Unruly crowd challenges library officials at Thursday presentation
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
It was rough sledding Thursday night for Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) officials as they presented seven proposals to re-develop the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library.
Even before Josh Nachowitz, BPL’s VP of Government and Community Relations and Richard Reyes-Gavilan, BPL’s Chief Librarian ran through a Powerpoint with project renderings and details, opponents peppered them with catcalls and angry comments.
“These plans are covering up the slumlord aspect of what the Library did to this building,” audience member Marsha Rimler called out.
“Why won’t you reveal the developers’ names?” others shouted.
Opponents say the city is selling off public assets like libraries for the benefit of private developers, and that “the fix is in.”
“Any accusation that the process is rigged is completely and totally inaccurate,” Nachowitz said. He noted more than 40 hours of public meetings to date, and the process is still in the early stage. “If the fix was in we wouldn’t be here tonight.”
Board treasurer Peter Ashkenazy, who was appointed to the proposal selection committee to represent the public, told the crowd it was counterproductive to start booing before seeing the proposals. The project’s “scrutiny and attention to detail is very impressive,” he said. “It’s a serious process that will result in a better library.”
BPL issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the city-owned site at 280 Cadman Plaza West in June. After years of budget cuts, the sale of the Heights’ property is intended to generate capital funds that help address $300 million in deferred maintenance in all 60 deteriorating libraries across the borough, BPL says.
Nachowitz said the project’s goals include rebuilding a branch library of at least 20,000 square feet, larger than the 15,000 usable square feet at the branch portion of the current library, excluding the Business Library, which is moving to the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza.
The Business Library’s move also angers some users, who say business is booming in Downtown Brooklyn, and access to the Central Library is limited, especially for the handicapped.
Nachowitz said one of the criteria for choosing a developer was the “demonstrated capacity to develop a project of this size and complexity.” He added that BPL had to balance the goal of getting the “best possible library space” with the goal of “maximizing the purchase price.”
The response has been “very robust” Nachowitz said. “It is one of the most competitive RFPs issued by the EDC.”
The seven finalists represent a range of square footage, height and design features. All include towers that are, on average, roughly the same height as 1 Pierrepont Plaza next door, though at least one is taller and narrower. While most of the proposals offer 20,000 square feet of library space, one offers 31,192 square feet.
A number of the proposals include some retail on the ground floor, and several include rooftop gardens accessible by library patrons.
All of the proposals, labeled A through G, include an affordable housing component “to some degree,” though not necessarily in the immediate neighborhood, and all address an interim library space.
“We hope to sign a contract in the first quarter of 2014,” Nachowitz said. The financial terms vary but are “all competitive,” he said, adding that the library is not revealing terms yet because “that would harm our negotiating position. All provide additional capital funding for libraries throughout the borough.”
The developer would create a condo (with one ground-floor level and one below-ground level) and sell it back to the city for $1. “It will be city-owned real estate,” Nachowitz said.
None of the proposals involve developers buying air rights from a third party, he said. “The zoning is as of right, as we’ve said from Day 1.” He later elaborated that one of the proposals “contemplates a relationship with Saint Ann’s,” which shares the zoning block, but “not with Forest City Ratner,” which owns 1 Pierrepont, part of the same zoning block.
A library insider told the Brooklyn Eagle that Forest City Ratner was “not one of the respondents” to the RFP.
Some members of the audience offered constructive criticism. Resident Quinn Raymond, who said his wife was a frequent user of the library, offered “general support with a lot of caveats.”
“We need a new library,” he said. “A tremendous amount of capital infrastructure needs repairs, but there’s no budget. This would fund library projects in other neighborhoods.”
Raymond added, however, that the mandatory parking minimum was an unnecessary waste of space, “with nine subway lines” servicing the area. He suggested fighting to get rid of the extra parking spaces and instead use that space for the library.
Perry-Lynn Moffitt suggested harvesting a stream of income from the real estate’s increasing value, an idea that Nachowitz said had merit. (See her comment below this story.)
Long-time resident Justine Swartz warned that digging deep down into the site could lead to environmental disaster. “According to ‘Old Brooklyn Heights – New York’s First Suburb,’ by Clay Lancaster, Brooklyn Heights lies on top of a maze of 200-year-old clay, tile and concrete sewer pipes,” she said. “You spoke about height, but you didn’t speak about depth. Pile driving can be felt a thousand feet away. What safeguards do we have?”
Nachowitz said that the eventual developer would have to investigate subsurface decisions, but that the site was not unique. “Our development partner must have experience working in New York City.”
Michael White, author of the Noticing New York blog asserted that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed with the city specifying that money raised by the sale would go to BPL (as opposed to the city’s general fund) “is not enforceable.”
“We’ll be having conversations with the new budget director,” Nachowitz said. “We’ll make sure the MOU is honored. If the MOU is not honored by the new administration, the board of the Library will not enter into the transaction.”
Nachowitz also said that a “reversion clause” would allow the city to “recapture” the real estate if the developer failed to build out according to the time line.
Both Nachowitz and Reyes-Gavilan emphasized repeatedly that the process of designing a new library was not yet done. “It’s very early in the process,” Nachowitz said. “We’re trying to be very transparent. What we’re doing is not what the city usually does – showing up at a meeting and saying, ‘This is it.’ This is a preliminary look. The renderings can always change.”
Reyes-Gavilan told reporters, “Because of the controversy, we’re losing sight of the basic goal – to create a spectacular, relevant library.” He said that the new branch would become a “destination” in Northwest Brooklyn. “We hope to keep it open seven days a week if we have stable operating dollars.”
The Community Advisory Committee meeting took place in the library’s auditorium under the auspices of The Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library. Deborah Hallen, President of FBHBL, said that BPL would accept comments via email at: BrooklynHeightsProject@brooklynpubliclibrary.org
BPL said full details of the seven proposals would be posted on Friday at: http://www.bklynpubliclibrary.org/brooklyn-heights-project
Updated at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 13 to correct a name spelling.