Approval comes after three years of debate
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The full New York City Council voted decisively on Wednesday to approve the controversial proposal to sell and develop the Brooklyn Heights Library.
The vote was 45 to one with three abstentions. (Councilmember Chaim Deutsch voted no.) Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign off on the plan.
The library site, at 280 Cadman Plaza West, will be sold to developer Hudson Companies for $52 million. Hudson plans to build a 36-story luxury tower, with a new, smaller Brooklyn Heights branch on the ground floor and below ground. Marvel Architects will design the building. In addition, 114 units of affordable housing will be built in Clinton Hill.
As opponents in the balcony booed, members of the Council heaped praise on Councilmember Stephen Levin (Brooklyn Heights - Williamsburg - Greenpoint) for negotiating a slew of concessions that sweetened the deal.
The revised plan includes increased floor space in the new branch library, to 26,620 square feet from the original proposal’s 21,500 square feet. (The current usable space equals roughly 32,000 square feet, according to BPL, though the site has close to 60,000 square feet in total.)
Other sweeteners include an on-site 3,000-square-foot Technology & Business Services Center; a new 5,000-square-foot library in the DUMBO / Vinegar Hill area; a 9,000-square-foot STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lab; increased service and programing at the Heights branch; and a profit-sharing arrangement that gives the library a quarter of the developer’s profits exceeding an internal rate of return of 19 percent (less $1.5 million).
Levin also negotiated lower Area Median Income (AMI) limits, making the affordable housing more affordable. (See more details about how the deal was negotiated here.)
Strong backing from colleagues
The City Council Land Use Committee voted to approve the sale last Thursday after Levin announced his support. Following that vote, some library advocates called Levin a “sellout” and labeled the sale of the city-owned building a “fire sale.”
On Wednesday, Councilmember David Greenfield, chair of the Land Use Committee, worked to change this perception.
“The reality is that our public libraries are underfunded and have been for decades,” he said. “And so the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) has a very practical problem, which is that libraries across Brooklyn are crumbling. They need the resources to pay for it, and they can’t hope and pray that resources are going to fall from the sky.
“I respect the opposition and I want those who opposed the deal to know that as a result of your insistence, this has become a better deal,” Greenfield said. “You had concerns. Your councilmember took those into consideration and worked 18 hours a day for the last few weeks to try to address as many of those as possible.”
Greenfield added that “this may be one of the best deals that we’ve ever had.”
Councilmember Laurie Cumbo (Fort Greene - Clinton Hill - Bedford-Stuyvesant) said to Levin, “Over the last few month I have watched as you have stood in the face of adversity; you have been ridiculed, insulted, threatened and bashed in public hearings and meetings.
‘No councilmember wants to set a precedent of selling or removing public assets, but we were faced with a very serious issue in our community,” she said.
Councilmember Brad Lander said Levin did “a great job” negotiating the deal, which would generate roughly $40 million towards $300 million in capital repair needs.
Councilmember Jumaane Williams said he abstained from casting his vote because “we should have gone deeper” in lowering the AMIs for the affordable housing. But he did not blame Levin for negotiating the sale.
“It’s not his fault the library is underfunded. In fact it’s our fault for not properly funding libraries for many, many years,” Williams said.
Hudson will be acquiring and outfitting an interim library in the neighborhood as the next step, Levin said after the vote. The temporary library will be located at Our Lady of Lebanon Church on Remsen Street. He expects the closing to be sometime in the late spring.
Disappointment from library advocates
Angry members of the advocacy group Citizens Defending Libraries waylaid Levin in the hall outside the City Hall Council Chambers following the vote.
“Steve, it is still a shrunken library with a big luxury condo over it and you betrayed your promise to us,” said Heights resident Marilyn Berkon. “You listened to all the wrong people.”
“You go off and do a back-room deal with Alicia Glen, Deputy Mayor of Development … and on that basis you decide what to do about libraries, what to do about schools, how to spend the DOE budget,” said Michael D.D. White, co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries.
BPL President Linda Johnson said in a statement following the vote, “The City Council's approval of the Brooklyn Heights Library project is a victory for the thousands of Brooklyn residents who rely on their public libraries for essential programs, services, and resources … The benefits extend to communities throughout the borough, as BPL will now be able to deliver much-needed funding for other branches in disrepair.”