Brooklyn Heights

Controversial Brooklyn Heights library sale to proceed at ‘fast trot’

March 5, 2013 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Summer hours to be cut in half

The controversial plan to sell the Brooklyn Heights branch library site to a private developer moved forward rapidly at a February 28 meeting of a steering committee put together to thrash out the details.

The plan calls for rebuilding the Heights branch inside a smaller condo space on the first floor of a privately-owned residential development, and moving the Business Library, which shares the building, to the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Heights.

Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) wants to “move quickly to redevelop the Brooklyn Heights branch,” Josh Nachowitz, BPL’s VP of Government and Community Relations said at the meeting attended by elected officials and representatives from the Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library, the Brooklyn Heights Association and BPL.

Not allowed a seat at the table, however, was Carolyn McIntyre representing the group Citizens Defending Libraries, which has so far gathered roughly 8,000 signatures on a petition protesting the sale. McIntyre was allowed several minutes to read a statement at the meeting’s opening.

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BPL plans to sell the valuable city property – by some estimates worth $100 million — to a developer in order to avoid spending $9 million in long-delayed repairs, including $3.5 million to replace the busted air conditioning system.

The RFP [Request for Proposals] would go through the city, Nachowitz said. “Sometime this year we hope to identify development partners, and enter a contract before the end of this administration.

“It is a bit of a fast trot,” he added. The building will require also the Uniform Land Review Procedure (ULRP), he said.

Nachowitz shot down suggestions from some committee members that the library consider paths other than selling the site, including leasing the land to a developer or asking a philanthropist to donate funds to fix the HVAC [air conditioner].

“It’s hugely difficult to get a philanthropist to pay for something like an air conditioner,” Nachowitz said, while “a sale would yield enough revenues to fit out a new branch – books, furniture and an interim space.”

By selling the building, the library – starved by years of budget cuts — gets the money up front, said Richard Reyes-Gavilan, BPL’s director and chief librarian.

Nachowitz also dismissed an idea put forth by Dan Wiley, community coordinator for Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, to look into alternate cooling solutions such as the “green roof” the Congresswoman facilitated in Red Hook at the Linda Tool & Die Company.

“That’s an amazing idea,” Nachowitz said. “It will take one million to fix the roof alone, however.”

Deborah Hallen, secretary of the Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library, Inc. asked if the top brass had looked into the possibility of portable air conditioners.

“The whole building has to meet a certain threshold,” Nachowitz said. Portable air conditioners don’t cool the entire space.”

So that the public would fully appreciate the dire financial position the library is in, committee members agreed to draw up a fact sheet to hand out at the next meeting. The entire BPL system has $230 million in capitol needs systemwide, and receives only $15 million a year from the city, Nachowitz said.

Because of the broken air conditioning, Reyes-Gavilan said that BPL wants to cut hours at the Heights branch this summer during July and August to “protect the staff and public and provide consistent service. Last year we closed on roughly 30 occasions. It disrupted the lives of the public and staff and we don’t want to do that again.”

He said the branch would open only from 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, during the coolest part of the day, and close altogether on Saturdays. A “small crew” of volunteer librarians would operate the branch; the rest would be sent to other locations, he said.

Carolyn Greer, BP Marty Markowitz’s appointee to the committee, suggested Saturday hours as well, eliciting applause from the back seats.

Partnerships with parks for summer programming were another possibility, several committee members said.

Robert Perris, District Manager of Community Board 2, said that he was encouraged that the library was “looking into input for the RFP. In a number of projects the community has very little input.”

The composition of the steering committee, however, “seems heavily weighted towards elected officials and bureaucrats and a small number of people from the community. Are we overlooking anybody?”

“I represent 7,000 people from the community…” McIntyre spoke out from a row of chairs that had been set up for spectators.

“You can’t do that!” she was admonished by committee members.

“Would there be an opportunity to submit ideas to you Josh?” Perris asked.

“Everybody at this table has my email,” Nachowitz said.

Dan Wiley, community coordinator for Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, said, “We need more community participation,” adding that a structure already in existence for Brooklyn Bridge Park might be tapped into. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

“We can explore that,” Nachowitz said. “A committee big enough to represent the community but small enough for the nitty-gritty issues.”

Friends’ representative Hallen wanted to be assured that an interim site would be found quickly. “The Donnell Library [on 53nd Street in Manhattan] closed on August 30, 2008. The developer was going to build a condo and promised a library, then the crash fell and the developer pulled out. We don’t want that to happen here.”

One idea for a temporary site was the War Memorial building in Cadman Plaza Park. That building, however, presents “a world of problems,” Greer said, including difficulty with its air conditioning and non-ADA compliance, along with a “small footprint.”

When committee members spoke about visiting other library branches to investigate new branch design, Brooklyn Heights resident Justine Swartz, sitting in the spectator seats, loudly announced, “You’re already talking about a new branch like it’s a done deal. I’m leaving!” before walking out.

After the meeting library patron “Birdie” told this reporter. “I understand why they have to do it . . . Bill Gates isn’t giving us a billion dollars.”

But she said it was a mistake to move the Business Library to Prospect Heights. “I believe that programs the Business Library provides at the Central Branch are less well-attended than here [in Brooklyn Heights]. This place is a central transportation hub. A person from Sheepshead Bay or Bedford-Stuyvesant can get here easily.”

McIntyre said after the meeting via email that Nachowitz had “no interest in answering the hard basic first questions he should be answering at this time.”

“When discussing the air conditioner [Nachowitz] said it would cost $3.5 million. He did not show any bid documents or give any information about bids they received. We have asked outside experts who said that the number is ridiculous. We want more information to more fully assess.”

In addition, she said, “There was no information on how they decided on the shortened library hours. My guess is you will find that they are the least used times. Any suggestion to have evening hours were nixed. The most he said to the suggestion to having weekend hours was, ‘I’ll think about it.’”

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