City Council green-lights controversial Brooklyn Heights library plan

December 16, 2015 Anna Spivak
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Brooklyn Heights’ current Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) branch, located at 280 Cadman Plaza West, is in for a noteworthy, and much debated, re-write come 2019.

After months of feedback and support from some local elected officials, as well as backlash from residents, library advocates and elected officials opposed to the plan, the new Brooklyn Heights Library proposal was passed overwhelmingly by the City Council on Wednesday, December 16.

The goal of the plan — which will privatize the property, itself a controversial move — is to redevelop the current neighborhood branch with a new, state-of-the-art library built into the base of a residential building and provide 114 units of affordable housing along with it in Brooklyn’s Community District 2—serving the neighborhoods of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Clinton Hill, Downtown Brooklyn, DUMBO, Fort Greene, Fulton Ferry, Navy Yard and Vinegar Hill.

“The decision to sell a public asset should never be made lightly,” said Councilmember Stephen Levin who has been vocal in support of the project. “I believe that the new community benefits and protections added to this proposal, including an expansion of the new Brooklyn Heights Library and the first expansion of Brooklyn’s library system since 1983, make it a good deal for the public and my community.”

According to Levin’s office, the new plans include a 24 percent expansion from the original proposal—taking the space up to 26,620 square feet from 21,500; a brand new, 5,000-square-foot library; adding 9,000 square feet in the new building at Cadman Plaza West for dedicated STEM education labs; seven-day-a-week service; and lowered income caps for the proposed affordable housing units.

The deal, however, is not without its fair share of concerns.

“Supporting affordable housing and preserving public assets like libraries must not be competing imperatives,” wrote Public Advocate Letitia James in a letter to the City Council. “We should not be asked to choose between our need for affordable housing and our libraries.”

Citizens Defending Libraries, an advocacy group founded in 2013, has also protested the proposal, calling them “worse than expected.”

“There is no doubt that the deal is now fractionally better than what was proposed, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are selling off valuable public libraries or, more broadly, how bad a deal this is for the public,” Citizens Defending Libraries said in a statement. “The new bigger version of the smaller shrunken library will now be 42 percent of the current library’s size.  When you realize that the currently library would cost $120+ million to replace and that we are getting only 42 percent of that back, you realize how much we have lost.”

Conversely, BPL’s President and CEO Linda Johnson, says the move is a good one for the library’s future.

“On behalf of all Brooklynites who care about the future of their libraries, we are grateful to Councilmember Steve Levin and the entire City Council Land Use Committee for their leadership in supporting BPL’s plan for a new Brooklyn Heights branch,” said Johnson. “We are one step closer to bringing a new, inspiring, state-of-the art library to Brooklyn Heights and a $40 million investment to libraries throughout the borough, including a new library in Dumbo/Vinegar Hill/Farragut.”

“Libraries and affordable housing are two of our most critical community needs,” added Land Use Committee Chair Councilmember David Greenfield, calling the plan “a win-win-win for the communities, Brooklyn Public Library and all New Yorkers.”

According to BPL, the Brooklyn Heights Branch was built in 1962 and is the only branch to house two distinct libraries—the Brooklyn Heights Library and the Business & Career Library. The branch is BPL’s biggest.

Construction for the new project is expected to begin in 2016 and the new library will take approximately a little over three years to complete.

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