|NYPL trustee Stephen A.Schwarzman appearing on Charlie Rose to discuss, among other things, the NYPL's Central Library Plan. Is that pinch to illustrate how the libraries get smaller as he sells off their real estate? Keep reading.|
One of the great mysteries about the New York Central Library plan is why on earth would the NYPL’s trustees want to approve the NYPL’s giving up substantial library system assets and vastly shrinking the library system’s space, spending hundreds of millions of public dollars, perhaps in the end as much as a half billion dollars, to do so? Is it true that the only possible explanation is that the there are library trustees interested in seeing the real estate plans go forward, no matter the cost to implement the plans or the lack of benefit to the public?
Wednesday night NYPL trustee Stephen Schwarzman, head of Blackstone Capital, a major investment and real estate firm, confirmed on Charlie Rose the interest he had, going back to 2008, in seeing the Central Library real estate deals go forward at that time when they were launched. See: See: Charlie Rose: With Stephen Schwarzman, Wednesday, June 19, 2013.
NYPL Real Estate Deals
In March 2008 Schwarzman committed $100 million to the NYPL. When Rose on Wednesday night’s show asked Schwarzman about his standards for that money going to the NYPL and the negotiations that might have taken place, Schwarzman said that when “the head of the library came over to visit me [about the $100 million] as these things tend to work” (Schwarzman referred to “numerous meetings” on the plan) and that he, Schwarzman , therefore “knew how they were going to spend it . . .to reconfigure the library system.”
The Rose interview doesn’t provide greater specificity than that with respect to exactly when all these discussions took place, but, indeed, at the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008 a lot was happening at the NYPL in terms of its real estate plans. November 7th is when it was abruptly disclosed to the public that, after a secretive process, the beloved Donnell Library had been sold. That five-story, 97,000 square foot library on Manhattan’s 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues across from MoMA was sold for an absurdly low figure, netting the NYPL only $39 million. The 7,381 square foot penthouse apartment in the 50-story building now going up at that site is being marketed for far more, $60 million. There will be a “replacement” Donnell of only 28,000 square feet that will be mostly underground and largely bookless. It might finally be built by 2015. See: Monday, May 27, 2013, More Thoughts On Valuation And What The NYPL Should Have Received As Recompense For The Public When It Sold The Donnell Library and Friday, May 24, 2013, Previews Of The Proposed New Donnell Library: The NYPL Unveils Its Version Of The “Silk Purse” Libraries It Envisions For Our Future.
Extent of Blackstone's Real Estate and Other Investment Interests
Why should we note with interest Schwarzman's admission of the linkage of that $100 million to the real estate plans? (He describes the plans as “terrific” and designed to put the NYPL in “better financial shape.”)
Because Schwarzman’s Blackstone Capital is involved in real estate and investments creating all sorts of possibilities of conflicts of interest. And because Blackstone is so huge those possible conflicts are huge.
Albeit there was a lot of boasting and associated PR during the Rose show intended to make Schwarzman look good, some of which may need to be discounted, but at the top of the show, by way of introduction Charlie Rose began with the following information about Blackstone:
Rose: . . . it is now the world's largest alternative investment firm with over $200 billion under management.Further into the show there was this exchange:
Rose: I think you're the largest real estate investor in the world, aren't you?
Schwarzman: That's true. (Nodding)
• private equity,Not only is Blackstone the “largest real estate investor in the world,” Schwarzman says during the program that Blackstone is similarly preeminent in hedge funds:
• hedge fund,
• real estate
• a large credit business that does highly leveraged credit,
• a mergers and acquisition group
• a troubled company restructuring business,
• Raising money for other people in the alternative asset classes from institutional investors.
Schwarzman: We are the largest investors in the world in hedge funds.Are hedge funds notorious these days for making a lot of money? Schwarzman says his private equity business is bigger:
Schwarzman: … Private equity is a bigger business… The rates on return on private equity tend to be much higher.And when Schwarzman speaks of the $100 million to the NYPL as being connected to the 1007/2008 real estate plans it is worth thinking about what he next told Rose about making those private equity profits:
Schwarzman: . . And the reason is that you have control of businesses or control of real estate. You can change the management. You can change the business strategy, and it's not passive.How Readily Conflicts of Interest Can Crop Up
It would therefore be easy for Schwarzman and his Blacktsone Group to have conflicts of interest. Actually, it would be perhaps be hard to avoid them.
One example of how easily conflicts of interest potentially crop up is that in the spring of 2007, the same year that Donnell was sold by the NYPL Peter Slatin wrote speculatively in The Street envisioning that Schwarzman would be one of the buyers of Orient-Express Hotels, the company to whom it was announced the library would be sold. And Slatin envisioned that Schwarzman would buy it partnering with Sternlicht of Starwood Hotels, the company that wound up actually buying Donnell when the dust settled. He imagined a celebratory scene respecting the purchase: “Steve Schwarzman and Barry Sternlicht are sitting down for burgers” at the 21 Club with Andrew Davis of Von Essen Hotels celebrating their purchase of Orient-Express Hotels. Interestingly, the 21 Club, adjacent to Donnell, factored in prominently with its purchase. See: Getting All Aboard the Orient-Express, 03/26/07.
Who knows if there was something particular that stimulated Slatin’s speculative imagination coming up with so many odd prescient details, but the idea that what he imagined or any variation of it could actually easily have happened emphasizes the concern about where conflict of interest might lead.
Another example of relationships that point to the ease with which conflict could crop up is that the Chief Operating Officer of the NYPL, David Offensend, came from Wall Street and is a cofounder of Evercore Partners, a firm that might be described as sort of a boutique spin-off of Schwarzman’s Blackstone (two key partners, Roger Altman and Austin M. Beutner, are Blackstone alumni). Offensend is the most important employee of the NYPL in terms of implementing its real estate plans and he describes the NYPL’s plan as originating back in 2006, perhaps as far back as 2005. Offensend began working for the the NYPL in 2004.
Not that Schwarzman and Offensend are the only significant individuals with respect to the making of real estate plans at the NYPL. According to Vartan Gregorian, who became the NYPL’s president in 1981, he put NYPL trustee and real estate developer Marshall Rose in charge of the supervision of the entire real estate holdings of the NYPL. Mr. Rose has continued to handle the NYPL’s real estate ever since, even during a period of time that he was chairman of the NYPL’s trustees.
It is harder to ignore these concerns when real estate deals Mr. Schwarzman says are intended to put the NYPL in “better financial shape” seem to impoverish it instead: Things like the sale of Donnell or the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL). That library, in the old B. Altman department store building was completed in1996 as one of the projects under Mr. Rose’s guidance at a cost of $100 million. Last year the NYPL, calling virtually no attention to the fact, sold off 87% of its space for $60.8 million. Was the publicly paid for library that recently cost so much worth now worth that little? See: Saturday, June 15, 2013, SIBL, NYPL's Science, Industry and Business Library Sold At An Unreported Loss To The Public (And an Elucidating Sideways Look At The BAM South Library Real Estate Games).
Schwarzman's Purpose on Wednesday Night?
Why was Schwarzman on Charlie Rose Wednesday night? He was on Rose once before, but it was years ago, in 2006. It could be that the Central Library Plan is running into difficulty, encountering opposition, and he was there to give it a PR boost. This could be particularly important at this moment because this coming week the selling off and shrinkage of New York City libraries will be the subject of a hearing by the New York State Assembly Committee on Libraries and Education Technology on Thursday June 27, 2013 (10:30 a.m. Assembly Hearing Room 1923, 19th Floor, 250 Broadway, Manhattan). See: Subject: The Sale of Public Library Buildings in New York City/Purpose: To examine the practice of selling public library buildings to private developers and the impact that sale has on the library and the services it provides.
Relying on Charlie Rose?
Charlie Rose is a notoriously soft interviewer who compliantly works with his interviewees to support them in putting out their PR in exactly the way they want to put it out. This can involve being sycophantically servile to those with power and sometimes that means that misinformation is promulgated uncorrected. I’ve previously written in Noticing New York about how Rose put himself in harness to promote real estate developer Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards ambitions. See: Monday, April 2, 2012, Charlie Rose Does Infomercial For Forest City Ratner.
Bruce Ratner partnered with Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov on Atlantic Yards and in that earlier Noticing New York Article I observed:
Rose's cavalier, jokey exchange with Ratner about Prokhorov may some day come back to haunt him. Ratner joked that Prokhorov almost became president of Russia. Prokhorov has long been one of the insiders who get along with Putin. Most interpret his feint at a run for president as an effort to deflect real opposition to Putin, but Rose wasn't doing a serious international affairs interview so he simply played along.It turned out that one Charlie Rose show promoting Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards was apparently not enough and a few months later Rose did another, this time hosting not only Ratner but also the Russian oligarch, and as a softening measure Prokhorov brought along his sister Irina. (See: Monday, October 08, 2012, On Charlie Rose, uninformed sycophancy redux; host lets Ratner spin, claim arena was gift to Brooklyn, admit working the levers of government "in the traditional way"). This show, promoting the so-called “Barclays” center as an entertainment venue, did find Rose obsequiously joking with the oligarch about Russian politics.
Rose’s show can be informative (misinformative too) and, obviously, much of what I am writing here is drawing upon worthwhile information from the Rose Schwarzman interview.
Schwarzman The Compassionate Romneyite
Later in the interview we learn from one of Rose’s inquiries that Schwarzman is a “a Republican” who has been “a strong supporter of Republican candidates including Governor Romney” and, Rose implies, one who has problems with President Obama and the way Obama is handling the American economy. We also find out that Schwarzman believes the current United States tax system should be replaced with a “flat tax” (like Russia! he points out) although he allows that in the engineering of such a massive overhaul others could advocate for progressivity of the tax rates. Schwarzman says he thinks that it would be more equitable and that the tax code should be made simple. These are familiar talking points from an admitted Republican but I for one, while I would favor simplifying the tax code, don’t believe that it can ever be made “simple.”
Schwarzman may have been a Romney supporter but throughout the show Schwarzman is depicted in `compassionate conservative’ guise. Rose starts the show by having Schwarzman talk about a scholarship program with his name that involves sending students to China and it then moves on to his affirmative charitable (“eleemosynary”) efforts to hire combat veterans.
In talking about the scholarship program orientated around creating relationships with China (“Schwarzman Scholars”) its is not immediately clear at this early point in the program that there is connection between the program and, controversial at the time, the investment by the Chinese government in Blackstone, buying 9.9% of its stock (“nonvoting” stock) when Blackstone went public in 2007. The timing to buy into Blackstone, shortly before the financial crisis, was bad and Schwarzman admits the Chinese suffered a loss due to the downturn, but, as described by Mr. Schwarzman, the Chinese, with dividends, are almost back to even, which he describes as “not a bad outcome.”
Getting to Library Issues
The discussion of the library starts about ten minutes into Rose’s thirty minute interview of Schwarzman, a positioning that is a pretty good indicator that this was considered a highlight or prime purpose of the interview.
It begins rights after Schwarzman, talking about his military employment efforts, uses the word “eleemosynary” (i.e. `charitable') as if to cue Rose:
Rose: You gave $100 million to the library; I may have the wrong number, but it was about that.There is a disconnect between what Schwarzman says and much of what is actually going on at the library. While he says “you can take out books” he doesn’t mention that the NYPL has been implementing a book reduction program administered by such people as Anne L. Coristan, Vice President for Public Service, who is one of those involved in implementing the Central Library Plan: Books are not supposed to exceed 50% of shelf space, no duplicate books are supposed to appear on the shelves (even Hamlet) and “shabby” books are supposed to be thrown out even though many classics and out-of-print books don't look new.
Schwarzman: That's true.
Rose: How do you decide your philanthropic commitments?
Schwarzman: That's a great question and I am still developing the answer. I make major commitments where I see a major need. Ah, and there are many different areas where people find need and satisfy it. I happen to like things in the educational area. I believe that a great education is a passport to a different type of life, and particularly in the world we're living in now, it's really essential. And if I can help in various situations how people have that boost and have that advantage, I tend to respond to that. So, at the library we have a huge number of people- New York City, as you know, has people living here I think it's from around 140 countries, 170 countries, somewhere in that area, that the library serves, people who don't have the advantages, necessarily. Some do, but it's a place where, you know, you can take out books, you have the advantage of librarians, you have computers. So just the opposite of what you might think, attendance at libraries is going way up.
Schwarzman talks about having “the advantage of librarians” but he doesn’t talk about NYPL’s huge layoffs of librarians, the way they have been intimidated and de-escalated in importance even while those engaged in real estate deals at the NYPL are made more important, and an increasingly large proportion of revenues is diverted to their salaries.
He mentions that “attendance at libraries is going way up,” which it is, but does not mention the perplexing concurrent shrinkage of the libraries under the NYPL’s plans.
Deflection on Democracy Issues?
Perhaps most important, Schwarzman in his mention of “passport to a different type of life,” his conjuring up diversity with his description about people from 170 countries, his talk of `boosting’ people and giving them `advantages’ is on message to deflect the obvious criticism that selling, shrinking and defunding libraries is anti-democratic and discriminatory. I’ve previously pointed out that deflection of such criticism is probably the reason that Schwarzman and the rest of the NYPL trustees hired Anthony Marx as the new president of the NYPL to implement these plans. 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.
Schwarzman, the former Romney supporter, sounds studiously aware of getting across the same talking points Marx routinely works into his speeches in this regard when he goes on to talk about “reaching all kinds of middle-income and lower-income people” (“So I really like that” he says) and serving the “ethnic mix, ah, and economic mix of lower income people.”
While libraries are truly a “vehicle for changing people's lives” there is a hint in Schwarzman’s discussions of `passports to a different type of life’ of the Republican fiction that anyone, through hard work, can elevate themselves to the ranks of the wealthy and privileged.
|Redundant, or undeserved acknowledgment? Schwarzman's name on a potential demolition project|
Another concern for donors should be that what they give (for example to build the $100 million SIBL) might be squandered in real estate deals. Lastly, there is the way evanescence of substantial gifts under the new NYPL regime that pays so little attention to history or that which was intended for posterity. The 42nd Street Central Reference library was paid for (in addition to money from NYC taxpayers) by the Tildens and the Astors. In inflation-adjusted terms the money Schwarzman has provided to the NYPL is a pittance compared to those who have gone before him. The library used to have a policy against naming its buildings for living individuals. Yet Mr. Schwarzman's name has been plastered on that library (which he would like to see destroyed) in five conspicuous locations, obliterating memory of the truer and more substantial patrons of the library that precede him.
The exchange between Rose and Schwarzman allows Schwarzman to appear modest about this naming:
Rose: So when you make that kind of commitment, what is your standard of accountability? I mean in this case, I assume you didn't do this because you wanted your name on the building … you wanted to do this because you wanted to make a difference, and you want to make sure if you're giving that level of gift that they… the money is spent wisely.One note: Schwarzman frequently, haltingly interjects “ah”s into his discourse, some of which seem somewhat telling. You can watch the video to listen for them but as a courtesy and to make it more readable I left most of them out of the transcription.
Schwarzman: Well, the advantage here is that I knew how they were going to spend it. And, the reason I responded to this…
Rose: That was because of negotiation that takes place?
Schwarzman: No, this is because I was on the board of the library, and they hired one of the major consulting firms to figure out how to reconfigure the library system, create a modern lending library in the main branch of the library and be able to deliver better services and put themselves in better financial shape. This is a terrific plan! And so what happened is that the head of the library came over to visit me as these things tend to work, and suggested that I give them $100 million. They can then have a lead gift to implement their plan, so you get a multiplier of close to $1 billion. Ah, and ah, you know, they said, by the way we'd put your name on the building. And I said sure sounds like a great thing because there'd been numerous meetings on how this program would kick off a whole reinvigoration of the library system, reaching all kinds of middle-income and lower-income people. So I really like that. I also do major support for the parochial school system in New York. Why do that?: That's an easy one. They have the same basic ethnic mix, ah, and economic mix of lower income people. And they graduated about 99% of their kids, whereas the public schools are somewhere around 50%. So my wife and I are supporting that because it's just changes the lives of these people because they have 96% that go on to college. And it's transformational and I've done other things around the world that haven't been disclosed that tap into that and I like education as a vehicle for changing people's lives.
Rose: And giving them opportunity?
Adding Consult To Injury
Mr. Schwarzman above refers to the NYPL’s hiring of “one of the major consulting firms to figure out how to reconfigure the library system.” One reason the major consulting firm is unidentified may be because it is Booz Allen Hamilton, hired by the NYPL to produce a 2006 report recommending consolidation and downsizing of the NYPL. Mentioning the firm’s name on Rose could have been awkward as the firm is presently getting a level of spectacular attention that a Charlie Rose audience might find hard to overlook: It employed Edward Snowden, now in the news as an intelligence leaker or whistle-blower, to gather intelligence on Americans for the NSA. The firm currently has a huge public relations problem on their hands.
Booz Allen Hamilton is not the only consulting firm the NYPL has hired to work on the Central Library Plan. When doing something controversial it is good to hide behind the work of a lot of “consultants” you hire. According to COO David Offensend the NYPL also hired the Gensler architectural firm to bless its calculations of how much it could reduce its library space and also hired McKinsey & Company in connection with its planned reductions of space and personnel.
More recently, at a May 29, 2013 Historic Districts Council panel discussion of “The Changing Face of New York City’s Public Library Systems,” Scott Sherman, contributing writer and editor of The Nation, who has been covering the changes at the NYPL, noted that journalists calling the BPL for information can no longer get through to the BPL’s own public relations staff; now they are referred out to the firm of BerlinRosen, which Mr. Sherman pointed out, says on its web site that is specializes in “crisis management.” (Correction 07/02/'13: This article originally stated that the BPL and the NYPL had both engaged Berlin Rosen to provide statements about library sell-offs to the public. Mr. Sherman only said that the BPL had engaged the firm and the NYPL says that BerlinRosen is not doing work for it.)
One For All?
Berlin Rosen is issuing statements on behalf of both the BPL and the real estate developer it is dealing with on one of the library schemes the BPL is pursuing, the sale of the historic neighborhood Pacific Branch to partially pay for the outfitting of a new library originally described as being an expansion of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle:
Jeremy Soffin of BerlinRosen Public Affairs, representing both Two Trees Management and Brooklyn Public Library, said on Tuesday that Two Trees read a statement into the record "talking about its commitment to good jobs. It did not commit to union wages on this project."(See: 32-Story ‘BAM South’ wins NYC Council approval, by Mary Frost, June 17, 2013.)
The way in which BerlinRosen is representing both the BPL and Walenatas developer’s Two Trees Management is reminiscent of how an earlier Brooklyn Community Board 5 committee meeting on the same "BAM South" project held in March was attended by Jamie Van Bramer (no apparent relation to City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer on the library committee) of the Yoswein New York, Inc., a firm hired to lobby for both the BPL and the developer. Mr. Van Bramer told the assemblage that although his firm also lobbies for the developer he was not there that day to represent the developer on that particular project. Van Bramer has been at many subsequent meetings where both the BPL’s and the developer’s interests were similarly at stake.
Schwarzman Dreams Of A Hydro-Fracked World
Is Mr. Schwarzman sincere or merely unabashed when it comes to talking points?
|Schwarzman environmental finger!: Schwarzman raising his finger to emphasize the point that fracking is `environmental'|
Schwarzman: The US in particular is quite interesting because we have a revolution going on in the energy business in the United States which is presenting…(To start reading more about what fracking and climate change really mean for the country see: Tuesday, December 6, 2011, Testimony at Department of Environmental Conservation’s 11/30 Hearings on High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (“Fracking”): The LONG and the SHORT of It.)
Rose: What impact is it going to have on the United States in terms of making it, certainly, energy independent and not dependent on energy from the Middle East?
Schwarzman: Well, it does a lot of really neat things. right? Well, what happens is our price of natural gas is going to be way below world levels. And that's going to enable us, theoretically, to do all kinds of things. First, it's a clean fuel, which (pointing with a raised finger) is a very important environmental thing. Second, because it's cheap we are going to be able to attract companies from around the world to locate in the United States, in the petrochemical area and all kinds of allied types of businesses. Third, we are going to convert over time to gas powering utilities, which is pretty cheap. We could convert cars to natural gas. The amount of money that we would save would be equivalent to a "peace dividend" plus we'd have clean fuel. We already use natural gas in a lot of cities for buses.
Schwarzman: And it's… It will be the natural logical fuel for the United States.
Rose: A better source for propulsion for cars than electric?
Schwarzman: You've got to make electricity. So you could look at it, I guess, you know, either way you'd have to build new electric plants and so forth. I look at this just in terms of dreaming as to what the United States could become as a result of this type of thing.
Rose: So when you dream, the United States could become what?
Schwarzman: Oh, oh, could significantly increase its growth rate, we could be attracting companies and investment from all over the world because we have such cheap energy and we have rule of law here. We have safety and not all the places where you produce energy have rule of law or are safe or don't have threatening neighbors very close by or instability in their populations. So this can be a kickstart for a new economic age in America if you were to dream.
Creatively Cheerful Destruction?
The Schwarzman-Rose tag team are ready to make anything sound good. But sometimes Schwarzman slips up. The greedy calculations involved in how to make money in real estate can sometimes involve a certain grim grislyness. In an exchange with Rose, Schwarzman tells Rose about how he has recently been involved in making money from foreclosed American homes. Rose quickly identifies what can be described as cheerful about this:
Schwarzman: We started actually buying individual houses from Foreclosure about a year and a quarter ago. We're now the largest owner of houses in the United States.Schwarzman’s slip-up?: “it's turned out to be so even faster than we wanted it to.” He was happy to be improving his financial position as others were foundering! This is one of the trustees pushing through the real estate deals that sell and shrink our libraries?
Rose: Can you say we're the largest investor in houses in the United states, which therefore says that we have confidence in the future of the housing market in the United States?
Schwarzman: Absolutely and in fact it's turned out to be so even faster than we wanted it to.
Schwarzman’s Central Library Plan shrinks 380,000 square feet of library space down to fit into just 80,000 square feet. It sells off the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL libraries and involves demolishing and getting rid of the research stacks that make the important Central Reverence Library it was meant to be. All this shrinkage, its full cost not having yet been determined, is likely to cost the public something in the neighborhood of perhaps a half billion dollars, the current estimate being at least $350 million with $150 million being the direct expenditure of taxpayer dollars dictated largely by Mayor Bloomberg.
You can find out more about this from the Committee To Save The New York Public Library. There is also a petition to be signed from Citizens Defending Libraries (of which I am a co-founder) which is leading a campaign against the sale, shrinkage and deliberate underfunding of all New York City’s libraries in order to create real estate deals for the benefit of developers, not the public.
So did Schwarzman, going on Charlie Rose this week, do a good job in promoting the NYPL’s plans to sell and shrink libraries? Not for those listening carefully.
NOTE Correction 07/02/'13: This article originally stated that the BPL and the NYPL had both engaged Berlin Rosen to provide statements about library sell-offs to the public. Scott Sherman of the Nation only said that the BPL had engaged the firm and the NYPL says that BerlinRosen is not doing work for it.