A controversial proposal to turn a Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) Brooklyn Heights branch into condos with a branch on the bottom floor cleared a hurdle in late July, when the local Community Board approved BPL’s proposed sale. Next, the deal goes before Borough President Eric Adam at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, August 18. If it passes that hurdle, it still needs to move through the City Planning Commission and New York’s City Council before becoming final.
If plans continue apace, the system will sell its Brooklyn Heights location to real estate developer Hudson Companies for upwards of $50 million. A 36 story residential tower of condos will be built on the site of the branch, in one of the borough’s toniest neighborhoods, and the ground floor will host a new library.
As part of the project—designed by the same architect, though not in the same location—114 units of inclusionary/workforce housing will be constructed on two privately owned sites in Clinton Hill, a nearby neighborhood. The affordable housing is projected to be completed in 2018.
If the project is approved to move forward, the interim library five blocks from the current location, at Our Lady of Lebanon Church, will be built out in winter and spring 2016 and moved into in Summer 2016, when construction will start. Construction is expected to be complete in spring 2020.
A design for the new library hasn’t been settled on yet, but one thing is for sure—at just over 21,000 square feet, the new branch will be significantly smaller than the current one, which is over 60,000 square feet. According to BPL president and CEO Linda Johnson, the current branch can afford to be downsized and still serve the community effectively. Community members can expect that the new branch will have fewer print books on hand and more of an emphasis on serving patrons with technology.
BPL has held three planning workshops for community input on the new space; the third is, at press time, still open for feedback online at http://www.bklynlibrary.org/brooklyn-heights-planning.
The Brooklyn Heights Branch also houses BPL’s Business and Career Library, which won’t be true following the renovations. Once the current branch shutters its doors, the resources provided by the Business and Career Library will be moved three miles southwest to the Library’s Central Branch. There, says Johnson, it will dovetail with the services already provided by the Central Branch’s InfoCommons, making for one-stop shopping for budding entrepreneurs and job-seekers alike. Housing those resources in a more central location makes sense for the Business Library and the borough, says Johnson.
“People using the Business and Career Library are entrepreneurs from all over Brooklyn,” she told Library Journal, noting that the move will happen regardless of the future of the Brooklyn Heights Branch. “There’s a lot of synergy between the Business and Career Library and the Information Commons.”
According to Johnson, the existing building needs extensive repairs and isn’t historically significant. Necessities like air conditioning to make the building bearable in sweltering New York summers are constantly on the fritz. There’s no budget for repairing the HVAC and air conditioning at the Brooklyn Heights branch, a fact that has seen the building experience multiple temporary closures in recent years.
Despite its problems, the branch does have three things going for it: location, location, location. Situated across the street from a park, just blocks from the waterfront and a brief stroll from the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, the community served by the Brooklyn Heights branch hosts some of the world’s priciest real estate. Condos in the neighborhood regularly sell for millions of dollars.
To BPL representatives, spending millions to repair the outdated branch would be throwing good money after bad. After weighing its options, BPL administrators decided the space was a better candidate for real estate markets than renovation.
Critics of the plan, though, argue that these decisions are being made prematurely, and will result in a worse branch for the neighborhood—a loss for the community that benefits real estate developers.
“The decision to shrink the library down to a predetermined size, just one-third, and stick it in the bottom of a residential tower where it can never expand afterward, plus the sale to lock in that decision, is being done in advance of having any such designs,” said Michael D.D. White of the organization Citizens Defending Libraries.
White claims that Hudson Companies and their partner in the development, Marvel Architects, are lowballing BPL, suggesting that the library and the land it sits on are worth more than $100 million.
White isn’t the only one who thinks something is rotten about the deal. Protests of the plan have gone on for more than two years, tying the project to the New York Public Library’s also controversial Central Library Plan (since revamped). BPL also originally planned to sell the Pacific branch, the borough’s first Carnegie library, but backed off in response to community feedback. Opponents to the Brooklyn Heights sale have been vociferous in recent public meetings, accusing BPL of exaggerating and refusing to repair the problems with the air conditioning and a lack of transparency surrounding the sale. Following the Community Board’s vote to OK the sale, DNAinfo reported that tensions ran high among attendees, with one stating “It’s all about money. It’s all money to go to the developer’s pockets.”
One impact of the proposed sale would be to spread the wealth (and space) currently invested in the Brooklyn Heights branch’s real estate around to other branches of the system. Capitalizing this branch, Johnson says, would help to offset the costs of improvements and renovations at other branches, including the system’s similar Sunset Park project, a planned new branch in south Brooklyn that will be situated on the ground floor of a development hosting 50 new affordable housing units. Unlike the shrinking Brooklyn Heights branch, the new Sunset Park Project library will be double the size of its Carnegie predecessor.
In addition, BPL has announced that the Walt Whitman branch will be getting $6 million to upgrade infrastructure and to modernize its facilities. The preserved Pacific branch will be getting $3.5 million for a new entryway and to make the building ADA accessible. The Washington Irving branch will be getting $4 million to upgrade infrastructure. This represents approximately 50% of the funds available to improve libraries, so there will be further announcements identifying additional branch libraries that will receive funding from this project.