Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Public Library approves $52 million sale of Brooklyn Heights branch to developer Hudson Co.

September 16, 2014 By Matthew Taub Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle from Brooklyn Brief
A rendering of the new library by the developer Hudson Co. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library

A sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) to real estate developer the Hudson Companies for $52 million will be recommended when the library’s board convenes this evening. The BPL endorsed the measure as a method to finance necessary renovations, improve service, and create new housing (both market rate and affordable units). The recommendations come after a request for proposals (RFP) was issued last year to develop the site and replace the library on the ground floor with a new facility as part of the sale.

At a meeting held at the branch with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Brooklyn Public Library President Linda E. Johnson explained how the Board narrowed in on the Hudson Companies, and what the plan would entail.

“This one of the most competitive requests for proposals processes we have ever seen,” Johnson said. “We received about fourteen proposals, and it took a full year to get down to just three. Over the summer we narrowed it down further to what we thought was the most optimal plan.”

The Basics

Together with Marvel Architects, the Hudson Companies would create a mixed-use project on the site with a brand new, state-of-the-art library at the very same location where the existing 1962 structure currently stands. The sale would eliminate over $9 million in repairs needed for the existing Brooklyn Heights Branch, though from the $52 million price tag, BPL estimates about $10 million will be needed immediately to fully “fit out” the new facility to be ready for the public (Hudson will not bear this additional cost; they are merely providing a bare-bones structure that lacks even so much as interior walls).

Still, that leaves about $40 million for the Board to shower upon other branches in dire need of funding. Proposals of $6 million to Fort Greene’s Walt Whitman Branch and $4 million to Bushwick’s Washington Irving Branch would fully fund them, while $3.5 million for the Pacific Branch will fix the facility’s Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) noncompliance (while leaving about $6.5 million in repairs still needed). Discussions about the uses of the remaining additional funding remain ongoing.

“With the new funding that would come in, we’re looking at the nature of the other branches and trying to tackle issues where we can fix infrastructure while also modernizing at the same time,” Johnson said.

In exchange for the land, the Hudson Companies will build 114 new affordable housing units elsewhere, in addition to 132 market rate units to be built on site. Hudson will receive a tax abatement for the affordable units. The companies does not intend use union labor but may subcontract out to a company that will. The developer has not yet picked a location for the affordable units, but will be required to build them in Community Board 2, where the land they are purchasing from the city is located.

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During an estimated construction phase of three and a half years, Our Lady of Lebanon Church will lease space within its facility at 113 Remsen Street as an interim library for an undisclosed amount (negotiations are still ongoing, BPL said). The “fit out” cost for the temporary site, unlike the new library site, will be borne by Hudson.

Though the agreement involves many working parts, Johnson maintains sufficient checks and contingencies are in place in the event of delays or noncompliance, to avoid a scenario like the sale of the Donnell Library (53rd between 5th and 6th Avenues) which was transferred but then saw construction stalled through the recession.

“The building will not be taken off-line until we’re ready to demolish it. And the affordable housing units must be ready to be occupied before the market rate-units can be occupied, and there are penalties in place if the construction takes longer than 3.5 years,” Johnson said. “This is all in the agreement. We can even retake the property if there is a failure to comply.”

The new library will be required to provide 20,000 square feet, 15,000 “above grade” (some of the library will be in a basement floor below). There are also discussions for retail space and 11,000 square-foot gymnasium affiliated with St. Ann’s School, but which might also be open for community use.

“We will require the developer to adhere to safeguards and protect the public interest,” Johnson said.

An additional 13,000 square feet of space for a business and career library, currently at the Brooklyn Heights Branch, will move to the main branch, where it will be more suitable (for many of those who use it, coming from central Brooklyn).

The Mechanics

Though the land involved in the transaction is actually owned by the city, it would be sold by the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) with the proceeds reverting to the Brooklyn Public Library pursuant to an agreement and understanding between these two city-related entities.

A meeting of the Board of the Brooklyn Public Library, scheduled for 5:30 Tuesday evening, will involve in a smaller subcommittee, called the Brooklyn Heights Advisory Group (consisting of three members of the BPL and three members of the EDC) recommending to the full Board that they endorse the plan to sell the site to the Hudson Companies.

The BPL still has the ability to veto the recommendation at the meeting, which is open to the public. And while a deposit would be transferred in the event of an agreement, the sale would not be effectuated until a Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP — triggered whenever city-owned land is sold) is completed.

No zoning variances are needed for the proposed 30-story structure as rendered (Correction: The number of stories, originally reported as 20, was incorrectly presented by the Library at their press briefing this week. While the height of the building was correctly stated, it actually represents 30, not 20 stories.). Though Hudson could build higher and still not hit zoning limits, BPL believes Hudson aims to stay within the proportional heights of neighbors like One Pierrepont Plaza.

A Boon to Developers?

Critics contend the entire library system remains underfunded despite record economic growth in the borough and a range of other projects receiving new allocations. The announcement comes the same day a group known as Citizens Defending Libraries announced its commencement of a citizens audit and investigation of the Brooklyn Public Library Board, for what they claim is a years-long plan to sell certain branches under the guise of a lack of funding.

“A citizens’ review of a decade’s worth of minutes of the Brooklyn Public Library trustees meetings obtained for the benefit of Citizens Defending Libraries recently disclosed far more than was ever previously publicly known or revealed to the press, including many shocking revelations about how the BPL has been secretly planning for many years to sell off and shrink Brooklyn public libraries pursuant to creation of a  ‘strategic real estate plan,’” said Carolyn E. McIntyre of Citizens Defending Libraries.

Indeed, a request for proposals that would sell only the air rights above the property, or to offer a ground lease but keep ownership of the land (thereby generating recurring rental payments from a developer to finance continued maintenance), were not considered.

“That’s not something we spent a lot of time on,” Johnson said, describing attempts to simply fund the current facility at proper levels as “throwing good money after bad” due to the limited facilities and infrastructural problems that plague the facility. The Board referenced a recently-released report from think-tank the Center for an Urban Future that tallied necessary repairs for library branches at $1.1 billion city-wide.

“It’s true we have a shameful under-funding of capital needs for our library system, but at the same time, we need libraries that are more flexible, and more accommodating,” Johnson said.

BPL claimed their considerations included the overall sale price (Hudson was the second highest next to another bidder the Board did not name, but which was only “marginally higher”) combined with the ability of the chosen developer to erect affordable housing units and endure a ULURP process, along with attendant environmental reviews, and other potential delays involving lawsuits and community opposition.

The Board denied any conflicts of interest or entanglements with the Hudson Companies, or any attempts on their part to curry favor. Kyle Kimball, of the BPL’s Board, also serves as President of the EDC and recused himself from any vote on this issue. Ms. Johnson said the Board worked with David Kramer at the Hudson Companies in most of the negotiations, and though she admittedly knew him previously (“from the neighborhood” and other social interactions), there were no underhanded conduct that led to Hudson’s selection as the developer of choice.

Reactions From Community Leaders

The Board contended that the Mayor supports the plan, as “he believes affordable housing remains shamefully low,” said Johnson. In their dealings with the Mayor’s office, the BPL consulted with Deputy Mayor Alicia Glenn, but not the Mayor directly or Vicki Bean, head of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

While the Board said they believed Borough President Eric Adams was “excited about the new affordable units, the Borough President was more evasive when reached for comment.

“My appointee to the Brooklyn Public Library board has been directed to abstain from this vote at this time,” said Borough President Adams. “I will make my comments on this proposal during the ULURP process, and I look forward to that role and the community’s input.”

Brooklyn Brief has reached out to City Councilmember Stephen Levin, Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, State Assemblywoman Joan Millman, and State Senator Valmanette Montgomery for comment and can update this story if we receive word from them.

Next Steps

The next Community Advisory Committee meeting will be held on October 7th. The land-use review process (ULURP) is expected to begin later this year, and will give the public an opportunity for further input. Construction is expected to begin in 2016.

In concluding the meeting with reporters, Johnson took a step to acknowledge critics, while defending the current plan.

“Some feel this happened too quickly, while others feel its appropriate,” Johnson said. “And there are some that will just be opposed to any development at any time. But the public needs spaces to work collaboratively, along with spaces for quiet reading. There are people who need help with resumes. Others need classes to learn English. This new branch will allow for all of that, along with a lot of new technology that the neighborhood has long been clamoring for.”

Brooklyn Brief has reached out to the Hudson Companies for comment and can update this story if we receive word from them.

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