Brooklyn Heights

City Council committee approves Brooklyn Heights Library /condo proposal

Levin sweetens the pot in library sale

December 11, 2015 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BPL president Linda Johnson, center left, said she was “beyond happy” with the way the vote turned out. Photo by Mary Frost
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After almost three years of polarizing debate and unruly public meetings, the plan to sell and develop the Brooklyn Heights Library site was passed by the City Council Land Use Committee on Thursday.

The 17 to 2 vote (with one abstention and one medical absence) came after Councilmember Stephen Levin announced that he had wrung a number of concessions from the developer, the city and Brooklyn Public Library (BPL).

Many of Levin’s colleagues on the City Council hailed the agreement, calling it a better deal for the public than the original proposal, but several disappointed library advocates in the crowd gave the thumbs down sign to Levin or cried “sell-out.”

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Councilmembers Ritchie Torres and Mark Treyger said that Levin had forged a better deal than was originally proposed, but it was shameful that the city has gotten to the point of selling off its public institutions. “The real story is the failure of our political leadership,” Torres said.

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.

Details of the agreement

Under the proposal, the library site at 280 Cadman Plaza West would be sold to developer Hudson Companies for $52 million. Hudson plans to build a 36-story condo tower, with some ground floor retail, and 114 units of affordable rentals in Clinton Hill. Hudson will prepare an interim library site on Remsen Street for use during construction. When completed, the high-rise tower will contain a new, smaller library on the ground floor and below level.

Proceeds from the project will be used to renovate and repair four other libraries in the BPL system.

The sweetened deal increases floor space in the new branch library to 26,620 square feet from the original proposal’s 21,500 square feet. The current library building, which serves both the Brooklyn Heights branch and the Business Library, is roughly 60,000 square feet, though BPL says that much of that is inaccessible. The current usable space equals roughly 32,000 square feet.

To address the concerns of patrons of the Business Library, which is moving to Grand Army Plaza, a “Technology & Business Services Center” will occupy 3,000 feet in the new branch library. The library will partner with local business and entrepreneurship groups to create the space.

The agreement also includes the creation of a new 5,000-square-foot library serving the DUMBO, Vinegar Hill, and Farragut Houses communities. This branch would be the first expansion of the BPL system since the Cortelyou branch was added in 1983, according to BPL.

In addition, a separate 9,000-square-foot STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lab, administered by the NYC Department of Education, will be built in the tower housing the new Brooklyn Heights branch. The STEM lab will serve students in Community School District 13.

In response to accusations that the $52 million sale price is too low, Levin established a framework whereby Hudson will return to the city a quarter of all profits exceeding an internal rate of return of 19 percent.

“If the developer does very well, the public does very well,” Levin said.

To diminish worries that residents of Clinton Hill would be priced out of the affordable housing to be built there as part of this project, the Area Median Income (AMI) limits at the higher end have been lowered. Units formerly at 165 percent AMI (31 units) have been lowered to 125 percent AMI, and units formerly at 100 percent AMI (60 units) have been lowered to 80 percent AMI. An additional 23 units will be at 60 AMI.

Levin said that the project has received the backing of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and SEIU 32BJ, with an agreement on labor standards and good paying jobs.

On the soft side, BPL committed to maintain seven-day-a-week service at the new Brooklyn Heights Library, but only if the Kings Highway branch remained open seven days a week.

BPL also committed to maintain “robust programming” at the Heights branch.

Members of the advocacy group Citizens Defending Libraries. The group was co-founded by Michael D. D. White (front row, third from right) and Carolyn McIntyre (front row, second from right).

Improvements based on community feedback

 Levin said the changes were hammered out in response to months of “impassioned” community feedback at multiple ULURP hearings, and concerns expressed by Community Board 2 and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“The overriding principle I’ve been looking at – the lens I’m looking through – is ultimately [getting] a good deal for the public,” Levin said. “The selling of city-owned property is a serious thing. Once you sell it, you can’t get it back.

“It’s clear that Brooklyn Public Library is facing serious capital challenges which need to be addressed one way or another,” he added. “There’s no other method we have to turn unused development rights into funding to meet the library’s needs.”

Levin acknowledged that many in attendance would be disappointed in the sale of the library.

“Your input has impacted and changed the nature of the discourse in a positive way,” he assured advocates. The agreement is “an improvement, something you can be proud of,” he said. Several members of the group, however, muttered that they were not proud.

Some disappointed library advocates in the crowd gave the thumbs down sign to Levin or cried “sell-out.”

Councilmember Brad Lander said that Levin “did a fantastic job. The things he negotiated were creative and tough.” He praised the deal as “great for Brooklyn Heights and all those who care about libraries. A new branch in DUMBO/ Farragut is tremendous; a bigger [Heights] branch, a STEM lab – this is what we’re supposed to be doing in the 21st Century.”

Land Use Committee Chair David Greenfield called the agreement “a real accomplishment.”

“To build a new library is unprecedented,” Greenfield said. He praised the improvements in affordability, the recapturing of funds, and the provision of good jobs. “It’s a significantly better deal,” he said.

Johnson, Kramer: Great project now even better

Linda Johnson, president of BPL, said after the vote, “Beyond happy. This is great for library users in Brooklyn Heights as well as library users across the borough and now particularly in DUMBO, Vinegar Hill and Farragut where there will be a new library.”

Johnson said a site for the DUMBO/ Farragut branch had not yet been decided upon. The process will “start right away, but we’ll try to open something the same time or before the new library in Brooklyn Heights,” she said.

Hudson’s David Kramer said, “I think it was a great project and now it’s even better. As part of the messy journey of democracy the project has even more community benefits. The library is bigger; there’s a branch for DUMBO, Vinegar Hill, Farragut; there’s a STEM lab; there’s labor peace – what’s not to like?”

When asked if Levin had “pushed him to the wall,” Kramer responded, “It goes back to your civics lesson about separation of powers — the executive branch, the legislative branch. Everyone has their priorities, and you have to get through both branches.”

As to the timeline, Kramer said, “We have to start and finish the interim library first. And then we close and we move the library to the interim space so that there’s no discontinuation of service.”

He said it would take about three years to build the luxury tower. “And the library can be done earlier because it’s at the base. Sometimes you get a TCO for the base sooner.”

A lot of the staging for construction may be on Cadman Plaza, he added. “Obviously Cadman is a little easier street to navigate than Clinton.”

The project includes a 36-story tower with 139 condominium units (the tallest building shown) and two retail spaces on Clinton Street. Rendering courtesy of Marvel Architects

Land grab?

Sandy Balboza, president of the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association, called the acquisition of the library by a private developer a “land-grab deal.”

“The city and the citizens were not represented,” she said. “The community follows the rules. We spend a lot of time at meetings, we spend a lot of time testifying. I think we’re too polite. Between Brooklyn Bridge Park, Atlantic Yards, the Downtown Plan … and the whole city is outraged about the affordable/ quality housing.”

She added, “People have to get out and vote and make sure that the people who are going to listen get in, and the people who don’t listen are out.”

Gary LaBarbera, President of Build Up NYC, said that construction workers were happy with the vote.

“We are pleased to support the Brooklyn Heights Library redevelopment.  It will increase the number of safe, good jobs, provide over 100 units of affordable housing and provide badly needed resources for our public libraries,” LaBarbera said.

“This is much worse than we thought, even when we were expecting that a dramatic compromise would be done at the last minute to dress things up,” said Michael D.D. White, co-founder of the advocacy group Citizens Defending Libraries.

“The library is being dramatically shrunk, much more than we expected. We’re talking about 42 percent of what we have now.” He added, “The library that they’re going to put in DUMBO was being talked about way back, if you go back and look at the minutes.”

Councilmembers Jumaane Williams and Inez Barron voted no on the proposal. Councilmember Rosie Mendez (Lower East Side) abstained.

“Levin did the best he could,” Williams said. “Some of the things being said about him are unfair.”

Barron said that Levin worked diligently to get the concessions, but she still had concerns with the small number of one, two and three bedrooms in the affordable housing, as opposed to studios.

BPL staffers and support members gaze at their cellphones while waiting for the Council committee to convene. BPL President Linda Johnson, center. Photos by Mary Frost


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