Groundbreaking held in Sunset Park for new library, affordable housing

February 8, 2019 Jaime DeJesus
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Finally hitting the books.

After years of protests, negotiations, stalls and starts, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) broke ground on Weds., Feb.. 6 on the long-awaited new state-of-the-art Sunset Park library, housed in an eight-story building that will also incorporate 49 units of affordable housing.

The new building — which is slated to open in December, 2020 — will rise on the site of the old library, which was previously demolished, 5108 Fourth Ave.

The ceremony preceding the groundbreaking was held at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 4917 Fourth Avenue, just a block away from the former branch, which has been demolished.

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“Today we begin again,” said BPL President and CEO Linda Johnson, who told attendees, “We are making a library that honors the intention of the original library from 1905 but updates it for the 21st century.

“Our new library will almost be double the size of the branch we just took down,” Johnson went on. “It will also be outfitted for the kinds of needs people have today. The one that was there recently only had 12 electrical outlets. The library that we are envisioning will not only be hospitable to the way people use technology but also flexible enough to accommodate the way people will use libraries in years to come.”

The new branch will be approximately 20,000 square feet in size.

What the new library building will look like.

The housing will also meet changing needs, said Michelle de la Uz, FAC’s executive director, whose involvement with the project dates back a decade or more.

“There is a lot a relief and excitement,” she told this paper. “There’s relief in that we finally got here. There were definitely points along the way where it wasn’t certain that we would, not because anyone doubted the vision of creating and combining affordable housing and a public library, but because creating the financing for those two things together is not something that is normally done.”

The project had its roots, De la Uz said, in a 2005 conversation with then-Councilmember, now Attorney General Letitia James. They realized, she explained, that they could address two critical community needs simultaneously by pairing affordable housing with modernizing and expanding public libraries.

“Vacant and under-utilized publicly-owned land that had been abundant and helped to create much-needed affordable housing was becoming more and more scarce, and at the same time, the capital needs of the public libraries were growing exponentially,” De la Uz told the crowd. “Fast forward more than 10 years, and we are here celebrating the groundbreaking of this amazing model project.”

The project will include studio, one, two and three-bedroom apartments at a rental cost that, according to de la Uz, meets Sunset Park’s affordability needs.

“They range from 30–80 percent of area median income,” de la Uz explained, adding that the apartments will be permanently affordable. Area residents, she added, will be given preference, and some units will be “set aside for families coming out of homelessness and individuals living with disabilities.”

The majority of the units are reserved for families with incomes at or below 50 percent of AMI, and most apartments will rent for between $500 and $1,000 per month.

Maria Torres-Springer, commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), stressed that the project “really exemplifies inclusive development.

“We also know that growth comes with its own challenges,” she said, “affordability of housing, capacity of public institutions. Those problems just don’t happen in isolation. Each one is related to the other and therefore the solution must be integrated as well. That’s why this project is such an important one.”

However, it wasn’t an easy sell to area residents. Among the concerns expressed in the run-up to the project was the need for schools in the area, as well as the fear that constructing housing over the library would actually displace longtime community members.

“This wasn’t without controversy,” recalled David Estrada, the executive director of the Sunset Park Business Improvement District. “I have to think that people that were skeptical about the project, all of it came out about caring about the neighborhood and wanting what is best. People had honest questions and they got answers. Look what is coming here. It’s beautiful. It renews my faith in city government and community organizing.”

The project was improved, De la Uz added, by the interaction with community members, who expressed their concerns. “We had a number of information sessions to hear what people wanted to see in the new project and we incorporated that,” de la Uz said. “The library got bigger, and we expanded the number of two and three-bedroom apartments and addressed other issues.”

“The community was involved from the beginning,” agreed Roxana Benavides, supervisor of the Sunset Park branch. “What has been so vital is that it was the community who actually determined what the library was going to be and we also know the need for affordable housing is always present through New York City. There’s nothing negative about this project.”

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