Emotional meeting draws vocal crowd
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
At an emotional meeting Wednesday night, Community Board 2 approved, with caveats, the controversial plan to sell and redevelop the site of the Brooklyn Heights Library.
With less fanfare, CB2 also approved a modification allowing affordable housing at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park -- but added a provision making it clear that any development must be proven necessary to sustain the park’s finances. (See below.)
On the library issue, the full board voted 25 in favor, 14 opposed, with four abstentions to ratify the committee’s approval of the controversial $52 million sale and development. The meeting was held at St. Francis College, where almost every seat in the auditorium was filled. Many in attendance held signs saying, “Save Our Libraries.”
Discussion among board members was frequently interrupted by shouting and chants of “Not for sale!” and “Liar!” from the audience, a number of whom were members of the advocacy group Citizens Defending Libraries.
Board Chair Shirley McRae called for order several times, telling protesters, “You are not going to commandeer this meeting.”
The community board voted to approve the library plan with three provisions:
1: After the library has been fully constructed and outfitted, a reserve fund of at least $2 million be established for future capital repairs at the branch.
2: The new branch would have the same usable floor space as the existing branch.
3: A Community Benefits Agreement and a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) be executed as part of the project.
As part of the city’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process, the proposal next moves to the Borough President’s Office, and then the City Planning Commission.
In the proposal, Hudson Companies Inc. would build a residential tower, replace the current library at 280 Cadman Plaza West and construct 114 affordable-housing units in Clinton Hill.
CB2 members express some concerns
Regardless of their feelings about the library, a number of board members expressed concerns with problems brought on by the development boom in the Brooklyn Heights and Downtown area, including overcrowded schools, traffic and lack of infrastructure.
“No planning is going on in this city,” said CB2 member Kenn Lowy. “I don’t blame the developer, I blame the city.”
Concerns were also expressed about the affordable housing component being built outside of Brooklyn Heights, in Clinton Hill.
Carlton Gordon, chair of the Land Use Committee, said that he had “initially proposed affordable housing onsite.” But the committee wanted it offsite, he said, because, “If it was onsite, there would be less.”
A number of members expressed doubt about the enforceability of Community Benefit Agreements.
“We’re still recovering from Atlantic Yards,” one man said.
Another called the Atlantic Yards CBA “just a piece of paper. It’s worthless.”
Some speakers also asked that the construction jobs at the site be union jobs. “Hudson [Companies] has a spotty record with contractors,” one man said.
Board member Doreen Gallo read a resolution calling on the board to let stand a June 17 vote resulting in “non-approval” of the proposal, which followed a four-hour hearing featuring presentations and public comment.
Gallo said that the committee, following the June 17 votes, subsequently convened “a hastily scheduled, previously uncalendared” meeting on July 6. This meeting was attended by different committee members who did not hear the presentations and public comments at the June 17 hearing, she said.
“The June 17th vote could and should have been let stand as the committee’s final action,” the resolution read.
John Quint, CB2’s parliamentarian, responded that whether committee members heard the presentations and public testimony or not, “they received an extensive summary of what occurred.” The committee’s motion “was proper,” he added.
Following the meeting, a source said that since the June 17 votes were neither an approval nor a disapproval, they were meaningless, which is why the committee met again.
Many board members, however, expressed support for the proposal.
William Flounoy, chairperson of the Economic Development and Employment Committee, said the current library is “consistently closed with HVAC issues. There’s no money in the system to maintain it.”
He summed up his position. “We’re trying to do the best we can. We’re getting a brand new library, from $8 million to $10 million to build out the interior. Hudson is going to sell the condo to the city for $1, and the HVAC will be maintained by the condos.” Flounoy said that millions of dollars would be going to four other Brooklyn libraries as a result of the sale, and “there will be 114 affordable units.”
After a hubbub again broke out, Chairperson McRae warned, “If you don’t allow the board to continue to deliberate without catcalls and disrespect, you will be removed.”
Kenn Lowy called out to the crowd, “I’m on your side and you’re screwing up!”
“I challenge the board to remain focused on the matter at hand,” said Michael Cox, who sits on CB2's Economic Development Committee as a member of the public (not a board member).
He called the library plan “a solid proposal to bring a new library, affordable housing, and improvements to other libraries.”
In a statement after the vote, Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson said, "The community agrees — building a new Brooklyn Heights Library will provide residents with the world-class library they need and deserve, while also ensuring that branches throughout the borough receive much-needed repairs and renovations. We thank the Community Board for their thoughtful deliberation, and look forward to moving this process forward with the Borough President, City Planning Commission and City Council.”
The Pier 6 GPP Modification approval
Following the library vote, the CB2 board moved on to the proposal by Brooklyn Bridge Park to modify the park’s General Park Plan (GPP).
The much-smaller audience was more subdued for this discussion.
Besides allowing affordable housing in two towers proposed for Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP), the modifications would allow BBP directors to shift the number of residential units between towers, placing all of the affordable units in the shorter rental building, and allow closure of a “loop road” running past the site.
CB2 approved this modification to the GPP, but added a provision making it clear that any development must be proven necessary to sustain the park’s finances.
This provision came about after a discussion about a line present in the GPP modification: “Notwithstanding anything else in the GPP, and without regard to project finances…”
This seemingly mundane line might have torpedoed the bedrock assurances by the park that it would build only the amount of housing absolutely necessary to support the park financially, members said.
“The modification would take away that financial requirement,” said Irene Janner, a member of the Parks and the Land Use Committee (and Finance and Personnel Committee). “They [would] not have to prove financial necessity . . . Another broken promise.”
While Janner said that the park board had denied this interpretation of the phrase, “three lawyers” had reached the opposite conclusion.
Park officials maintain that the Pier 6 development is financially necessary to fund the park. At two recent meetings, the board of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation (BBPC) presented updated financial figures to bolster this contention.
But many CB2 members spoke about the park board’s “lack of transparency” with finances, and noted than a report by an independent economist – “one of the park’s choosing,” one member added drolly – has not even come out yet.
They also pointed to a letter from the City Comptroller’s Office criticizing BBP for a lack of financial transparency.
“We have not been given the raw data, we have been given the conclusion,” one member said.
“Why not show us the numbers and be open with us?” said another. He added, “This is a mayoral issue. He controls the board.”
Dwight Smith, a member of the Parks and Recreation Committee, made a motion to amend the committee’s recommendation, to make clear that the approval of the GPP modification was subject to proving an economic need for the development.
The CB2 modification would change the line of contention to language requiring full disclosure of raw financial data, backed by a financial auditor, to prove the necessity of the Pier 6 project to Brooklyn Bridge Park to sustain its finances.
With that assurance in place, the full board approved the GPP modification.
This does not mean, however, that the Pier 6 development is a go.
On June 25, directors of the Empire State Development Corp. (ESD) left the door open to consideration of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the development.
Community groups, officials and local residents had testified that an SEIS should be required in light of the exploding development, overcrowded schools and changed conditions in Brooklyn since the original EIS was issued 10 years ago.
The ESD’s public hearing is scheduled for July 30, 6 p.m. at St. Francis College, followed by a 30-day written comment period.
Public comments at the hearing will not be limited to the park’s proposed GPP modifications. If members of the public want to comment on the need for an SEIS, “they are free to do so,” ESD Director Joyce Miller said.
Brooklyn Bridge Park said they would not comment until they had seen "the final language of the resolution."
The role of Community Boards in the ULURP process is advisory.
Updated at 6:14 p.m. to correct a committee member's name, and to correctly describe the position of another. A statement from a source was also added.
Updated on July 17 to correct the name of the person calling to the anti-library project crowd, “I’m on your side and you’re screwing up!” It was Kenn Lowy, not William Flounoy. Also updated to note that Irene Janner is a member of the Parks and the Land Use Committee as well as the Finance and Personnel Committee.