City Council committee vote on Brooklyn Heights Library sale set for Thursday
All eyes on Councilmember Stephen Levin
After months of emotional hearings and hours upon hours of public testimony, the Land Use Committee of the New York City Council is expected to vote on the controversial proposal to sell and redevelop the Brooklyn Heights Library on Thursday.
The proposal envisions a 36-story condo tower at 280 Cadman Plaza West, with some ground floor retail, and 114 units of affordable rentals in Clinton Hill. Hudson Companies would buy the property for $52 million and prepare an interim site on Remsen Street for use during construction.
A smaller replacement branch library would occupy the ground floor and below ground space, and the Business Library would move to Grand Army Plaza. Proceeds from the project will be used to renovate and repair four other libraries in the Brooklyn Public Library system.
Both proponents and opponents are turning up the heat on Councilmember Stephen Levin (D- Greenpoint, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens), who said in November that he has heard “strong opinions on all sides” from his constituents on the issue.
During a packed four-hour City Council subcommittee hearing on Nov. 18, Councilmember Levin called the proposal “the most controversial issue I’ve seen in my district since being elected in 2009.”
At that hearing, Levin pushed for a larger space for a replacement library and 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.”
While the Land Use Committee’s vote is non-binding, it is likely that the full City Council will follow suit in the final vote on Dec. 16.
Part of a bigger pattern
Leading up to the council decision, BPL has been sending out e-blasts to card-holders (subject line: “A note from your neighbor”) urging support for the proposal, and extolling the replacement branch as “a brand new 21st century library, one that is filled with books and light and wired for the digital age.”
BPL’s President Linda Johnson says that the Heights branch is in need of at least $9 million in repairs. She has testified that all 59 Brooklyn library locations need at least $1 million in capital repairs and a quarter of them need more than $5 million, totaling $300 million in capital needs.
Opponents, most notably the advocacy group Citizens Defending Libraries, question these figures. They have submitted reams of testimony in advance of Thursday’s procedure and are sending out their own e-blasts.
Many residents complain that the library development is part of a broader pattern of unplanned overdevelopment in Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn and other areas of Brooklyn.
At a recent town hall held by state Sen. Daniel Squadron, the senator said that the library sale, along with the Long Island College Hospital development proposal, the Pier 6 towers, the Pierhouse development in Brooklyn Bridge Park and a possible Pineapple Walk development were all coming in without the city talking “about needs — schools, transportation, open space, sidewalk space, retail, libraries.”
Opponents wary of political deals
Michael D.D. White, co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, said via email that a compromise deal would not be acceptable. “A little more money or slightly more (probably underground) space for the shrunken library would not change the fact that this developer (not the high bidder) is not even paying ‘tear-down’ value for the property,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle.
White says it would cost $120 million “to replace the library that was fully upgraded and substantially expanded not very long ago.”
Advocates are especially concerned, he said, because Johnson has said that the sale is being viewed as a model for other transactions not only within BPL, but also the Queens and the New York Public Library systems.
Despite vocal community opposition at various ULURP-required hearings, the proposal passed Community Board 2 in July. In September, Borough President Eric Adams disapproved the plan “with conditions.” The proposal was approved by the City Planning Commission in November.
BHA backs plan
The Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) supports the library plan, which it says will result in a state-of-the-art library for the neighborhood. BHA said in a statement, “This proposal will provide funds for the renovation of other BPL branches, and that is why the BHA and its members support it.”
BHA says that the Brooklyn Heights branch project will be subject to strict terms outlined in both the original Request for Proposals and a Memorandum of Understanding between BPL and the city. Those requirements include an interim library, time limits on construction, completion of the affordable housing before issuance of a certificate of occupancy for the condos, and assurance that all proceeds from the sale will be for the use of the BPL.
BHA said, however, that it still had some concerns. The square footage of the new branch is lower than the space currently used by patrons, which also includes the Business Library.
The preliminary plans show the branch to have 21,500 square feet of usable space, “but we would like to see this figure significantly enlarged,” BHA says.
The overcrowding of P.S. 8 is another major concern for BHA and Heights residents in general. P.S. 8 is at 140 percent of capacity already and children are pouring into the neighborhood as new developments come online. Overcrowding is expected to continue even after an expected rezoning.
Opponents also balk at the idea that the affordable housing component, which allows for more height, would be built in another neighborhood. BHA and other groups, including the union-affiliated Build Up NYC, considers the affordable housing — targeted to residents making 60-165 percent of area median income — to be too expensive for Clinton Hill residents.
White says he is wary of deals.
“The public has wearied of ‘last minute’ compromises that look like they were always contemplated from the beginning, and are basically last minute theatrics designed to draw attention away from the lack of public process throughout,” he said.
Updated on 12/9/15 to reflect that the full City Council vote takes place Dec. 16.
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