Also, unfortunately, like the Brooklyn Heights Library, the proposed new Sunset Park Library will be in the base of a residential building and can never be enlarged afterward.  Involving long closures both libraries are susceptible to bait-and-switch with the BPL already probably underestimating the cost of building the Sunset Park Library.

The need for future growth is one reason why, if libraries are ever provided in the future as part of a multi-use development program, they should be in the base of commercial buildings where (unlike residential buildings) the city publicly owns more of the building for future expansion.

Population in Sunset Park has recently surged 19%.  Upzonings were pushed through not long ago, but building to take advantage of it has largely not yet occurred.  There are new city proposals, essentially additional upzonings, whereby buildings permitted to be 8-stories on Fourth and Seventh Avenues could become ten stories tall if certain kinds of units being considered are provided in the process.

Bows to Mayor's Development Deputy
MAS president Vin Cipolla and Deputy Mayor for Development Alicia Glen at the event
Also featured at the MAS annual meeting was Alicia Glen, late of Goldman Sachs, New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Development.  Ms. Johnson made reference to Glen’s presence and how redevelopment libraries would be part of the mayor’s plan to provide “affordable” housing units. That’s a stated reason for the BPL’s redeveloping both the Sunset Park Library and the Heights Library for 50 units and 114 units respectively, the latter being done “poor door” fashion far away from fashionable, historic Brooklyn Heights.  MAS president Vin Cipolla, interviewing Glen that night, similarly proclaimed that MAS was behind the mayor’s focus on full steam development to produce “affordable” units although many others worry about how Mayor de Blasio assured the Real Estate Board of New York that virtually all the rules could be thrown out to make developers happy in the process.  That involves throwing out a lot of what MAS fought for in the past.
Ms. Johnson had many captive ears to hear her unchallenged pitch for why selling and shrinking libraries is good
Ms. Johnson concluded her address circling back to the real estate-not real estate theme with which she started: 
So libraries are, in fact, not only about real estate, but also mostly about the people, about the great work that our libraries do inside the buildings, and about literacy as it relates to our communities in the way we work today.
Unchallenged, Ms. Johnson left the appreciably-sized MAS audience with a very skewed view of what she and the BPl are up to.  Let’s hope that the MAS audience was far less gullible than Ms. Johnson would like to believe.

Addendum (added 6/18/2015): At the Wednesday, June 17, 2015 hearing referred to above, MAS sent a representative to testify in favor of this building (below- more images here) to replace and shrink the Brooklyn Heights Downtown Library made public in an information-dump, ULURP certification 48 hours before the hearing and being described as a 36-story tower in that information dump and the next day by the architect in the New York Times as a "38-story tower."


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