Cobble Hill

Further details, concerns emerge at Heights Library Community Advisory Council Meeting

Brooklyn Coffee Roasters and Smorgasburg Named as Retail Tenants

October 8, 2014 By Matthew Taub Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle from Brooklyn Brief
Linda Johnson, president of the Brooklyn Public Library, answers questions at Borough Hall.
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A Community Advisory Council meeting Tuesday evening revealed new information about the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Public Library, along with a fresh round of criticism regarding its recently approved sale to the Hudson Companies.

The meeting, at Borough Hall, was moderated by Linda E. Johnson, president of the Brooklyn Public Library. David Kramer of Hudson Companies and Jonathan Marvel (of Marvel Architects, which will develop the property with Hudson) were also on hand to receive questions from Council members, as well as members of the general public.

Details regarding the sale of the property were recently chronicled in the Brooklyn Eagle. On Tuesday evening, Johnson reiterated many themes of a community with shared goals.

“We all want safe, accessible, appealing and inspiring spaces: where we can work, learn, but also just enjoy a good book,” Johnson said. “We also want something enlivening to the neighborhood — not just a library sitting by itself, but something integrated with the community.”

With pushback in the last few weeks in response to renderings of the property, including criticism from the Brooklyn Heights Association, Johnson emphasized that the images released thus far were “not fixed” and “just a beginning” so that those involved could “start thinking about how a new building would fit on the lot.” Marvel agreed.

“We have different options,” Marvel said. “It can be a taller, more slender building, or a shorter, more wide building,” Marvel said. “Think of what we have now as scratch paper.”

Through questions and comments, a labyrinth of deadlines and details emerged. As part of the sale, Hudson will be required to embark upon a Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) within 180 days (roughly by March 2015). Construction must begin 60 days after the closing (when ULURP is completed). Our Lady of Lebanon Church must be “substantially ready” as a temporary library site before construction begins. The Hudson Companies will have 2.5 years to construct the new property, including the space for the library. All construction, including the affordable units (to be built somewhere within Community Board 2), must be completed within three years. Despite the sale, the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) will actually still own the parcel of the property designated as a library. If Hudson should default on its obligations, the city has the right to keep its funds while retaking the entire property.

A prerequisite before the ULURP process is an environmental assessment statement (for an environmental review). That process is expected to begin in late 2014, with the ULURP application certified by the City Planning Commission in March 2015. There will be  community input for the design of the property in early 2015, and construction will prospectively begin in 2016.

From the $52 million price tag, the library estimates it will only need $10 million to “fit out the library.” It claims only $40 million (as opposed to $42 million) in available remaining funds to be used at other libraries after the “fit out” is complete, reserving a $2 million cushion in case costs are higher than expected. With 21,000 square feet, these costs are currently estimated based on projections of spending $400-$500 per square foot. The library will pay for usage of the building’s HVAC, but never for maintenance costs.

Plans were reiterated to use some of the remaining $40 million from the sale at three Carnegie Libraries (Walt Whitman, Pacific and Washington Irving), though the full use of the funds will admittedly be decided at a later date.

“We want to build the kind of libraries our children and grandchildren will have sentimental attachment to, and that’s no small order,” Johnson said.

David Kramer from the Hudson Companies mentioned how he and Jonathan Marvel both lived a mere five blocks from the library site. He explained how the building is an “as of right” development, something which Hudson usually prefers, as opposed to seeking discretionary approvals. “At the top of [Kramer’s] list of priorities” was where to place the affordable housing within Community Board 2. He also mentioned that Hudson is “very active and very familiar” with affordable inclusionary housing, which the company had completed on many similar projects in the past. Though the company prides itself on “green developments” with LEED platinum certification (and would try to replicate that on this project), it would look to produce an LEED silver building “at a minimum.”

Marvel touched upon previous projects of his architecture company, such as the St. Ann’s Warehouse and the McCarren Pool, and the community engagement involved in those endeavors.

“I have been involved in community processes and community workshops, which were always productive and helpful,” Marvel said.

After speaking, the trio fielded questions from the Community Advisory Council, and hostility from some members of the general public (including some library preservation groups):

  • Was the $40 million in projected remaining funding truly to be used at other libraries, or was this a mere “soft commitment” from the city? (“We have a signed agreement with the mayor and recently firmed up every assurance that it is [a firm commitment],” Johnson said).

  • “What is the current square footage of the library in comparison to the new library?” (Johnson: “The current library has 62,000 square feet, but because of an inefficient layout, only 28,000 are accessible”).

  • Why was the “business library” moving to the Central branch? (Johnson: “The library conducted a survey which revealed that most people who used that portion were burgeoning entrepreneurs looking for work, and they usually lived in more central Brooklyn neighborhoods”).

  • How “affordable” was the affordable housing being provided? (Johnson and Kramer: Units will be 60, 80, 100 and 165 percent of Area Median Income, but the amount of units that will be each percentile will be disclosed later).

  • Would Hudson receive any tax abatements for the affordable units? (“There are no tax abatements associated with the building of any of these units. Taxes will be paid by those who inhabit the properties from the get go. It will be a boon to the city,” Kramer said).

  • Casey Adams, on behalf of Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn), criticized the lack of coordination or space with public school programs, which are overcrowded (“That’s not our role,” Kramer responded. “It’s not in our proposal, because the EDC did not specify they wanted us to build anything like that”).

  • Could the developer sell the property to someone else later down the line? (“Technically, it’s possible.,” Johnson said.)

  • Were there any measures, like in Brooklyn Bridge Park, to ensure the deal would create recurring revenue to ensure continued funding? (“No, we did not consider that,” Johnson said).

  • “Where does the $300 million price tag in outstanding repairs come from? Did the person involved in creating that figure ever work for a developer?” (“They have,” Johnson said.)

  • Have you publicly released the contract between the BPL and the Hudson Companies?” (“We have not,” said Johnson.)

Another point of contention, initially meant to appease the public, was the fact that entrance to the library will be on Cadman Plaza, with windows and daylight on all three sides, while the residential entrance will be on Clinton Street.

“Clinton Street dies after a certain time of the evening,” Kramer said. “We’ll have an active swirl of uses there with the retail space, which is very exciting.”

Brooklyn Coffee Roasters would lease one ground floor retail space while Smorgasburg would take the other, curating a different vendor each month. The result would bring life to a “blind spot” of the area, Kramer claimed. But others were not so impressed.

“Clinton Street is a small, single lane road, and for many people, the only thoroughfare to get to the Brooklyn Bridge,” one commenter said. “Some of us don’t want it to be more lively.”

Other comments by Kramer — like the fact that Hudson “hasn’t finalized the floor height or shape” or, as he joked, could “now shamelessly steal designs from our competitors” —were potentially seen as contradicting claims by Johnson that Hudson’s proposal was “the best offer” made to develop the property, giving rise to suspicions that the process in selecting them was somehow underhanded or preordained.

Doreen Gallo, who sits on the Community Advisory Council and was critical of the development plan, complained that “while everyone is congratulating each other,” the proposal was “not reflective of the community.”

“Much of this neighborhood is against a sale of the property for more housing,” Gallo said. “From DUMBO to Brooklyn Bridge Park, everything is now a development site in justification for something else we should be entitled to in the first place. There’s no infrastructure to support these new residents, and many who live here disagree that Clinton Street needs to be ‘enlivened.’ And does fixing the air conditioning really cost $9 million?”

Nonetheless, a few rose to support the development plan, and to express their wishes for a more beautiful and accommodating library for themselves and their children.

One member of the Prospect Park East Network (PPEN) also attended and made a brief statement about the Hudson Companies, which is developing 626 Flatbush Avenue in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Suki Cheung criticized Hudson’s 23-story tower (currently in development) as being out of context for the neighborhood, fostering displacement and thus being insensitive to a “community of color.”

Despite these concerns, Johnson repeatedly emphasized that there would be a “lengthy process for participation” as the Library Board moves forward with community workshops to make sure the new structure incorporates the desires of residents, and the needs of today and tomorrow.

Johnson told Gallo that the HVAC system at the Brooklyn Heights branch will cost $3.5 million and the remainder of the $9 million will go towards various capital improvements to the building.

“We could get very philosophical about what a library should be,” Johnson said. “There are very interesting questions in this transformative field. It’s never been as complicated and it’s never been as exciting. We need a space conducive to books, but that also embraces today’s technologies, and technologies that haven’t even been imagined yet.”

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