A proposal to demolish the aging and low-ceilinged Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and replace it with a 36-story luxury condominium—with a library on the first floor—took a significant step forward on Thursday, following a day of closed-door negotiations between developer Hudson Properties and Councilmember Steve Levin, who represents the neighborhood.
With Levin's approval, the plan, which his office has since described as "substantially improved," is unlikely to face opposition in the City Council. A final vote will take place before the end of 2016.
The Brooklyn Councilmember, who recently described the library debate as "the most controversial issue that I've seen in my district since being elected in 2009," negotiated a slew of adjustments to the original plan over the course of about 24 hours this week.
"We are most saddened by the lack of transparency," said Citizens Defending Libraries (CDL), the group that has actively opposed the plan for months, in a statement. "Councilman Levin spent hours... talking behind closed doors with the developer. None of the options were presented or previewed to the public."
According to Levin's office, the approved library will be 5,000 square feet larger than the originally-proposed design, clocking in at 26,620 square feet. A section of the library will also be set aside for Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) labs for local elementary school students.
A union coalition condemned Hudson's refusal to mandate union construction labor as recently as late November, but the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York is now supporting the project with an "agreement on labor standards," according to Levin's office.
Hudson Group has also agreed to build a second, much smaller library—5,000 square feet in total—to serve nearby DUMBO, Vinegar Hill and the Farragut Houses. The concession is intended to appease Brooklyn Heights residents who have long challenged the project, arguing that their neighborhood is already feeling the strain of steady high-rise development.
But CDL has balked at the concession, describing a 5,000-square-foot library as "woefully small." The group has also long decried the affordable housing requirement associated with Hudson's deal, which calls for the construction of 114 units of housing at an offsite location in neighboring Clinton Hill.
The original plan set aside units for renters who make between 60-165% of the Area Median Income—for a family of two, that means household incomes ranging from $41,424 to $113,916. Under the new plan, units set aside at 165% AMI have been reduced to 125% AMI, and those at 100% have been reduced to 80%.
The adjustment does not alleviate CDL's concerns. "The deepened affordability... goes in the right direction, but does not change the fact that these units are being built 'poor door' style more than a mile away in a different neighborhood," the group said in a statement.
Goodbye to all that (via).
"The decision to sell a public asset should never be made lightly," Levin stated on Thursday evening. "I believe that the new community benefits and protections added to this proposal... make it a good deal for the public and my community."
The Councilmember's negotiations did not impact the $52 million price tag associated with the sale, which some detractors have described as low-ball.
Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson has long defended the Hudson plan, focusing on a library system that is experiencing a "maintenance crisis." The entire system has an estimated $300 million in unfunded capital needs; 70% of the libraries in the system are more than 50 years old, and a quarter of them need $5 million in maintenance. The Brooklyn Heights branch, which was built in 1962 (she's described it as "outdated and outmoded") would need about $9 million. The city only provides the BPL with $15 million annually in capital funds.
With $40 million from the sale, the BPL plans to renovate public libraries in Bushwick, Fort Greene and Boerum Hill, and build an $8-million new library in Sunset Park.
In a statement following yesterday's announcement Johnson said, "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."
CDL is not convinced. "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," said representative Michael White in a statement. "What we got was a lot of drama, but no transparency."
White added that demolition and construction will take time, temporarily depriving the neighborhood of a brick-and-mortar library.
At a recent City Council hearing on the proposal, Hudson Properties Principal David Kramer presented a rendering of the 7,000-square-foot interim library that would operate out of Our Lady of Lebanon Church on nearby Remsen Street for the duration of construction. The estimated year of completion for the project is 2020.
"It beats a book mobile," he said. "It beats no service at all."