By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Community Board 2’s Land Use Committee voted 8 to 4 to approve the controversial $52 million sale and development of the Brooklyn Heights Library – with caveats -- Monday night at a meeting at St. Francis College.
During the discussion by committee members, many disgruntled members of the audience silently held signs which stated, “Don’t Sell Our Libraries.”
The proposal would demolish the city-owned library building and replace it with a 36-story, 139-unit luxury residential tower, with a new library occupying the ground floor and some space below the ground. Affordable housing would be placed off-site in Clinton Hill.
Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) President Linda Johnson says the Brooklyn Heights branch, at 280 Cadman Plaza West, has a problematic HVAC system, needs $9 million in repairs, has non-accessible space and possessed significant property value, which could be used to benefit other branches in the borough.
These include the Walt Whitman branch, the Pacific branch, the Washington Irving branch and the Sunset Park branch.
Opponents, however, see the sale as the giveaway of public assets for the benefit of developers.
The three provisos added by committee members would require:
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 Brooklyn Heights branch library, to avoid the deterioration that occurred in the current building.
2: That the new branch have the same usable floor space as the existing branch. There was some fuzziness over exactly what this includes, however. This could mean the square footage of the current combined useable space of the Brooklyn Heights branch and Business Library, or just the current branch space, with or without its basement and back office areas.
Carlton Gordon, chair of the Land Use Committee, indicated during the discussion that the square footage he sought for the new facility, in caveat 2, was the current building’s total usable floor space.
“I’m well aware that the Business Library will move to the Central Branch, eventually. That’s part of the deal. But at least this way we can keep the footage and then it can be used for many and varied things,” he said.
3: A Community Benefits Agreement and a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) be executed as part of the project. These are intended, at minimum, to ensure the developer, the Hudson Companies, keeps its promises that affordable housing be built before breaking ground on the tower, and an interim library be established [to use] during the multi-year construction of the 36-story project.
The push for a Community Benefits Agreement and MOU were explained by committee member Eric Spruiell.
“Most of us do not trust the developers to keep their word,” Spruiell said. “They say something now, but somewhere along the line they may change what they agreed to before. We’ve had several instances of this – in Brooklyn Bridge Park, and we spent a long time arguing over bathrooms in Willoughby Park. I would like, among the signatories of this Memorandum of Understanding, the stakeholders in the community.”
Stakeholders were held to include councilmembers from the 33rd and 35th districts, Borough President Eric Adams, the Brooklyn Heights Association, Brooklyn Public Library, Citizens Defending Libraries, Community Board 2 and the Hudson Companies.
It is unclear what agency, if any, would have the authority to enforce these requirements. “The devil is in the details,” committee members noted.
Another hearing planned
On June 17, a hearing held by the Land Use Committee ended up in a stalemate after hours of testimony by more than 60 people, most of whom spoke in opposition to the plan.
The hearing was required under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Monday’s approval allows the proposal to move on to the full board, which will submit a recommendation. The board meets on Wednesday, July 15, 6 p.m. at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights.
As part of the ULURP process, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams will hold a public hearing at Borough Hall on Tuesday, August 18 at 6 p.m.
Attendees Speak Out
The approval evoked numerous comments from attendees, who were allowed two minutes each to speak their minds after the vote.
“This is a very sad vote,” said Michael D. D. White, co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, which has been fighting the sale. “You’ve declared open season on selling off of libraries, you’ve declared open season on the selling off of public assets in general. And you’ve set the precedent for selling them off at an extraordinarily low price.”
“I’ve been to a lot of public meetings, but I’ve never been to a public meeting where people participating sit with their back to the audience. I think that says a lot about what’s happened here,” said community activist Marsha Rimler.
“I haven’t heard anybody here or anywhere else give me a good reason why the Business Library is being moved,” another commenter said. “What is the reason for it? Nor have I seen or heard of any architectural plans, budget, or anything at all for refurbishing this building.”
Beth Heller, whose child will be entering kindergarten at P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights this fall, said that not enough attention was being paid to school overcrowding.
“At P.S. 8 there are 50 children waitlisted. That list is starting to move, but the amount of stress that the parents endured in this neighborhood was untenable,” she said. Rezoning P.S. 8 “will only solve the problem for a couple of years, because when this tower goes up, and Pier 6 goes up, and Pier 1 goes up, and God knows what else is going to go up, we won’t have extra seats at these other district schools.”
Resident Martha Rowen said, “Don’t let yourself be extorted into selling off public assets for promises that very likely will not be kept. This is something we have seen over and over. You’re giving up something that you can never get back for a fraction of what it’s worth, for promises which will filter away into the air.”
She said the new library would be “a fraction of its original size, at a time when we need to be expanding, rather than shrinking.”
“There are more steps for us to follow. There is the Brooklyn Borough President, there are the councilmen, and we will continue fighting,” said another resident.
Heights resident Mike Jackowitz said, “You talk about money that’s been promised. Money has a way of disappearing, or going into the wrong pockets. If things go wrong, responsibility is going to be assigned. And in that case, I wish you a lot of luck.”
Another resident said, “You are supposed to represent our community. Here’s our community. Where are the voices asking you for a high-rise? Where are the voices asking you to condone the selling of property that is our trust? It’s ours. You were supposed to represent us.”
Long-time resident Jeff Smith expressed security concerns. “There’s a huge amount of data that you haven’t even looked at. You haven’t looked at the structure of the building. The buildings they’re putting up now are easy to topple, and they’re easy to arson, because they’re built that way.
"There are many questions of why you’re doing this," Smith said. "What made the Brooklyn Heights Association and the whole Casino crowd roll over on this?”
He added, “You are corrupt, all of you!”
Updated July 9 to reflect final wording of three caveats, as put in writing following the meeting.