Residents discuss controversial Brooklyn Heights library
by Holly Bieler
Mar 11, 2015 | 4229 views | 2 2 comments | 60 60 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Hudson Companies principal David Kramer and Brooklyn Public Library President and CEO Linda Johnson discuss the project on Monday night
Hudson Companies principal David Kramer and Brooklyn Public Library President and CEO Linda Johnson discuss the project on Monday night
Local residents gathered at Brooklyn Heights Library on Monday night for the latest in a series of discussions on the branch’s future construction, a topic that has incited controversy within the community since the Brooklyn Public Library system opted to develop the site with a private firm in 2013.

The project has been mired in community debate since its inception, with many arguing against the decision to sell to a private development firm, an option that has gained traction in recent years within the cash-strapped Brooklyn library system, currently bogged down with $300 million in deferred maintenance across its 60-branch system.

The system stands to make $52 million from the sale, which proponents say would serve to better libraries throughout the borough. As part of the plan, the developers have also committed to building 114 affordable housing units off-site, which they announced on Monday would be located at 911-917 Atlantic Avenue and 1041-1047 Fulton Street in Clinton Hill.

However community members have raised a number of concerns about the project, of which the library itself now comprises only a small part. Developer Hudson Companies current plan calls for demolition of the 62,000-square-foot Cadman Plaza branch, and the construction of a 30-story mixed-use building in its place.

The new building will house a library on the ground floor, 130 luxury condominiums, a multi-purpose satellite space for private school St. Ann’s, and two retailers, a Brooklyn Coffee Roasters and a pop-up culinary space curated by Brooklyn foodie fest Smorgasburg.

“You start mixing high-rent apartments with public facilities and you’re courting problems,” said Mike Jankowitz, a former Brooklyn Heights resident who attended the meeting.

Among the concerns voiced at Monday’s meeting was the square footage of the new library, which would decrease by about one-third to roughly 21,000 square feet under the current plan.

Locals voiced oft-repeated reservations about the decision to raze the current site only to be left with a smaller library, instead of renovating the current building.

“There’s something great about this place,” said Doreen Gallo, who sits on the Community Advisory Committee, a group that meets with the developers and local library officials every six months. “I’m not saying it couldn’t use a couple more floors, but luxury housing doesn’t have to pay for it.”

The project's chief architect, Jonathan Marvel, said the current building was unusable as a base, and the library system estimated that renovations on the existing library would cost upwards of $9 million.

“It’s going to be a 21st century library that represents the larger interests of the community,” Marvel said.

“We’re taking a very high burden upon ourselves to say we think this is a really special project,” said David Kramer of Hudson Properties. “Because it’s a high-profile site, we’re saying this has to be a great project. I want it to be a great project.”

Local residents also voiced concerns about the adverse impacts the new housing could have on their community, citing both the influx of new residents and the impact of the physical building.

“Noise and shadows are an extraordinarily big problem,” said Toba Potosky, president of the board of directors of nearby Cadman Towers on Clinton Street. “You’re constantly hearing sounds, and the glass tower will amplify that and cast shadows.”

Kramer said the developers had already prepared an initial shadow study analysis as part of the ULURP process, which would be available to the public.

Linda Johnson, CEO and president of the Brooklyn Public Library system, announced with the developers on Monday that the library would hold a series of workshops for community members, in which they would be able to review phases of the construction plans and make suggestions to architects, developers and library officials. Community members will also be able to make suggestions online, and in person at the library.

“This is a difficult one,” said Councilman Stephen Levin at the meeting’s end. “On one hand you have a library that doesn’t have a functional air conditioning system, on the other hand what they’re proposing is smaller. But there is a need for funds. I’m trying to hear every side of the argument, but this is a hard one.”

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Michael D. D. White
March 11, 2015
A significant piece of news from Monday night is that URLUP certification has been pushed back, yet again, now until June. This clearly indicates that we have forced the library administration officials and their developer partner to grapple more realistically with the community’s rejection of this project. They are now working as best they can to try to make the community rejection appear less obvious. In September, when the developer was selected, ULURP certification was going to be this month. Then it was pushed back to April, now it’s two months later. Originally, the Bloomberg administration initiating these real estate schemes, and pursuing them on multiple fronts, wanted everything to happen many months early with a developer contract for the Brooklyn Heights Library being executed before December 31, 2013, Bloomberg’s last day in office.

But listen to how the new date has been picked to just barely accommodate the timing of a manipulated community “charrette” process. The charrette will occur two weeks from announcement with small tables of 6 to 8 people that will each include, there to steer things, one representative of the developer’s architect, now anointed as the library’s architect as well, and one representative of the Brooklyn Public Library that, with its transformation into a real estate development company, is also the developer’s representative. If you listen to the system for input that was described Monday night, it is rife with opportunity for the BPL (with the developer) to provoke and cherry pick input to support its vision which starts out inflexibly with a decision to shrink the library from 63,000 square feet to 21,000, square feet. (WEEDY DETAILS FOR THE GEEKS KEEPING TRACK: Monday night the architects came up with slightly revised figures a reduced existing library size of 59,000 square feet rather than the 63,000 square feet used to produce inflated air conditioning repair estimates, and a proposed shrinkage to 21,500 square feet, not reflecting what was stated to be the result of the RFP.)

April 20th the Library, working with the developer’s architect, will restate and reformulate what they consider to be the public input for reaction. Then that will be presented to a stacked CAC (not representative of the public) in May. . . . just in time for commencing the ULURP process right afterward in June!

A real open and transparent process to determine what the community wants should have preceded any decision to sell and shrink the library or to move the library’s Business and Career Library functions way from Downtown Brooklyn.

On another front, there are developer-serving arguments being promulgated that the “design” of the project can’t be considered in the URLUP process, only whether the disposition of this publicly owned property makes sense. That argument, if bought into, opens the door to allowing the developer to make radical changes to the project even after ULURP. It also ignores what one must absolutely consider to make a determination of whether the disposition of this substantial public assets makes any possible sense: You must consider how poorly the design of a drastically shrunken library will serve the public versus what the public has now and could have with some sensible upgrading and perhaps adaptive reuse of portions of the premises.

I asked questions Monday night that Linda Johnson mostly didn’t answer. The library has overstated what it believes it will net financially by selling the library. Johnson said that the small amount of net funds will go to certain other libraries, not mentioning the Grand Army Plaza Library where alterations will be necessitated by the transfer and accommodation there of the Business and Career Library functions. . That’s to the extent that the Business and Career Library continues to exist at all. It is important to remember that although the Business and Career Library functions are supposedly being moved to Grand Army Plaza there will be no new space created to accommodate those function, so the reconfiguring of Grand Army Plaza, which Ms. Johnson acknowledges will have a cost she will not state, will just be about cramming it in and reducing space for other activities there.

Ms. Johnson says that she will not state, or net out this cost of GAP reconfiguration because she says that it was always the intention to move the Business and Career library way from Brooklyn’s Downtown. Actually, as you can tell from the BPL’s own minutes that is NOT the case. The plan to move the Business and Career Library out of Brooklyn Heights in order to sell and shrink the Brooklyn Heights Library goes back to 2007 with the BPL’s “Strategic Real Estate Plan” put together by ex-Forest City Ratner Vice President Karen Backus. We think the “Strategic Real Estate Plan” should be made public and have asked for it via FOIL, but Ms. Johnson and the BPL have refused to provide it. Ms. Johnson said Monday night it was because she doesn’t understand our request.

With the figures released Monday night, between the branch library and the Business and Career Library functions, the BPL assigned 57% percent of the space to the branch Library and 43% to the Business and Career Library, and that’s ignoring how the Business and Career Library has always functioned in supportive synergy and on an integrative basis with the entire library making it one library. For example: Consider the computer room that is supposed to be part of the Business and Career Library, and not technically, the branch.

While the library is proposed to be reduced from 63,000 square feet to 21,000 square feet, we heard the developer speak of how Saint Ann’e was going to get perhaps 18,000 square feet, and perhaps 20,000 square feet in the building just for an auditorium.- We cannot overlook how the benefits to Saint Ann’s, a private school, are helping to drive this sell-off and shrinkage of public tax-payer-paid-for assets.

Yes, there were a few individuals and entities like the developer-oriented Chamber of Commerce who read prepared statements in support of the sale and shrinkage of the library. There was also the Downtown Partnership- Check out the relationship between the Downtown Partnership and Forest City Ratner before putting stock in what they say.
Michael D. D. White
March 11, 2015
The notion `That the proceeds go back to Brooklyn Public Library' is misguided- The money from the sale actually goes to the City and there is no assurance that it would every be returned to the BPL in any way. The only obligation to do so would be a moral one, and since the city’s current unprecedentedly low funding of the libraries is already at an immorally low level there is no assurance such moral suasion would work. Quite the contrary, since the current low funding levels date back to the introduction of plans for low funding to justify such self-cannibalizing funding schemes, if low funding successfully leads to the sales that real estate industry is salivating for, there will actually be a strong inducement to continue such low funding levels into the future to provoke more sales. - Furthermore, the net sale proceeds to be obtained are so very minimal as to be virtually meaningless. That’s one reason the BPL has to shrink the library and also why the BPL is giving an overstated figure for the net proceeds that will result- If the Donnell Library had been replaced at full scale the NYPL would have lost money on its sale, and much the same situation pertains here.