standard Further Details (and Concerns) Emerge at Heights Library Community Council Meeting

Brooklyn Coffee Roasters and Smorgasburg Named as Retail Tenants
Linda Johnson, President of the Brooklyn Public Library, answers questions at Borough Hall (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Linda Johnson, President of the Brooklyn Public Library, answers questions at Borough Hall (Photo by Matthew Taub)

A Community Advisory Council meeting Tuesday evening revealed new information about the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Public Library, along with a fresh round of criticism regarding its recently approved sale to the Hudson Companies.

The meeting, at Borough Hall, was moderated by Linda E. Johnson, President of the Brooklyn Public Library. David Kramer of the Hudson Companies and Jonathan Marvel (of Marvel Architects, which will develop the property with Hudson) were also on hand to receive questions from Council members, as well as members of the general public.

Details regarding the sale of the property were recently chronicled in the Brooklyn Eagle. On Tuesday evening, Johnson reiterated many themes of a community with shared goals.

“We all want safe, accessible, appealing, and inspiring spaces: where we can work, learn, but also just enjoy a good book,” Johnson said. “We also want something enlivening to the neighborhood–not just a library sitting by itself, but something integrated with the community.”

David Kramer of the Hudson Companies answers a questions from Doug Biviano and Michael D.D. White (Photo by Matthew Taub)

David Kramer of the Hudson Companies answers a questions from Doug Biviano and Michael D.D. White (Photo by Matthew Taub)

With pushback in the last few weeks over renderings of the property, including from the Brooklyn Heights Association, Johnson emphasized that the images released thus far were “not fixed” and “just a beginning” so that we could “start thinking about how a new building would fit on the lot.” Mr. Marvel agreed.

“We have different options,” Marvel said. “It can be a taller, more slender building, or a shorter, more wide building,” Marvel said. “Think of what we have now as scratch paper.”

Through questions and comments, a labyrinth of deadlines and details emerged. As part of the sale, Hudson will be required to embark upon a Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) within 180 days (roughly by March 2015). Construction must begin 60 days after the closing (when ULURP is completed). Our Lady of Lebanon Church must be “substantially ready” as a temporary library site before construction begins. The Hudson Companies will have 2.5 years to construct the new property, including the space for the library. All construction, including the affordable units (to be built somewhere within Community Board 2), must be completed within 3 years. Despite the sale, the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) will actually still own the parcel of the property designated as a library. If Hudson should default on its obligations, the city has the right to keep its funds while retaking the entire property.

A prerequisite before the ULURP process is an environmental assessment statement (for an environmental review). That process is expected to begin in late 2014, with the ULURP application certified by the City Planning Commission in March 2015. There will be a community input for the design of the property in early 2015, and construction will prospectively begin in 2016.

John Marvel of Marvel Architects (Photo by Matthew Taub)

John Marvel of Marvel Architects (Photo by Matthew Taub)

From the $52 million price tag, the library estimates it will only need $10 million to “fit out the library,” but it still claims only $40 million (as opposed to $42 million) in available remaining funds to be used at other libraries after the “fit out” is complete. The reason is to reserve a $2 million “cushion” in case costs are higher than expected. With 21,000 square feet, these costs are currently estimated based on projections of spending $400-$500 per square foot. The library will pay for usage of the building’s HVAC, but never for maintenance costs.

Plans were reiterated to use some of the remaining $40 million from the sale at three Carnegie Libraries (Walt Whitman, Pacific, and Washington Irving), though the full use of the funds will admittedly be decided at a later date.

“We want to build the kind of libraries our children and grandchildren will have sentimental attachment to, and that’s no small order,” Johnson said.

Photo by Matthew Taub

Photo by Matthew Taub

David Kramer from the Hudson Companies mentioned how he and Jonathan Marvel both lived a mere five blocks from the library site. He explained how the building is an “as of right” development, something which Hudson usually prefers, as opposed to seeking discretionary approvals. At the top of his list of priorities was where to place the affordable housing within Community Board 2. He also mentioned how Hudson was “very active and very familiar” with affordable inclusionary housing, which the company had completed on many similar projects in the past. Though the company prides itself on “green developments” with LEED platinum certification (and would try to replicate that on this project), they would look to produce an LEED silver building “at a minimum.”

Jonathan Marvel touched upon previous projects of his architecture company, such as the St. Ann’s Warehouse and the McCarren Pool, and the community engagement involved in those endeavors.

“I have been involved in community processes and community workshops, which were always productive and helpful,” Marvel said.

Despite their tone, the trio soon received pointed questions from the Community Advisory Council, and hostility from some members of the general public (including some library preservation groups). The flurry of speakers helped qualify some issues,  but other questioners were so irate that, amidst their badgering antics, a straight answer never emerged.

  • Was the $40 million in projected remaining funding truly to be used at other libraries, or was this a mere “soft commitment” from the city? (“We have a signed agreement with the mayor and recently firmed up every assurance that it is [a firm commitment],” Johnson said).
  • “What is the current square footage of the library in comparison to the new library?” (Johnson: “The current library has 62,000 square feet, but because of an inefficient layout, only 28,000 are accessible”).
  • Why was the “business library” moving to the Central Branch? (Johnson: “The library conducted a survey which revealed that most people who used that portion were burgeoning entrepreneurs looking for work, and they usually lived in more central Brooklyn neighborhoods”).
  • How “affordable” was the affordable housing being provided? (Johnson and Kramer: Units will be 60, 80, 100, and 165 percent of Area Median Income, but the amount of units that will be each percentile will be disclosed later).
  • Would Hudson receive any tax abatements for the affordable units? (“There are no tax abatements associated with the building of any of these units. Taxes will be paid by those who inhabit the properties from the get go. It will be a boon to the city,” Kramer said).
  • Casey Adams, on behalf of Council Member Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn), criticized the lack of coordination or space with public school programs, which were overcrowded (“That’s not our role,” Kramer responded. “It’s not in our proposal, because the EDC did not specify they wanted us to build anything like that”).
  • Could the developer later sell the property to someone else down the line? (“Technically, it’s possible,” Johnson said).
  • Were there any measures, like in Brooklyn Bridge Park, to ensure the deal would create recurring revenue to ensure continued funding? (“No, we did not consider that,” Johnson said).
  • “Where does the $300 million price tag in outstanding repairs come from? Did the person involved in creating that figure ever work for a developer?” (“They have,” Johnson said).
  • “What are the calculations, in actual amounts, for the $10 million claimed to be required to come off the $52 million price tag to fit out the library?” (“I’m not sure you’re interested in my answer,” Johnson said, reacting to the aggressive tone of the questioner–and indeed, squabbling and interruption continued that prevented a full explanation).
  • Have you publicly released the contract between the BPL and the Hudson Companies?” (“We have not,” Johnson said).

Another point of contention, initially meant to appease the public, was the fact that entrance for the library will be on Cadman Plaza, with windows and daylight on all three sides, while the residential entrance will be on Clinton Street.

The Community Advisory Council met in Borough Hall Tuesday evening (Photo by Matthew Taub)

The Community Advisory Council met in Borough Hall Tuesday evening (Photo by Matthew Taub)

“Clinton Street dies after a certain time of the evening,” Kramer said. “We’ll have an active swirl of uses there with the retail space, which is very exciting.”

Brooklyn Coffee Roasters would lease one ground floor retail space while Smorgasburg would take the other, curating a different vendor each month. The result would bring life to a “blind spot” of the area, Kramer claimed. But others were not so impressed.

“Clinton Street is a small, single lane road, and for many people, the only thoroughfare to get to the Brooklyn Bridge,” one commenter said. “Some of us don’t want it to be more ‘lively.'”

Other comments by Kramer, like the fact that Hudson “hasn’t finalized the floor height or shape” of the property and could “now shamelessly steal designs from our competitors” were potentially seen as contradicting claims by Johnson that Hudson’s proposal was “the best offer” made to develop the property, giving rise to suspicions that the process in selecting them was somehow underhanded or preordained.

Doreen Gallo, who sits on the Community Advisory Council and was critical of the development plan, complained that “while everyone is congratulating each other” the proposal was “not reflective of the community.”

“Much of this neighborhood is against a sale of the property for more housing,” Gallo said. “From Dumbo to Brooklyn Bridge Park, everything is now a development site in justification for something else we should be entitled to in the first place. There’s no infrastructure to support these new residents, and many who live here disagree that Clinton Street needs to be ‘enlivened.’ And does fixing the air conditioning really cost $9 million?”

Nonetheless, a few brave souls rose to support the development plan (over the heckling of others), and express their wishes for a more beautiful and accommodating library for themselves and their children.

Doreen Gallo (right) criticized the development plan (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Doreen Gallo (right) criticized the development plan (Photo by Matthew Taub)

One member of the Prospect Park East Network (PPEN) also attended and made a brief statement about the Hudson Companies, which was developing 626 Flatbush Avenue in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Suki Cheung criticized Hudson’s 23-story tower (currently in development) as being out of context for the neighborhood, fostering displacement, and thus being insensitive to a “community of color.”

Despite all of these concerns, Johnson repeatedly emphasized how there would be a “lengthy process for participation” as the Library Board moves forward with community workshops to make sure the new structure incorporates the desires of residents, and the needs of today and tomorrow.

“We could get very philosophical about what a library should be,” Johnson said. “There are very interesting questions in this transformative field. It’s never been as complicated and it’s never been as exciting. We need a space conducive to books, but that also embraces today’s technologies, and technologies that haven’t even been imagined yet.”
  • Heights Resident

    thanks for this article. I was at the meeting – with some very passionate speakers, I must say!
    while it’s clear everybody wants an improved library, there are many red flags and question marks about this particular project.

    not only it is predicated on the sale of a public asset (and once it is sold, it never comes back), it seems the amount they will be getting is fairly low and wont cover future gaps on BPL’s budget, meaning they will keep selling other assets until all libraries are housed in luxury condos ?

    do we have the infrastructure in the Heights to support another high-rise? there’s only one public school and we already lost the hospital (to a condo). and if I understood correctly they want to add a parking garage and retail space because the neighborhood “needs to be revitalized” (according to the developer). really? it seems pretty “vital” to me already.

    anyway, went to the meeting with an open mind but not really sure the “community” is truly behind this project. unfortunately, that prolly wont have any material impact on this decision…we are talking about real state in NYC after all.

    • marshasrimler

      It is important that local residents stand up and be counted. This is far from over despite BPL and there real estate industry trying to get us to think so. It will be stopped by either the political or judicial process. the corruption behind the deal needs to be exposed-the giving away of a public asset to private development so that there is a windfall for Mr. Kramer of Hudson properties.

    • marshasrimler

      this will be stopped

  • marshasrimler

    It was very disappointing that not one of our currently elected official including the Borough President were present. This is especially true of Councilman Levin as this is a municipal issue. This is the last piece of city owned land in Brooklyn Heights and to let a developer have it to build private codos and make very big bucks is questionable public policy when a school would be a much better use. I would like the councilman to address this issue given new populations moving here in they project, Pier 6 ,the lich site, etc etc.. I am listening but I do not hear Mr. Levin speaking

  • marshasrimler

    Linda Johnson (who is a faux Librarian) can put the bows and whistles on this.
    David Kramer can serve coffee and goodies 24×7. This is a giveaway to Mr. Kramer a friend of the Borough elite at the expense of the public. it will be defeated This is step 1 in a library to real estate plan.hatched by the real-estate dominated Brooklyn Public Library. The public know it

  • Daniel Trotta

    Linda Johnson is being completely disingenuous when she says there will be a
    “lengthy process for participation.” She helped engineer this deal behind closed doors and then foisted it on the public as a fait accompli. So not only do we have bad public policy of selling the public’s assets without the public’s consent, we also have bad government. Steve Levin needs to come out forcefully against the project.

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