Brooklyn Heights

Impassioned debate continues at mobbed Brooklyn Heights Library hearing

August 19, 2015 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The courthouse at Borough Hall held a standing-room-only audience for the Borough President’s hearing on plan to sell and redevelop the Brooklyn Heights Library. Photos by Mary Frost
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Local residents, union members and library advocates offered hours of passionate testimony about the plan to sell and redevelop the Brooklyn Heights Library at a standing-room-only hearing at Brooklyn Borough Hall Tuesday night.

Borough President Eric Adams said he will analyze the community’s feedback before offering his own “fair understanding” of the project, which would demolish the current library at 280 Cadman Plaza West and replace it with a 36-story luxury tower developed by Hudson Cos. with design by Marvel Architects. The hearing was part of the city’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process.

The project would include a 21,500-square-foot library, two ground-floor retail spaces and 139 condominiums. Hudson Companies would build another 114 units of affordable housing on Fulton Street and on Atlantic Avenue in the Clinton Hill neighborhood.

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In light of the noisy outbursts which have sometimes broken out during neighborhood development meetings, including the Pier 6 and Pierhouse developments in Brooklyn Bridge Park and the LICH development plans in Cobble Hill, Adams urged the local residents – who he described as “the managers of this city” – to remain civil during the proceedings.

 “I know it brings a lot of passion . . . This library conversation is only one of many,” Adams said. “We have so many conversations we have to resolve in the borough of Brooklyn, and if Brooklyn can’t get it right, no one in the city is going to get it right.”


BPL presents the positives

The hearing opened with the developers and the head of Brooklyn Public Library, Linda Johnson, presenting all the positives the project would bring to the library system.

“We have somehow lost sight of what is going on here,” Johnson said. “If we want our children and our grandchildren to have the sentimental attachment to their libraries that we have for the libraries that we visited, the libraries cannot be actually the very same libraries that existed a generation ago. They need to be . . . built in a way that is inspiring in the way children are learning today.”

BPL President and CEO Linda JohnsonThe Brooklyn library system has overwhelming capital needs, Johnson said, receiving only $16 million this year in capital funding to address $300 million in deferred maintenance.

The Brooklyn Heights branch in particular has $9 million in capital needs, an HVAC system that is not functioning and inaccessible space, she said. In addition, the sale of the Heights branch would provide millions to improve four other branches in need of repair in other Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Hudson Company’s David Kramer defended the idea of placing the affordable housing component off-site, saying that by doing so the company could afford to double the number of affordable units. He also attempted to rebut the arguments made by library advocates that the city should not sell public land to developers.

“It’s rare that there’s an affordable housing project that doesn’t sell city land,” he said.

Hudson Company’s David KramerKramer assured library users that there would be no cessation of services during the tower’s construction, as an interim library would be set up in Our Lady of Lebanon Church on Remsen Street, and he touted the retail spaces, which will be occupied by Brooklyn Coffee Roasters and Smorgasburg. He said that Hudson Cos. uses a mixture of union and non-union workers on its projects.

Kramer also corrected the “misperception” that Saint Ann’s School was receiving as much as $40 million for its sale of air rights for the project.

“Saint Ann’s agreed to disclose it is making less than $6 million,” he said.

Jonathan Marvel, of Marvel Architects, described the workshops the company has held with the public. The site will be flexible in its design, he said, and will offer a new space for young adults, along with ground-floor parking and an assembly room accessible from the street.

Jonathan Marvel of Marvel ArchitectsThe front entrance to the library will be distinctive, he said, with a “well-marked front door and welcoming signs, crowned with a cornice of green.” He touted the design as belonging to “a 21st Century Library.”


Hours of testimony

The testimony which followed the presentations was split, with residents and library advocates largely opposing the plan and library employees and business organizations (and the Brooklyn Heights Association) among those in favor of it.

BPL board member Hank Gutman said the proposal “replaces a decrepit library” and would yield $40 million to repair and renovate other libraries. He defended the selling of public land to a private developer, drawing a comparison with the sale of a city parking garage formerly located at the site of the Dodge YMCA in Downtown Brooklyn.

He was followed by a number of BPL librarians, all of whom supported the plan.

“I’m excited by the possibility of a state-of-the-art library for the neighborhood’s children and flexible programming space,” said children’s librarian Rachel Tiemann.

Several of those opposed to the development cited the botched sale to a developer of Manhattan’s Donnell Library. After seven years, the Donnell branch has still not reopened.

Resident Paula Glaser said, “To sell a piece of the public trust for one-time profit is to lose it forever. We learned that lesson in Manhattan.”


Michael D.D. White, Citizens Defending LibrariesIs site undervalued?

Resident Lucy Koteen said the developers would receive the Brooklyn Heights assets, which she estimated to be worth $120 million, “at a very low price,” roughly $52 million. She accused the developers of providing “talking points” to the library board members. “It’s all a charade, smoke and mirrors,” she said.

Michael D.D. White, co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, pointed to the “extreme lack of transparency” from Brooklyn Public Library. “There’s much we don’t know, and it ought to be freely-available information,” he said.

Dr. Jane Lee Delgado said that out of 20 library trustees, seven were connected to banking or real estate, “and at least one is an officially registered lobbyist.” Offering the site of the Heights branch to developers was like “throwing chum into a school of sharks,” she said.

Maria Roca, founder of the Friends of Sunset Park said the proposal “raises many serious concerns. It ignores the needs of fast-growing Downtown Brooklyn. These needs are: schools, hospitals, infrastructure and transportation. These continue to be ignored, and the building frenzy of ever more expensive housing continues.”

Carole Raftrey, of Build Up NYCRetired mechanical engineer Norman Savitt called the library “a deeply flawed project that will benefit the few.”

Rob Solano, speaking for Churches United for Fair Housing, said he felt uncomfortable with the idea that the affordable housing would be placed in Clinton Hill. “Separate but equal is not right,” he said.

Several construction workers from Build Up NYC testified for “responsible development” and good jobs.

“If done in a responsible manner, the redevelopment of the library could be beneficial to the community,” said member Carole Raftrey. She urged the borough president to recommend that Hudson Companies provide “good jobs, affordable housing and MYBE (minority and women) contractors.” But she cautioned that members living in the area have worries about overcrowded schools.

“Any new development should provide the necessary improvements and infrastructure to sustain the community,” she said.


BHA backs the project

The Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) remains in favor of the project.

Erika Belsey Worth, a member of BHA’s Board of Governors, listed the positives contained in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the BPL and the Empire State Development Corp. (EDC). These include an interim library; time limits on construction; completion of the affordable housing before issuance of a certificate of occupancy for the condominium; and the requirement that all proceeds remain with the BPL and not disappear into the city’s general fund.

“Do we relish the prospect of a very, very tall building on Clinton Street? One hundred and thirty-nine new apartments in the neighborhood? The resulting additional burden on our already overcrowded local public school? Of course not,” Worth said.

But in return, she said, the neighborhood gets a “state-of-the art library,” 114 units of affordable housing nearby, and additional funds to upgrade at least four Brooklyn libraries.

James Cornell, a top real estate broker with Corcoran, said he had a long history working with Marvell and the Hudson Cos. in Gowanus, Carroll Gardens and Coble Hill. The companies “are all about building quality products, doing it in a fair way and showing humanity to communities,” he said.

Christina Curry of the Fifth Avenue Committee backed the proposal because it would provide capital funds for the crowded Sunset Park Library. “It needs more space for books and computers,” she said.

Andrew Kalish of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership said the neighborhood had great parks and schools but was “missing a library worthy of being called Brooklyn Heights.” He called the proposed replacement library “a true community center” with a place for gatherings, discussions and performances.


Concerns about decision process

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York said the good government group was “concerned with the process around how this decision to sell the library’s assets was made from the inception, and whether the ramifications of the public steward – BPL and the city – no longer having control of the land was explored in full.”

Since the public will no longer own the land, “the new library will be vulnerable to the future whims of the condo developers,” she said. “There are ways of structuring the library’s interest that would not only protect the public’s use of a library facility but guarantee the library an income stream in the future.”

As he left the hearing Adams told the Brooklyn Eagle that his office would examine the situation “to see if there’s a real need to do this.”

Richard Bearak, BP Adams’ director of land use, will be carrying out an analysis for Borough Hall which will include looking into Brooklyn Public Library’s finances, he said.

No decision has been made on any level, he emphasized. Should the project go through, however, Adams said he was in favor of offsite affordable housing, as that would provide roughly double the amount of units.

“As many units as possible is important,” he said. He added, however, “I don’t believe in poor doors.”

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