Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights Library CB2 hearing ends in stalemate after hours of testimony

June 18, 2015 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The first hearing about the controversial sale and development of the Brooklyn Heights Library branch, required under the city’s ULURP process, ended in a stalemate Wednesday night after hours of testimony. Photo by Mary Frost

A passionate crowd filled the seats and spilled out into the hallway outside Dibner Auditorium at NYU-Poly in Downtown Brooklyn Wednesday night for the first public hearing regarding the controversial sale and development of the Brooklyn Heights Library branch, required under the city’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process.

The four-and-a-half hour hearing ended in a stalemate, as Community Board 2’s Land Use Committee failed to reach an affirmative vote.

The hearing stage is, in any case, complete. Robert Perris, CB2 District Manager, told the Brooklyn Eagle that CB2 is trying to reschedule another Land Use Committee meeting, prospectively for July 6.  The board is awaiting room confirmation, he said.

[UPDATE: The Land Use Committee will meet on Monday, July 6, 2015 at St. Francis College, Founders Hall, 180 Remson St. (Court and Clinton streets).]

The outcome followed hours of presentations and heated testimony, both for and against the proposed 36-story tower on Cadman Plaza West and Clinton Street.

The outcome followed hours of presentations and heated testimony, both for and against the proposed 36-story tower on Cadman Plaza West and Clinton Street.

At times, emotions spilled over. A yelling match broke out over the hearing process itself, as some audience members objected to the fact that questions were limited to committee members. Robert Perris, CB2 District Manager, had to raise his voice over the hubbub to explain that the purpose of the hearing was to help the people charged with making a recommendation come to a decision.

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“It’s not a public conversation, it’s a process,” he said.

One attendee yelled out, “It’s stacked!” Michael D. D. White, co-founder of the advocacy group Citizens Defending Libraries, told the group’s supporters, “Let’s try and work with the process.”

Committee members did read questions slipped to them by attendees, and after the official discussion the audience was allowed to present testimony in two-minute segments.

 

Johnson: Money would fund capital needs of BPL

Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) President Linda Johnson laid out BPL’s stance, saying the Brooklyn Heights branch, at 280 Cadman Plaza West, had a problematic HVAC system, needed $9 million in repairs, was poorly configured, had non-accessible space and possessed significant property value.

The $52 million brought in by the sale of the property will enable BPL to fit out a new, 21,500-square-foot Brooklyn Heights branch and to fund the capital needs of at least four other branch libraries in Brooklyn, Johnson said. These include the Walt Whitman branch, the Pacific branch, the Washington Irving branch and the Sunset Park branch.

When asked why BPL decided to knock down the library building rather than renovate it, Johnson said saving the building would “throw good money after bad.”

“Why can’t BPL own the [new] building for an ongoing revenue stream?” an audience member asked. “Don’t sell the cow, sell the milk!”

 “The library is not in the real estate business,” Johnson said, eliciting guffaws from the crowd. Johnson added that the city, not the library, owns the property.

When asked if BPL would consider adding additional square footage for future Heights branch expansion needs, Johnson said, “It’s about the money,” and that doing so would leave less funds for other library branches.

She added that she hoped the existing bas-relief façade panels could be saved, however. “I hope they’re put to good use.”

 

36-story tower, affordable housing elsewhere

The project, developed by The Hudson Companies Inc. and designed by Marvel Architects, includes a 36-story tower with 139 condominium units and two retail spaces on Clinton Street.

The residences will include a mix of one- to four-bedroom apartments and have underground parking.

In addition, 114 units of affordable housing will be built on two sites outside of Brooklyn Heights but still within Community Board 2 — one on Atlantic Avenue and one on Fulton Street.

Pratt Area Community Council (PACC) will be overseeing the lottery for the affordable housing. PACC Executive Director Deb Howard said the city expected from 30,000 to 40,000 applications.

David Kramer, principal of developer The Hudson Companies, said a project consisting of condos and affordable housing “is much up our alley.” Of the affordable housing, 52 percent will be reserved for CB2 residents, he said. The rules will allow a range of incomes, from 60 to 165 percent AMI (area median income), and rents will range from $850 to $3,000.

He emphasized that Hudson was taking “a $100 million-plus risk.”

“BPL would rather have $52 million with certainty,” he said.

Kramer said that the company was buying air rights from St. Ann’s School, but the transaction was private. “We don’t have to tell you about it. There’s no conspiracy theory. We negotiated a price.” He refused to divulge the price, however.

An interim library site during construction will be at Our Lady of Lebanon Church on Remsen Street, designed by LevenBetts. Kramer said he expects the interim site will be in use for from 3 to 4 years.

 

‘Townhouse’ feel on Clinton Street?

Jonathan Marvel, principal of Marvel Architects, described several workshops held to give the community some input into the library’s layout, and presented extensive details about the design of the space.

When standing on Clinton Street a person would be able to see all the way through the library to the trees in the Korean War Memorial, he said. Light will also filter into the below-ground level from above.

The volume of the building protrudes over the condo entrance on Clinton Street, he said, giving a “townhouse” feel to the entrance. The “prow” of the wedge-shaped building would make “a prominent architectural statement,” he said.

One of the retail spaces, opening onto Clinton Street, will be leased by Brooklyn Roasting Company for a coffee shop and the other will be a pop-up retail store curated by Smorgasburg.

While the building would be “a little taller than 1 Pierrepont,” it would be thinner than its neighbor and would block less light, he said. “We’ve looked at hundreds of volumetric studies.”

A representative from the EDC said the RFP process had been “very competitive.”

“It protects the interests of the community, BPL and the city. There is no period in which Brooklyn Heights will not have a library,” she said.

She added that the city would enforce construction beginning and end times, and would not award a temporary Certificate of Occupancy for the tower until the affordable units were built.

 

Affordable housing questions

A committee member questioned the placement of the affordable housing buildings outside of Brooklyn Heights.

”Most housing advocates favor economic integration,” he said. “Why send the affordable housing offsite?”

Johnson said a “zoning calculation” led to the decision. “There could be more units if it is offsite.”

Kramer added that the amount of affordable housing was doubled by placing it in another neighborhood.

 Robert Perris, CB2 District Manager. Photo by Mary Frost

Branch details

The existing building actually contains two libraries, though many patrons use them as one: the Brooklyn Heights branch and the Business and Career Library, on the ground floor. Together they total 59,100 square feet. The 16,400 square foot Business and Career Library is moving to Grand Army Plaza, however – a point of contention to many local patrons.

The new Heights branch will actually have more usable space than the current branch, Johnson said. The current branch (excluding the Business Library) is about 19,000 square feet, with 15,000 square feet accessible to the public. Of the new branch library’s 21,500 square feet, 18,000 will be accessible to the public.

The new library will include a sunlit ground floor, a mezzanine, and an auditorium and public event space below grade. The entrance will remain on Cadman Plaza West.

St. Ann’s School has decided not to lease space in the building, as originally planned. Hudson is looking for interested parties for the community facility space, Kramer said.

Public Advocate Letitia James asked if overcrowded P.S. 8 had any interest in taking that space, which is below-grade, for use as an annex.

“We haven’t heard from the School Construction Authority (SCA),” Kramer said. “If they’re interested, we would be interested.”

 

Hours of public testimony

In other public testimony, Jim Vogel from state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery’s office, read a statement from Montgomery giving credit to Citizens Defending Libraries for bringing the lack of library funding to the fore, and saying she was “troubled by the adversarial relationship between the people, BPL and developers.”

Borough President Eric Adams and the Borough Board will be holding a hearing after the CB2 vote, said Richard Bearak, director of Land Use for the borough. The CB2 stalemate, however, may affect the timing of this hearing.

Alexander Bowie, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, said the BHA is “cautiously optimistic about this proposal. We are not opposing it as long as certain conditions are met.” These conditions include a 21,500 square foot branch; all proceeds going to BPL; uninterrupted library service; and tying the occupation of the luxury units to completion of the off-site affordable housing.

The association also urged that sanitation, parking entrance and deliveries occur on the Cadman Plaza West side, as opposed to narrow and busy Clinton Street. Since St. Ann’s dropped its plan to purchase space, BHA hopes BPL will negotiate for additional space in the building. If not, “We welcome Hudson’s plan to excavate less of the site.”

BHA also called on CB2 to “ensure that additional housing in the P.S. 8 school zone be accompanied by the construction of new schools.”

Norman Savitt, a retired mechanical engineer and a resident of Brooklyn Heights for 30 years, said, “In the darkest days of New York City – the Depression, WWI – we still managed to hold onto and fund libraries. Today, we’re told we can’t afford to fix a lowly air conditioner and do basic maintenance.”

Eric Shtob, a 35-year resident, said, “If they believe Brooklyn Heights is for the rich and not the middle class, they should just say so. The luxury housing is in our community, the affordable housing is away.”

Robert Hebron, Sr., a real estate broker in Brooklyn Heights, said, “We have to have a new library” for the colleges and businesses in the area. The current resource “doesn’t work,” he added.

A frequent library user said she was concerned about how many of the 30 computers – most of which are in the Business Library – would be retained. “Where will they be? And books? Will there be more?”

Mary Foutz said the decision depending on trusting BPL to act in the best interest of library users when they don’t coincide with the interests of real estate developers. She reminded CB2 that in 1982 Forest City Ratner agreed to provide 12,000 square feet for the use of BPL in what was then called the Morgan Stanley Building at 1 Pierrepont. “BPL failed to take action to enforce its rights. Take this history into consideration.”

Bethany Bowyer, deputy director of Real Estate + Planning at Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, said the organization “believes the plans are well thought out and will benefit the community.”

They are equally “delighted” with 114 units of affordable housing. They think the project “is compatible with the Brooklyn Strand concept, and will activate retail along this corridor as well.”

Larry Gulotta, president of Independent Neighborhood Democrats, said IND opposed the sale of "important public assets to pravate developers with little transparancy." Photo by Mary FrostJoan Millman, former Assemblymember for District 52, said, “Instead of a long-term solution, [BPL] asks us to support a short-sighted plan.”

Community activist Marsha Rimler called the plan, “a cynical attempt to divide the community.”

Michael White of Citizens Defending Libraries said, “Once again, we see real estate developers very eager to get their hands on public property.”

Carolyn McIntyre, co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, said, “If you say yes to selling this library, you’re opening a floodgate to other library sales.”

A member of the Fifth Avenue Committee supported the plan, because the proceeds will be used to fund the Sunset Park branch, “which is sorely in need of capital improvements.”

Area activist Jeff Smith reminded the audience that the new residential tower was being erected despite no plans to add new fire, police or other infrastructure.

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Email comments to CB2 at [email protected] or stop by in person at their office at 350 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201. Address comments is Shirley McCrae, CB2 Chairperson, and cc the “Chair of the Land Use Committee.”

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