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LIBRARY SHAKEUP: Business library quits Downtown; questions shroud future of Brooklyn Heights branch, Carnegie libraries

The Brooklyn business library and Brooklyn Heights branch will abandon this building at 280 Cadman Plaza West. The site may be developed. Eagle photo by Bob Scott

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Brooklyn's business library will abandon the borough's Downtown business district, the adjacent Brooklyn Heights branch will be temporarily relocated, and the building they share may be sold to a developer, a library spokesperson confirmed to the Brooklyn Eagle on Tuesday evening.

As part of a systemwide shakeup, the Brooklyn Public Library is also prepared to move, downsize or consolidate an undetermined number of branches that it considers underutilized, with the system shifting from books to digital media and services. BPL has 60 locations, including 18 Carnegie branches that date to a 1901 grant by the industrialist; the fate of some of those Carnegie branches are on the line, according to published reports.

As BrooklynEagle.com was reporting the BPL's plans on Tuesday, library spokesperson Jason Carey emailed this statement to the Eagle:

"The Brooklyn Heights/Business Library branch has become extremely costly to maintain and difficult to operate — in fact, last summer we were forced to close the branch entirely or early on 30 different days [because of a broken air conditioning system]. All told the branch is in need of approximately $9 million for repairs, funding we do not currently have given our limited capital budget for work throughout the borough.

"Accordingly, we are considering whether it would make sense to work with a developer on a project that would include a new library at this location.

"Any project would involve an interim service location during construction.

"We are just beginning to chart a path forward with the community and look forward to working with local stakeholders as we go forward."

A library insider speculated that the city-owned two-story library building — distinguished by exterior Art Deco style reliefs — would likely be sold by 2017 "to a developer who will put a library on the first floor."

The issues arising from these plans were to be discussed on Tuesday night, at a private meeting among system officials.

• • •

The Business & Career Library, which would move to BPL Central at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Heights, has been viewed as an important resource to Brooklyn's Downtown commercial and legal communities that are within walking distance, as well as to the professional residents of Brooklyn Heights where it is located. Plans to move the library, not previously discussed publicly, were buried in a 17-page “Plan of Service" for 2012-2016. 

The Plan says the business branch will become a “24/7 resource through the use of online training, guides and other web-based initiatives, with BPL Central staff delivering services to job seekers and entrepreneurs.

Two Brooklyn Heights area leaders suggested to the Brooklyn Eagle on Tuesday that they were perplexed by the BPL's plans.

"This is the third largest business district in the city," said Judy Stanton, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association. "It seems odd to move the business library further away."

The branch gets "a lot of customers and runs a lot of programs," a library insider said. "Why would anybody go to Prospect Heights? They work here — all of Court Street, the real estate people, banks. Eastern Parkway is a residential area."

Even BPL itself boasts online about the business library’s current Downtown location, “the borough’s business, financial and civic district.”

The business and Brooklyn Heights libraries share a building at 280 Cadman Plaza West, between Tillary and Pierrepont streets.

• • •

BPL President and CEO Linda Johnson told the Wall Street Journal that $230 million in deferred maintenance throughout the system is an "albatross around our neck."

"It's bad," Johnson said. "The condition in our libraries varies from mediocre to poor."

To the extent that branches are closed instead of repaired, some of that liability would evaporate.

Johnson told the Journal that some library real estate could be sold or leased to developers, although she declined to elaborate. Revenue from real estate deals might be directed to branch relocation or digital expansion.

The Brooklyn Heights branch, adjacent to the 19-story One Pierrepont Plaza, sits on one of the few available development sites in Brooklyn Heights and is outside the restrictive Brooklyn Heights Historic District.

The Business Library predates the Brooklyn Public Library system, opening on Atlantic Avenue in 1852 (as the Brooklyn Athenaeum) and moving to Montague Street (as the Mercantile Library) soon after. It moved into the present “Modern-style” building in 1962. The current building was renovated and expanded in 1993.

According to findthedata.org, the property as it stands (the building is 30,396 square feet) has a current market value of $12,154,000.

• • •

The Brooklyn Public Library is facing enormous budget pressures.

At an executive budget hearing of the City Council in May, 2012, Johnson said that since fiscal year 2008, Mayor Bloomberg’s budget cuts resulted in the elimination of approximately 20 percent of the library’s city appropriation, or roughly $15 million.

“Since FY2008, our workforce has been reduced by 170 positions through attrition. Moreover … we have not hired a new librarian using general operating money since November 2008,” Johnson testified.

On top of these cuts, Mayor Bloomberg proposed last year to eliminate one-third of the library’s entire operating budget in 2013 — but after a blitz of petitions, letters and support from Brooklyn City Council members — almost all of those cuts were restored in June.

Meanwhile, library use has been soaring, with circulation up 77 percent and attendance up 41 percent, from 2002 to 2011.

Despite budgetary pressures, Johnson said in June, BPL has continued to improve its services.

• • •

On Tuesday morning, the library opened its new Leon Levy Information Commons at the BPL Central, which includes 25 computer workstations, seating for 70 laptop users, a wireless learning lab, conference rooms with electronic whiteboards, a 36-seat classroom, and a digital recording studio. Programs on digital photography, podcasting, video production will be offered by BRIC Arts | Media | Bklyn.

The library said that the Information Commons is the cornerstone of its efforts to advance “digital literacy and engagement” across the borough. The library sees the Commons as being “a vibrant workspace for Brooklyn’s creative and freelancer communities.” Computers will include software for web design and video editing and other digital research tools.

The Plan of Service says the system will work to open underutilized space at its Red Hook and Williamsburg branches to dance, theatrical and arts organizations, by working with the city’s SpaceWorks initiative. The second floor of the Williamsburg branch, for example, will be used to provide rentable mid-sized artist studios.

Other goals mentioned in the Plan include updating children’s spaces and creating dedicated teen spaces at all 60 locations, as well as creating a new teen space at the Central Library; and improvements to broadband access at all locations.

A version of this article was originally posted on Tuesday, Jan. 15

January 16, 2013 - 10:00am


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