Skip to main content

Featured Post

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

Ball for Brooklyn: Barclays Center site of Brooklyn library gala, where arena is honored; Bruce Ratner and BPL's Linda Johnson buy a Pierhouse condo

From Brooklyn Public Library
Well, here's one way to put it: Bruce Ratner, who did so much business and made so much money in Brooklyn, finally moved to the borough--or, at least, bought an apartment.

Another way" Brooklyn has a new power couple: "developer and philanthropist" Ratner and Brooklyn Public Library CEO Linda Johnson, living in a very tony address, the Pierhouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park. More on that below.

Also, maybe: The Brooklyn Public Library, whose CEO aims to raise money, now might have access to another stratum of potential donors.

The library & the arena

All that makes it... interesting that the library's next fundraiser, Ball for Brooklyn, will be held May 22 at the Barclays Center.

That's a reference to both the soiree and the fact that basketball's played there, plus, perhaps, an unconscious riff on the film title Battle for Brooklyn.

The honorees are:
  • Jackie Cuscuna and Brian Smith, founders of Ample Hills Creamery, the homegrown (and now venture capital-funded) ice cream chain
  • Kwame Alexander, Newbery Award-winning author and educator
  • Barclays Center & the Brooklyn Nets, represented by Brett Yormark, CEO, BSE Global
Evidence suggests that, among the honorees, Yormark's crew is more likely to buy more tickets.

Kind of circular, isn't it, to honor the people renting you the venue?

Delivering Jay-Z, and big donors

The Barclays crew can deliver, for sure: Jay-Z  and former NBA Commissioner David Stern are the Honorary Chairs while Nets majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov, his deputy Dmitry Razumov, Ratner, and longtime Nets executive Petra Pope serve as Executive Chairs. (Note: Yormark's twin brother Michael, a former sports executive, is president and head of branding at Jay-Z's Roc Nation Sports agency.)

What exactly that means is unclear, because they have not--according to the schematic in the graphic below--bought tickets. But surely their willingness to rent the arena counts.

The big donors are already listed. While there's definitely a cross-section of charitable folk, there are several with connections to the arena. 

Start with Bruce Ratner himself, listed among "Visionaries," who donate $25,000 and get, among other things, ten seats at the gala. The "Benefactors," including--duh--Barclays, get ten seats too.

Among the "Contributors," who contribute $10,000 and get six seats, is Sam Schwartz Engineering, which of course did much work on the Barclays Center project.

Among the "Supporters," who donate $5,000 and get four seats, are the public affairs consultancy BerlinRosen, which still works on Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, and Resorts World Casino NYC, that noted literacy-promoter that just happens to sponsor the plaza outside the Barclays Center.

The talk at the library meeting

Dismayingly, as described by Citizens Defending Libraries Michael D.D. White, a witness at a board meeting:
Lead sponsors pay $100,000, single tickets $1,000
At Tuesday’s February 26th Brooklyn Public Library Trustees meeting as BPL president Linda Johnson smiled at her board, NYPL trustee Michael Liburd* told his assembled fellows that on Wednesday, May 22nd the BPL would hold its annual fund-raising gala at the Bruce Ratner developed Barclays Center and that “one of the reasons” for locating the gala at the Barclays Center “is that we are honoring the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets.” Liburd’s mention of the gala being held at the Barclays Center was greeted with some outbursts of delighted laughter. Then someone at the table jumped in to call attention to the cleverness of how this library fundraiser was named the “Ball for Brooklyn” with the emphasis on the “Ball.” . . . Yes, indeed that’s exactly how the gala is being promoted– Top of the list before and mention of cocktails or dinner is “Honoring: Barclays Center & Brooklyn Nets.”
I don't think it's necessarily linked to Johnson's relationship with Ratner, who developed the arena and bought the New Jersey Nets to move them to Brooklyn, and no longer owns the team and the arena operating company.

After all, the Barclays Center is a popular site for charitable events. Wrote White:
Liburd said that working with the CEO of the Barclays Center there was motivation for the Ratner/Prokhorov Center to make the event “even more financially successful than previously.” And do contributors get special consideration if afterwards they want to “bid” on libraries that go up for sale?
I suspect it may be simpler: the arena needs the business. Also, the library's decision to honor "Barclays Center & Brooklyn Nets" might generate some more revenue.

The entanglement with nonprofits

It's unsurprising that the library, like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Children's Museum and the Brooklyn Historical Society, would enmesh itself with a major company. Still, it remains unfortunate that such nonprofit institutions, which are supposed to act in the public interest, ally themselves with big-money sponsors whose interests are not necessarily in sync.

(That includes the Municipal Art Society, once a critic of Atlantic Yards, which then gave awards to the arena and to Ratner and fellow executive MaryAnne Gilmartin, though it's again-changed leadership seems somewhat more skeptical of developers.)

After all, the Barclays Center, despite kudos from architecture critics, is an example of what I call the Culture of Cheating, the ends justifying the means. It's also a business that gussies itself up to look far better than its actual financial results merit.

White's description of Pierhouse as "view-impairing," given its outsize position on the Brooklyn Heights skyline, which survived numerous court challenges. Like more than a few people, he sees it as a diminishment of the public realm, allowing the wealthy to encroach on a civic asset--and a metaphor of sorts for larger encroachments.

The library & the arena, part 2

I don't think--I don't like to think--that the need to keep warm relations with potential sponsors affects Brooklyn Public Library programming decisions or materials selection.

Let's see. The library, during the height of the project controversy (and before Johnson's time), faced charges of censorship for culling certain politically charged pieces of art when re-mounting an art exhibit called Footprints. (It was unwise caution, but I thought other omissions were even more meaningful.)

BPL, which was said to have been looking for support from Forest City for a new library building but didn't get it, in 2010 got an apparently modest contribution from the Barclays/Nets Community Alliance to support its summer reading program. Forest City was among numerous companies listed as among corporate supporters of the library in fiscal year 2018-19 (but Forest City doesn't exist any more).

The library has screened Battle for Brooklyn, albeit years after release and has in its collection three copies. It has six copies of Neil deMause's worthy Brooklyn Wars, a self-published 2016 book that contains a significant section on Atlantic Yards. It hosted the multidisciplinary public art project Intersection | Prospect Heights, which aired significant concerns about the project.

The condo deal surfaces

The Ratner-Johnson real estate deal first surfaced 1/24/19, thanks to the anonymous blogger set speed aka onehansonplace.com, who wrote Bruce Ratner and BPL Linda Johnson buy in Dumbo:
Bruce Ratner, the vilified developer who was responsible in the late 2000's for Atlantic Yards, has purchased a $4.7MM apartment with Brooklyn Public Library's Linda Johnson at 130 Furman.
Not long after that, on 1/28/19, the Real Deal reported, omitting any identifier for Johnson:
1.) Forest City Ratner co-founder Bruce Ratner along with Linda Johnson snapped up a condominium along the Brooklyn waterfront. The couple paid $4.7 million for the two-bedroom pad at 130 Furman Street. Ratner split from Dr. Pamela Lipkin, a plastic surgeon, who at one point during the couple’s divorce had alleged Ratner was trying to evict her from her clinic at 128 East 62nd Street.
They bought at the list price, with a $2.7 million mortgage, records show. It's curious that they didn't buy a penthouse or townhouse at the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park condo building 550 Vanderbilt, which is, after all, closer to Johnson's office at BPL's Central Library.

Photo from Corcoran listing
Here's the Corcoran listing for the 2953 square foot triplex at Pierhouse, complete with views of the Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan:
This breathtaking 2 Bedroom, 2.5 Bathroom Penthouse has both City & Harbor Views, and almost 4000 SF of private landscaped outdoor space. On the main level is a truly masterful living room with a massive kitchen and a real dining room area, all open to a wraparound terrace with Brooklyn Bridge, Freedom Tower and endless river views from every window. Be the envy of all of your friends when they come to your home for dinner! Head upstairs to a stunning master suite with the largest glass enclosed shower that you have ever seen, a freestanding tub, light on three sides, radiant heated floors, and endless water and city views. A spacious 2nd bedroom is separated by a library with extra high ceilings and a curtain wall of glass looking out on to your own private meadow and deck. There is gas hookup for your grill and a massive laundry room in addition to another full bath. If that isn't enough outdoor space for you, keep going to your private roofdeck where you will amazed. Views and space that rival the rooftop bar at the 1 Hotel, but the space is yours and yours alone! There is truly no match for this apartment anywhere in NYC. It is the most awe-inspiring home one could ever imagine owning.
White notes that two purchasers at Pierhouse were board members of the board of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation (BBPC) that had to approve the Pierhouse development, which was somehow not deemed a conflict.

Ratner and Johnson, the back story

Turns out there were hints that Ratner (post-divorce) and Johnson were involved. Take a look at the photo caption from this fluffy 2/18/18 article from the Queens Courier cataloging the celebration of "the 100th anniversary of the powerful Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce." It cites, among attendees, "Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Ratner."

The writer was company CEO Victoria Schneps, whose Schneps Communications has since purchased the Brooklyn Paper and Courier-Life chains, building an outer-borough  "content" juggernaut, including Brownstoner.

To get a hint of Schneps's journalistic bona fides, consider the headline on her column ("Victoria's Secrets") and the fact that she appears smack in the center of the photo.

At the time, I wondered whether Schneps knew something more than the rest of us, or whether she was misinterpreting Ratner's perhaps proprietary arm around Johnson's waist.

So I queried the library's press office, asking if they were married, a couple, or just friendly table-mates? The answer was terse: "She is not married."

I decided not to write anything, since the tidbit seemed more like gossip. Now that gossip has a tinge of news. (And, despite no official announcement of the Ratner-Johnson couplehood, it has been confirmed to me by a knowledgeable source.)

Here's another picture of Ratner and Johnson at the library's 2017 Fall Gala.

About the library CEO

Note: Johnson, who has had several well-compensated jobs and high-profile positions (and comes from a wealthy, philanthropic family), is no stranger to the charity circuit. As her bio states:
Prior to being named president and CEO of BPL in August 2011, Linda served as president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, CEO of the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation and president of JCI Data, a privately held information services and database management provider. She sits on the executive committees of Hamilton College, Sing for Hope and the Curtis Institute of Music and is an advisory director on the board of the Metropolitan Opera.
She was previously engaged to billionaire Leonard Lauder, a source of no small amount of coverage.

The "selling" of libraries; devil's in the details

As to bidding on library properties if/when they're sold, I'm not as skeptical as White about the library/city leveraging underbuilt real estate to create more value in larger buildings, as long as library service is bolstered.

I spent 14 years at the magazine Library Journal, where I learned it was not uncommon for urban library systems to partner on real estate projects. Here's my April 2013 coverage for Library Journal, headlined For Brooklyn PL, Planned Sale of Branches Promises Opportunity, Provokes Concern. It noted, among other things, that Brooklyn libraries had been severely underfunded by the borough president.

The devil is in the deal, and the details: clearly the New York Public Library's Donnell Library deal in Manhattan was a disaster. I'm reserving judgment on the Brooklyn Public Library's Brooklyn Heights Branch. Yes, it's smaller, even without the Business Library, which was moved from Brooklyn's downtown area to Grand Army Plaza. Will service be better? Let's see.

That said, there is ample reason for skepticism about library-developer deals, not just based on the Donnell case, but also the delay (as noted by White) in delivery of a library space in Two Trees' 300 Ashland building, which, of course, already contains upscale retail like an Apple Store and Whole Foods 365.

Comments

  1. One might reserve judgement about the sale of the central downtown Heights library, a central destination library that was the second biggest in Brooklyn and hope that it will be a good deal for library patrons in the end, but that hope must factor in what we know now:

    It will no longer be a Business Library.
    It will no longer be a Career Library.
    It will no longer be an Education Library.
    It will no longer be a federal depository library.
    It was all of these things until recently.
    It will be approximately 40% the previous size.
    The proportion of space the public visits will be pushed underground: Previously there was almost 38,000 square feet of space above ground (plus two underground stories kept books at the ready). The new library will have just 15,000 square feet above ground.
    There will be far fewer books. Many of the books have likely disappeared from the system entirely.
    Demolishing the library meant that the substantial enlargement of the library and its complete upgrade to one of the most modern in the BPL system have all been discarded as a public investment. We discarded a library that would require well over $120 million to now replace. In return we will eventually get the much diminished library and the public, after expenses, will net perhaps less than $25 million.
    The library was sold for less than its tear down value, less than a vacant lot.
    That new diminished library will also be part of BPL system that increasingly promotes partnering to promote private brands and companies like the Nets and Barclays (itself selling branding gloss for a disreputable bank). That's not the proper purpose of a library.
    Along the way Department of Education funds were also raided for the luxury tower development's sake.
    There is also the coverage of how Mayor de Blasio did not give the library to the developer who offered the best deal. Instead, provoking investigation headlines he gave it to a development team sending money to his campaign (even as he campaigned not to sell libraries).
    The BPL minutes (way before 2013) also show that the decision to underfund the libraries and hold back on capital improvements were exactly contemporaneous with the decisions to launch real estate plans for the libraries. So, we could also blame that underfunding on the real estate deals.

    We can still hope, however, that somehow this will all be for the public's benefit. Personally, I am not reserving judgement.

    ReplyDelete
  2. For those interested in the Curriculum Vitae for BPL president and Ratner apartment mate Linda Johnson, her work as an environmental lawyer (on the wrong side) and her “rise” via her father’s company, we have it posted here:

    Brooklyn Public Library Trustees- Identified + Biographical and Other Information Supplied.

    http://citizensdefendinglibraries.blogspot.com/2016/01/brooklyn-public-library-trustees.html

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment