Thursday, December 24, 2015

Seasonal Reflection: Mayor de Blasio, His Heart Squeezed Grinch-Small, Starts Gifting Stolen Libraries To Developers For The Holidays

Mayor de Blasio becomes the Grinch arriving at Christmas to steal and shrink the public's libraries while disguised not so very credibly in a faux Santa Claus suit.
Noticing New York returns here to its now annual tradition.  It's the cusp of a new year and the winter solstice has arrived so it is once more that time when, we reflect with holiday spirit about . . .

In modern holiday tradition there is a fellow who arrives with stealth on Christmas Eve to surprise everyone as he makes the night the occasion for his mean-spirited takings.  He is that anti-Santa Clause, the Grinch, conceived by Dr. Suess.

This year our Mayor de Blasio has squeezed himself into the Grinch's faux Santa Claus costume to play that role by launching a sell-off and shrinkage of New York City Libraries with the sale and shrinkage (down to just 42%) of the Brooklyn Heights central destination library.  No doubt collapsing his 6'5" frame into such a tiny costume involved de Blasio shrinking his heart (to quote Dr. Susss) to to at least "three sizes too small," probably considerably less than 42% the size of a normal generous library-loving New Yorker's.

Mayor de Blasio's Christmas Eve launch of library sales is 180 degrees opposite to his campaign rhetoric about how we should halt the sale and shrinkage of libraries undertaken by the Bloomberg administration.  See Citizens Defending Libraries*: Sunday, December 20, 2015, PRESS RELEASE: De Blasio, reversing campaign pledge, commences selling NYC libraries delivering, in Grinch mode, huge shrinkage.
 (* Disclosure: I am a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries.)
When de Blasio spoke as a candidate wanting our votes there was no mistake that he was specifically including the Brooklyn Heights Library when calling for a halt to these sales and shrinkage because he mentioned it by name in his list.

In the videos linked to below you can see candidate de Blasio truthfully saying at that time:
“It’s public land and public facilities and public value under threat. . . and once again we see, lurking right behind the curtain, real estate developers who are very anxious to get their hands on these valuable properties”
Selling Our Libraries!

Will Steve Levin Save the Brooklyn Heights Library?
What's especially frightening is how this sale and shrinkage is considered to be the first of many more library sales under de Blasio.  So Brooklyn Public Library president Linda Johnson told the City Council at its hearing about the Brooklyn Heights sale the sale is considered to be a "model" for transactions underway with respect to libraries throughout the city, not just for other libraries in her BPL system, but also for Queens and the NYPL.  Then, at the BPL trustee meeting the Tuesday before the City Council vote, the trustees applauding this sell-off and shrinkage were reminded how sale of this library was chosen as a “demonstration” for what was possible.  They were told that this was a “huge turning point for the library system” and “across the city in general” with Johnson `pioneering’ the future of libraries.

Maybe even more frightening is that this isn't actually the first library sale and shrinkage.  Though we certainly should have learned from it, this library essentially replicates, with the same people discernibly behind it, the Donnell sale debacle: Saturday, November 7, 2015, Priorities To Be Replicated?: Private Luxury Now Abounding Where Former Donnell Library Stood, A "Replacement" Library Is Nowhere In Sight.

It's ironic that this taking from the public comes right at Christmas, but not necessarily unintended.  Those pushing for controversial over-development in this city have their own tradition of scheduling advancement of these public encroachments for holidays, for times when they think the public will be least able to respond and pay attention, August vacation time, Thanksgiving and yes. . . . Christmas and New Years.

Pushing this particular library sale through already involved some very slick and not really above-board maneuvers by Brooklyn Community Board 2 the Fourth of July weekend.

Mayor de Balsio's Grinching with his Deputy Mayor for development, Alicia Glen, adopting this Bloomberg library sale and shrinkage as "her own," and by implication all the envisioned future library sales, to "push it across the finish line" falls into our lap to bemoan in what has been a Noticing New York tradition.
Alistair Sim, perhaps the very best ever to play Scrooge.  On left, Scrooge the epitome of a miser at the outset of the film.  On right, the reformed Scrooge, now a model of kindness and generosity.
Since 2009, Noticing New York has annually offered a stocktaking of the decisions we are making in the public sphere that make it appear that we are veering off to a reality where a select few of our population revering money and accumulating “wealth” count for almost everything while the rest of us are treated with increasingly less regard.  I’ve done this in the context of two other traditional Yuletide tales, both taking place in critical part on Christmas Eve, and both essentially the same story in many respects: Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” about the reformation of the miser Scrooge and Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Both these stories frame the importance of free will and choice in terms of alternative possible realities, in order to contrast decisions about the bunching up of wealth and treasure with the benefit and spirit of shared community and giving.
(* You can find out prior annual essays here: Thursday, December 24, 2009, A Christmas Eve Story of Alternative Realities: The Fight Not To Go To Pottersville (Or Ratnerville), Friday, December 24, 2010, Revisiting a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville, Saturday, December 24, 2011, Traditional Christmas Eve Revisit of a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville, the Real Life Incarnation of the Abhorred Pottersville, Monday, December 24, 2012, While I Tell of Yuletide Treasure, Tuesday, December 24, 2013, A Seasonal Reflection: Assessing Aspirations Toward Alternate Realities- 'Tis A Tale of Two Alternate Cities?.,Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Seasonal Reflections: No Matter How Fortunate or Not, We Are All Equal, Sharing a Common Journey
In "It's a Wonderful Life": on left Lionel Barrymore (who played Scrooge in annual radio broadcasts) playing the Scrooge-like Henry Potter and on right Jimmy Stewart playing George Bailey, the banker with friends who fends off succumbing to the Potter world
One matter these annual reflections has always tuned to is the way that Forest City Ratner’s takeover of a swath of Brooklyn constitutes a concentration of wealth and control that’s analogous to the way that in “It’s a Wonderful Life” the communally shared town of Bedford Falls became Pottersville in the alternate reality where unchallenged power was allowed to accumulate in the hands of Henry F. Potter, the bad town banker.  The unfortunate news to report this year with respect to Forest City Ratner is that its spreading power and influence in New York is continuing to grow like Potter’s did in that alternate reality. . .
An example of exactly what this transformation of our world means can be seen in the way we de Blasio, and Council Member Steve Levin as his delivery instrument to override the wishes of the community, are gifting the library this Christmas to developer David Kramer and his Hudson Companies.  They are valuing the library not from the perspective of the public, but only from the developer's.
CLICK TO ENLARGE (something you can't do with a library)- A gift to developer David Kramer (in suit) under the Brooklyn Heights Promenade XMass tree this year, the Brooklyn Heights Library, sold for less than the price of a vacant lot, courtesy of Mayor Bill de Blasio, The Brooklyn Heights Association, and Councilman Steve Levin.  Others were involved pushing for this sale, like Saint Ann's.  Kramer here was getting some elf-help from the construction union whom he has never treated well.  The union reversed positions of the public good of the sale when Kramer made some feeble work place safety concessions, sad for them and unwise in that unions wanting to reverse waning support from the public should seek to do so by supporting the public. 
 It is perhaps crass to try to talk about such an important and democratic and cultural institution as a library in purely financial terms but the Brooklyn Heights Library, substantially enlarged and fully upgraded at considerable public expense and sacrifice, would cost more than $120 million to replace.  It represents an accumulated investment of our tax dollars over the years.  Yet, the de Blasio/Levin sale of the library insistently views the library only from the vantage of the developer: The library will be sold to the developer for less than the price of a vacant lot.  The sale, a significant public loss, would net the city perhaps less than $25 million. . . Brooklyn Public Library president Linda Johnson told her board the net is to be some unspecified amount appreciably below $40 million, but we think her math obviously and deliberately overstates even this small as yet unspecified figure.

What is a library such as this worth?  Last year we quoted from Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol.”  I I think if fitting to return to a part of the exchange between Scrooge and his nephew again this year:

    Nephew: Oh I think there are many things from which I've derived some good, by which I have not profited financially, I dare say. There is more in life than money, Uncle.

    Scrooge: Humbug to that!  More in life than money!  Humbug!
So, until we teach him better, we'll have to let de Blasio drift, keeping the season in his "Humbug" developer-gifts-come-first fashion.  For the rest of us, let's all be blessed, every one of us, in knowing that what we value is so much more important and meaningful and in our collective commitment and New Year's resolution to fight for a future where those values will once more be respected.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Op-Ed: City Council Poised To Vote On City-wide Model For Library Sales and Shrinkage

The Brooklyn Heights Library, Brooklyn's central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn. Recently expanded and fully upgraded it is two-stories (about 38,000 square feet) above ground and two half-floors with books at the ready underground 
Major things are happening in New York’s City Council with a vote of the full Council expected December 16th.  . . .

. . .  Last month Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson testified that the sale and shrinkage of Brooklyn’s downtown central destination library, the Brooklyn Heights Library, the second biggest library in Brooklyn, was being looked at as a model for deals being worked on by ALL THREE library systems in New York, the BPL, the NYPL and now the Queens Library.

This sweet deal for a developer who will build a luxury tower tucking in a drastically shrunken “replacement” library at the bottom, is far from a desirable model for the future of our libraries.  And, the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library isn’t, actually,  the original model for all this; the sale of the Donnell Library, conceived at the same time and executed first is the first prototype.  The proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library nonetheless charts an unprecedented course in that this is the first time the City Council must vote to approve such a transaction, a test of the council’s mettle.

The sudden, secretively arranged sale of Donnell was announced November of 2007.  The five-story 97,000 square foot library standing on 53rd Street across from MoMA was sold at the height of the real estate bubble to net the New York Public Library probably less than $25 million.  Between Fifth and Sixth avenues, Donnell was on what was documented to be the most valuable block in Manhattan.  The 7,381 square foot penthouse in the 50-story luxury tower replacing it is on the market for $60 million.  Other apartments in the building are selling for more than $20+ million.

We’ve just passed the 8th anniversary of Donnell’s sale announcement.  The priorities here?: Last March, the luxury condominium tower, luxury hotel (for which Chinese investors paid a record-setting $130 million) and luxury restaurants were open, but the planned “replacement” for the library at the site, less than one-third size (28,000 square feet), mostly underground and largely bookless, is nowhere in sight.  It’s new perpetually postponed completion date is now stated by the NYPL to be “Summer 2016.” .  .

. . . While you continue to wait you can dine in one of the luxury restaurants seated on chairs upholstered with coyote pelts.

The beloved Donnell was a central destination library, much of it recently renovated with public money. It had a state-of-the-art media center and a new teen center.

The Brooklyn Heights Library is similarly a central destination library with a special focus on its Business, Career and Education division.  Its location in Downtown Brooklyn at a key transit hub where it’s the most accessible library for a huge number of New Yorkers and Brooklynites.  Its full upgrade in 1993 means it’s one of Brooklyn’s most up-to-date libraries and best in terms of computer support.

Even if the BPL proposed a full scale replacement library it would be a problem, because, stuck at the bottom of a privately owned residential building, the library could never thereafter be enlarged.  This library was substantially enlarged when it was fully upgraded in 1993 so surely it’s a mistake to shrink it now, an uncorrectable one at that.  This research library is one of the highest circulation libraries in the system, in the center of a fast growing business district, neighborhood, borough and city.  Library use is up 40% programmatically and 59% in terms of circulation, most of that being physical books.  The BPL plans to banish an untold number of books, only the merest fraction to remain.

The existing library is 63,000 square feet.  Its proposed “replacement” was proposed to be a just over the 21,000 square feet specified in the developer’s contract.  Pursuant to some backroom maneuvering to push the library sale though announced just last Thursday* it's now proposed to be a slightly larger shrunken library,  42% of the size of the current one. The existing library is about 38,000 feet above ground while its proposed “replacement” would have only 15,000 square feet above ground.
(*  That backroom deal, with a lot of spending on the public's dime to push this deal through, not the developer's makes a major non-transparent raid on the budget of the Mayoral-controlled Department of Education.)
A second hugely awkward problem about considering a full-scale replacement: Selling the library for so little the BPL likely loses money.  So far its it’s costing the NYPL $21 million and counting to outfit the library that’s supposed to replace Donnell.  If it had to outfit a full-scale replacement it would have put the NYPL into an embarrassing hole.

Same thing with the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library.  The library would cost $120+ million to replace, $60 million for the construction and, additionally, the land and the public’s associated right to use it are worth more than another $60 million.

But the BPL isn’t bothering to appraise the library’s current value to the public saying that attention only need be paid to a far lower figure, what a developer will pay for the “tear-down” value of the library.  It’s like saying the value of a heirloom watch is just the puddle of gold it melts into.  Interesting: The hearings have pretty well documented that the developer (not the high bidder), giving money to de Blasio, is not even paying that far lower “tear-down” figure.  The BPL says the sale will net the city $40 million but appears intent on exaggerating the number.

Libraries, emblematically, are democratic institutions offering knowledge and opportunity to all.  They also support our democracy by providing an informed, educated electorate.  Happy coincidence: Libraries are good politics, because the public values its libraries, wanting their proper funding to be a top priority.

Will the City Council vote to approve this as a city-wide model for a retrenching program of future library sell-offs?  That would be bad for our democracy and very bad politics for the City Council.

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The author, Michael D. D. White, a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, is an attorney and urban planner who held a senior policy-level position and, for more than twenty-five years, worked for the state finance and development authorities.
For more about what has been written about the City Council's vote to inaugurate approval and sale of public libraries with this proto-type (including letetr of object written by the NYC Comptroller and Public Advocate) see:
Thursday, December 10, 2015,  Links Respecting City Council land Use and Subcommittee Vote (and Steve Levin community betrayal) Respecting Proposed Sale and Shrinkage of Brooklyn Heights Library As Prototype For Future
PS (BONUS):  Here is video about the decision where you can see:
1.)  BPL President Linda Johnson saying that:
- This sale and shrinkage is a “model” for libraries throughout the city, not just future BPL transactions, but also for Queens and the NYPL
- Councilman Brad Lander (pushing for library sales and shrinkages like this one) is “very clever”
2.)  NYPL president Tony Marx “Shushing” fellow library Johnson about saying that Lander is “very clever”
3.)  Brad Lander saying about these library sale deals that developers “must make a profit.”

Will Steve Levin Save the Brooklyn Heights Library?