By LOUIS FLORES
The sale of a Brooklyn Heights library branch that many flagged as troublesome, but which was nonetheless approved by the New York City Council, has become the subject of a reported Federal corruption investigation, according to news reports.
Now, one leading library advocacy group has expressed criticism of the judgment of a Queens municipal legislator, who has portrayed himself to be a defender of public libraries : Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Woodside).
“Although Councilmember Van Bramer is known as and presents himself to be Mister Library,” said Michael D.D. White, who co-founded the community group Citizens Defending Libraries, which has endeavoured to save libraries from closure or sale, “he has not been pro-library. He has been pro-real estate deals.”
Since City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem) and Councilmember David Greenfield (D-Borough Park), the chair at the Land Use Committee, are generally beholden to the influence of real estate developers, other Councilmembers in leadership positions are looked at to better represent community interests. One reason library activists expected Councilmember Van Bramer to potentially block the sale of the Brooklyn Heights library branch was due to the fact that before he was elected to the City Council, Councilmember Van Bramer had worked at the Queens Borough Public Library.
The faith that Brooklyn Heights residents had placed in Councilmember Van Bramer’s sensibilities about the importance of libraries in communities to mean that he would protect the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library from being sold turned out to be misplaced.
At a critical 30 September 2013 City Council hearing, library advocates expressed disappointment in Councilmember Van Bramer, after Councilmember Van Bramer’s remarks during the hearing appeared to support proponents of the sale of the Brooklyn Heights library branch.
Mr. White told Progress Queens that Councilmember Van Bramer, as chair of the City Council Committee on Cultural Affairs, “has control over who testifies and when” during committee hearings. Mr. White said that library activists would arrive early to hearings only to be scheduled to speak “at the end of the hearing,” hours after the proponents for the sale testified and after the press had left the hearing.
For that 2013 hearing, Councilmember Van Bramer called the panel of speakers from Citizens Defending Libraries almost four hours into the five-hour hearing.
Activists expressed concerns about the sale during a 2013 City Council hearing chaired by Councilmember Van Bramer
“Due to the total lack of transparency, the lack of information that the City Council has, you’re hampered to almost the point of incompetence, in terms of reviewing the decisions that need to be made,” Mr. White testified, at the 2013 hearing, according to a video of the hearing available on the City Council Web site. Later, during Mr. White’s testimony, he added, “The lack of public review and the overall lack of transparency has been extremely problematic, and it’s been extremely problematic that these hearings have not been held until this time.”
At that time then, little was known about the plan to sell the Brooklyn Heights library branch, except that the city's library activists were still reeling in 2013 from the 2008 closure and subsequent sale of the Donnell Library in Midtown Manhattan, a subject Mr. White addressed at the 2013 hearing when he testified before Councilmember Van Bramer by saying, “I don’t think you can talk about selling-off libraries and the total problem of your oversight without [addressing] Donnell and saying it needs to be investigated, and you need to use that as a model for what needs to be prevented.”
Councilmember Van Bramer did not answer a request made by Progress Queens for an interview for this report.
Despite the predictive nature of the concerns expressed by Mr. White and the other members of Citizens Defending Libraries, the lack of aggressive oversight by City Council leadership may have enabled the controversial sale of the Brooklyn Heights library branch that is now the subject of a possible corruption investigation.
Over the week-end, The New York Post reported that prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s southern district and from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office were jointly investigating the sale of the Brooklyn Heights library branch to reportedly determine how a politically-connected developer, The Hudson Companies Incorporated, which underbid for the project, was awarded ownership and development rights to the Brooklyn Heights library branch for $52 million.
A follow-up report questioned why the New York City Department of Education had agreed to subsidize the project by leasing space in the new luxury condominium tower.
It’s not clear that even if law enforcement agents can prove illegality in the review and approval of the sale of the Brooklyn Heights library branch, whether that would be enough for the library branch to be returned to the Brooklyn Public Library. If it could be shown that a community facility was fraudulently sold, Progress Queens asked the press offices of each of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to indicate, without commenting about the reported investigation, whether it would be possible for prosecutors to seize or demand a forfeiture of the library, so that it could be returned to the public. However, the requests were not answered.
Many of the issues reportedly central to the Federal corruption investigation have been raised by members of Citizens Defending Libraries, but those concerns were completely dismissed by City Council leadership, including by Councilmember Van Bramer.
On Mr. White’s own blog, he noted on 6 June 2015 that David Kramer, the CEO of The Hudson Companies Incorporated, the developer which had proposed to purchase the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, had been identified as a campaign fundraising host of Mayor de Blasio’s 2013 campaign committee. Jonathan Marvel, the principal and founder of Marvel Architects, the architectural firm designing the luxury condominium tower for The Hudson Companies Incorporated, also served as a campaign fundraising host.
Mr. White questioned the timing of Messrs. Kramer’s and Marvel’s campaign activities, given the fact that they had a pending application at that time then to purchase and redevelop the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
After Mayor de Blasio was sworn into office, he selected The Hudson Companies Incorporated as the winning bidder for the luxury condominium tower project, even though its bid turned out to be $6 million less than the highest bidder, according to news reports.
Citizens Defending Libraries also raised several questions about the decision by the Department of Education to lease space in the new luxury condominium tower in a 15 December 2015 press release. That press release was issued before the New York City Council voted to approve the sale.
Elected officials, including Comptroller Scott Stringer (D-New York City) and Public Advocate Letitia James (D-New York City), had also raised questions about the sale.
City Councilmembers also ignored criticism of the library branch sale made by elected officials
Comptroller Stringer wrote a letter to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, questioning, amongst other issues, whether the developer was paying fair market value for the library property, which faces Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn Heights. Deputy Mayor Glen played a crucial role in the sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, according to three sources.
Separately, Public Advocate James expressed her own criticism of the affordable housing aspect of the development deal in a letter she wrote to the City Council in which she questioned The Hudson Companies Incorporated’s rationale to build affordable housing units off-site.
Public Advocate James had, in fact, expressed concerns since at least 2013, when, during the City Council hearing chaired by Councilmember Van Bramer, she questioned whether Linda Johnson, president of the Brooklyn Public Library, had done enough to focus on financing repairs on historic libraries that had served a critical function in communities.
“Employing a finance model, which basically tears down existing libraries to build new ones, is just unacceptable, and, to me, it’s really an extension of the flawed policies of this administration,” then Councilmember James said, referring to the administration of then Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R-New York City), according an excerpt video posted on YouTube by Citizens Defending Libraries. The plan to downsize, close, and sell libraries was a key policy of the former Bloomberg administration that has continued under Mayor de Blasio.
Recently, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez wrote a letter to oppose efforts to end the Brooklyn Heights library branch’s distinction as a Federal depository library.
Despite all the concerns, Councilmember Van Bramer voted to approve the library branch sale
Notwithstanding these concerns, some long-standing, leadership in the New York City Council, including Councilmember Van Bramer, set the example followed by the rank and file municipal legislators in the vote to approve the sale on 16 December 2015 by an overwhelming margin of 45-1-3.
Asked to comment about the judgment by City Council leadership to approve the sale that has now become the reported subject of a Federal corruption probe, Mr. White said of City Council leadership, “They clearly weren’t paying attention when they voted,” referring to the concerns that had been being raised for years by library activists.
Mr. White noted one example, amongst others, of the questionable judgment of City Council leadership when Councilmembers in December kept claiming that the sale would provide $40 million in net proceeds for other libraries, even after Brooklyn Public Library President Johnson had already said during a Brooklyn Public Library Board of Trustees meeting that the sale was not going to generate $40 million in net proceeds, Mr. White said.
Since officials from each of the de Blasio administration and the Brooklyn Public Library had been eyeing the sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library as a possible prototype for potential future sales of other libraries, Mr. White told Progress Queens that he questioned whether other libraries were being quietly evaluated for sale by the de Blasio administration.
Criticism of Councilmember Van Bramer by Citizens Defending Libraries has followed criticism expressed by municipal legislators when news reports were first published in 2014 about possible corruption at the Queens Borough Public Library, where Councilmember Van Bramer had worked for 11 years. In a report published by The New York Daily News, Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley (D-Maspeth) questioned whether Councilmember Van Bramer could objectively chair a hearing into the finances of the Queens Borough Public Library given his past ties to that library system. It eventually took special legislation passed in Albany that allowed Mayor de Blasio and Borough President Melinda Katz (D-Queens) to replace key members of the Board of Trustees before Thomas Galante, the president and CEO of the Queens Borough Public Library, was fired. Mr. Gallante subsequently sued the library system for wrongful termination.
Given that the de Blasio administration is the reported target of a wide-ranging, Federal corruption investigation that is examining, in part, whether Mayor de Blasio has bestowed preferential treatment to real estate developers and lobbyists, who have acted as campaign contributors, the circumstances surrounding the sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library may fit within the larger investigation.
Besides each of the CEO of The Hudson Companies Incorporated and the founder of Marvel Architects having served as past campaign supporters of Mayor de Blasio’s campaign committee, the sale transaction also involved BerlinRosen, a political consulting firm with close ties to Mayor de Blasio, and Yoswein New York.
BerlinRosen has provided public relations service to the Brooklyn Public Library. As part of the larger Federal corruption probe into the de Blasio administration, BerlinRosen has reportedly received a subpoena, according to a report published by The New York Times.
Jamie Van Bramer, a lobbyist at Yoswein New York, is a relative of Councilmember Van Bramer, according to a source. On one occasion when Councilmember Van Bramer’s mother visited him in the chambers of the City Council, the lobbyist Mr. Van Bramer took a photograph of Councilmember Van Bramer with his mother and then Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Chelsea).
Shortly after Mayor de Blasio was sworn into office, The Hudson Companies Incorporated, also made a small contribution to Mayor de Blasio’s now-shuttered nonprofit lobbying arm, the Campaign for One New York, which, in turn, is itself under reported investigation, according to news reports.