Levin pushes for bigger Brooklyn Heights Library at City Council hearing
'Most controversial issue' he has seen
During a packed four-hour City Council subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Councilmember Stephen Levin said he would not support the sale and redevelopment of the site of the Brooklyn Heights Library branch unless he was convinced “it’s a good deal for the local community and Brooklyn Public Library and the city as a whole.”
The proposal envisions a 36-story tower at 280 Cadman Plaza West and 114 units of affordable housing in Clinton Hill. Hudson Companies would buy the property for $52 million and prepare an interim site on Remsen Street for use during construction.
Calling the proposal “the most controversial issue I’ve seen in my district since being elected in 2009,” Levin and other committee members peppered Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) President Linda Johnson with pointed questions, and pushed for a bigger replacement branch than laid out in the developer Hudson Companies’ proposal.
Moving the Business and Career Library from the site, as BPL plans, would leave a branch library too small for the booming area, Levin said. He pointed out that most library users perceive the shared space as one library.
Johnson said that the planned replacement branch would still be one of the biggest in the borough, and that BPL was moving to a hub system, with the Heights branch being one of seven or eight hubs.
While the library building totals roughly 59,000 square feet, the combined library space currently has 27,200 square feet accessible to the public. (BPL says much of the building’s square footage is unusable, a point debated by the library’s advocates.) The replacement branch would total 21,500 square feet, with 18,500 accessible to the public.
“We are taking away something, not just adding to the main branch,” Levin said. “You’re removing a resource from an area that has a lot of traffic. Why not set aside 10,000 square feet for a business branch in this library?” he asked. “What would it take?”
Johnson told Levin that doing so would change the deal with Hudson Companies, and cost the library more money to equip and additional money to operate. However, she said, the library was “taking a look at that now.”
Jonathan Marvel of Marvel Architects said while a small amount of space could probably be squeezed out of the ground floor, there was close to 20,000 square feet on lower levels designated for a community facility. “That lower level becomes the best opportunity,” he said.
David Kramer, principal of the Hudson Companies, said that Hudson had originally set the community space aside for Saint Ann’s School, which has decided not to go through with the at-cost purchase. At Levin’s request, Hudson was working on figures for the cost of providing some of that space to the library.
Levin also expressed concern over the challenges presented by the area’s “dense and rapid development.” The proposal lacks any consideration of school overcrowding, already reaching a crisis in the district, traffic problems and other infrastructure concerns.
The project is just one of many being proposed for the Downtown and Brooklyn Heights area. Residents have expressed frustration that developers are adding tens of thousands of new residents in the absence of city planning.
BPL getting ‘shortchanged?’
Levin also questioned the $52 million purchase price of the city-owned property, and asked if the city bypassed a higher cash payment in a tradeoff for affordable housing.
“Are we getting fair market value for the property?” he asked.
Councilmember David Greenfield pushed the point. “Why put in an affordable housing ‘tax’ instead of more space? . . . You could have added cash instead of building non-required affordable housing, and Brooklyn Public Library would have more money.”
Jeffrey Nelson, executive VP for the Real Estate Transaction Services Group at the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC) said that all the bids offered were similar, but that Hudson simply offered, in addition, more affordable housing.
Greenfield wasn’t buying, however.
“It’s hard to believe EDC didn’t play an active role in pushing for more affordable housing, instead of saying, ‘Hey, give BPL $20 million more instead.’” Greenfield said this raised questions about the use of city resources.
Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley cited a report by Build Up NYC, published in the Daily News, which says that Brooklyn was being “shortchanged” in the $52 million sale. The article claims the library could have received $16 million more for the site, given the incredible increases in property values in Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn.
Kramer said the report “is not worth the paper it’s printed on.”
“We stretched aggressively, going with a very high number,” he added.
EDC’s Nelson said there had been one higher bidder in the earlier rounds, but the final decision was made on the basis of purchase price, the provision of an interim library and commitments guaranteeing the completion of the project.
Crowley and other councilmembers pushed the library on issues including building the affordable housing off-site, in effect creating a geographic “poor door,” and the use of union contractors. They also questioned the income limits on the affordable housing, saying it was out of reach for most residents of the area.
Levin also expressed concern with the fate of the library should Hudson default.
Kramer assured him that “we don’t get to use the site until we pay the $52 million. If we default, the library can sell it again for $52 million.”
EDC’s Nelson said the city would make sure the money is in place before the project got underway.
Strong feelings persist
Levin said he has heard “strong opinions on all sides” from his constituents on the issue. While Community Board 2 and City Planning have greenlighted the proposal, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams disapproved it, with conditions.
Hundreds of residents in Levin’s district, which includes Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn, have heatedly opposed the deal in hearings mandated by the city’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process, and thousands have signed petitions organized by the group Citizens Defending Libraries.
But the Brooklyn Heights Association is supporting the proposal, as are business groups including the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership.
BPL’s Johnson said the development would bring “significant benefits to Brooklyn Heights and beyond,” citing the library system’s deferred maintenance crisis, with $300 in unfunded capital needs.
She called the Heights branch outdated with low ceilings, inadequate technology structure and an unpleasant streetscape. She pointed out that the building is not landmarked. The new library would be modern, with an open floor plan and flexible spaces, she said.
Marvel said the new library space would have tall ceilings and filtered light. Its Cadman Plaza West façade would be “monumental, recognizable and inviting,” he said. “A 21st Century library.”
“All 59 locations need at least $1 million in capital repairs and a quarter of them need more than $5 million in repairs,” Johnson said. Due to decades of underfunding, BPL only deals with the direst emergencies, she added.
Of the $52 million received from the sale, $40 million is earmarked to pay for improvements at four other branches: The Pacific Library in Boerum Hill, the Walt Whitman branch in Fort Greene, Washington Irving branch in Bushwick and for a new branch in Sunset Park.
The full council is scheduled to vote on the proposal later this year.
Some community comments
Following the councilmembers’ questions, 85 community organizations and individuals had the opportunity to make short statements.
“This proposal will provide funds for the renovation of other BPL branches, and that is why the Brooklyn Heights Association and its members support it,” said Alexandra Bowie, a member of the Board of Governors of BHA. Bowie said that BHA hoped for more usable library space, however. She said the City Council must also address the burden on the local school, P.S. 8, which is already at 140 percent capacity, and reconfigure the affordable housing income levels, targeted to people making 60 to 165 percent of area median income, “which may be too high.”
Michael D.D. White, co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, said the deal lacked transparency and “closely replicates the infamous sale of the Donnell Library.” He added, “We realized in the 80s we needed a bigger library and expanded it by one third in 1993. It is what we need, but it’s not what the developer needs.” It would cost $120 million to build an equivalent library today, he said.
Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President Carlo Scissura said the proposal was a “truly innovative project, and something that has to be done.” He added, “The city is not going to just write a check for $300 million.”
Carole Raftrey, of Build Up NYC urged the Council to vote against the plan. She said the developer was “only paying two thirds of what the land is worth.”
Dave Ramsey, a painter associated with Build Up NYC said he was concerned about what the proposal meant “for families like mine struggling to afford to stay in our communities.” Hudson’s plan to locate the affordable housing in Clinton Hill takes “poor doors… a step further,” he said. He also complained that 75 percent of the proposed affordable apartments are studios and one bedrooms, pushing families out, and are too expensive.
Ansley Samson, co-chair of the P.S. 8 PTA’s Community Affairs Committee, said the PTA opposes significant additional housing when there’s no plan to address the school overcrowding crisis. “DOE has proposed to rezone P.S. 8. Even if that is approved, which is not assured, P.S. 8 will remain at 132 to 143 percent overcapacity.”
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.” He added that if left to their own devices, developers “would put condos on the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Maggie Cancar, president of the Bridge Harbor Heights Association, disputed that the current library was dilapidated and urged the councilmembers to “go judge for yourself.” She also said that the “unusable” space labeled a fallout shelter by BPL was actually a book depository, available to the public. One person told her, she said, that he was able to find a 1970 phone book stored there, which he need to prove that he has been a resident of Brooklyn for decades.
Doreen Gallo, a member of the BPL Community Advisory Council (CAC), said in written testimony on behalf of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance that the “disparity between the profit the developer will receive compared with what the libraries will receive is too great not to audit and reevaluate other possibilities for this site.” She said the current library “is an extremely solid, well-built building with enormous reuse potential,” such as podcast rooms or other cutting-edge library uses below ground level. The present conditions “seem to have been created on purpose to present a narrative for renewed development at this site,” she added.
Jim Devore, former District 15 CEC president, called himself a “socialist like Bernie Sanders” and quoted Karl Marx. As an advocate for Sunset Park, he said he saw the library plan “as a means to redistribute wealth from Downtown to Sunset Park.”
Levin said, “I thank you for providing the socialist’s perspective.”
Updated at 8:26 p.m. on Nov. 19 to reflect the position Ansley Samson, co-chair of the P.S. 8 PTA’s Community Affairs Committee. She is no longer co-president of the PTA.
Updated at 9:40 p.m. on Nov. 19 to reflect Michael D.D. White, co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, said, “We realized in the 80s we needed a bigger library and expanded it by one third in 1993.” Previously, we stated that he said the library was expanded by one half, which was a typo.
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