City Council Approves Proposed Brooklyn Heights Library Redevelopment Plan With Modifications

Council member Stephen Levin. Image credit: William Alatriste/NYC Council

Council member Stephen Levin. Image credit: William Alatriste/NYC Council

The modified proposal provides for a larger Brooklyn Heights library branch, the construction of a new library branch, STEM education laboratories, and additional monetary incentives.  On December 16, 2015, the City Council at its stated meeting voted to approve the Department of Citywide Administrative Services’ and Brooklyn Public Library’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure application to redevelop the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.   The Council-approved version of the library redevelopment plan modifies the City Planning Commission-approved plan from November 2, 2015. (See previous CityLand coverage here.)

The City Planning Commission approved, initially, the $52 million sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch property to Hudson Companies.  In addition to building off-site affordable housing, Hudson Companies would build an on-site luxury condominium building with a brand-new, state of the art Brooklyn Heights library on its ground floor, which would be given to the BPL system for nominal consideration.  The proceeds from the sale not used on revamping the Brooklyn Heights branch would be used to attend to the $300 million in unmet capital needs throughout the BPL system.  In addition, the Business and Career Library, which is currently located at the Brooklyn Heights library, would be transferred to the BPL’s Central Library at Grand Army Plaza.

On November 18, 2015, The Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions held a public hearing following the City Planning vote, where thirty-nine people testified in favor of the proposal and thirty people testified against the proposal.  The first four speakers at the public hearing included Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson, David Kramer of Hudson Companies, Jonathan Marvel of Marvel Architects, and NYC Economic Development Corporation Real Estate Group Head Jeff Nelson, all of which testified in favor of the proposal.

BPL President Linda Johnson testified that the library as it stands today is approximately 59,000 square feet, but only offers 27,200 square feet of public space.  According to Johnson, the current space is inefficient and not large enough to house both the neighborhood branch and the  Business and Career Library. The new development plan, however, would provide only for the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood branch with approximately 18,000 publicly accessible square feet, while moving the Business and Career Library to the central branch, which is a move that the BPL has long anticipated.

Representatives of the Brooklyn Heights Association, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership spoke in favor of the proposed public-asset sale and library-redevelopment plan.  Representatives of Common Cause New York and Build Up New York City, and several local Brooklyn residents spoke in opposition to the proposed redevelopment.

Alexandra Bowie, on behalf of the Brooklyn Heights Association, testified in favor of the proposal because proceeds from the sale will provide much-needed funds to the Walt Whitman, Washington, Irving, Pacific Street, and Sunset Park branches of the Brooklyn Public Library. She was concerned, however, with the small amount of usable public space in the proposal, as well as the limited amount of affordable apartments that would be provided in the development, and believed the proposed affordable housing price range of 60–165% AMI was too high.  Additionally, the affected nearby public school is already at “140% of capacity and the addition of 139 apartments to the school zone will increase the overcrowding,” Bowie testified.

Carlo Scissura, President and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, testified in support of the proposed redevelopment for two primary reasons. First, the Chamber believes that this is “a truly innovative project,” and it is a “revolutionary” idea that the BPL system is using to help take care of some of its financial deficit.  Second, the Chamber whole-heartedly supports moving the Business and Career Library to the central branch.  President Scissura stated, “Brooklyn is a big borough.  If you really want to attract people from Eastern Brooklyn and Southern Brooklyn, Central makes the most sense.”

Tucker Reed, President of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, testified to the Partnership’s favorable position.  In addition to the anticipated renovations throughout the BPL system, the Partnership is also thrilled to see the addition of 114 affordable housing units of various sizes and for a wide range of incomes to Brooklyn Community Board 2.

Prudence Katze, research and policy manager at Common Cause New York, testified in opposition to the proposals.  Common Cause’s position is that the public-asset sale and library-redevelopment proposal were thrown together hastily and uncreatively and the BPL is not receiving enough financial compensation in exchange for its land. According to Katze, the sale of a public asset is “a short term solution for the continuing looming problem of how to maintain and strengthen our willfully underfunded library systems,” and it “sets a dangerous precedent for plugging budget holes” in the future.

Carole Raftrey, Keeshawn Labarie, and Dave Ramsey, Brooklyn residents and representatives of Build Up New York City, an alliance of over 200,000 workers in the construction, hospitality, and building-services industry, testified in opposition to the project.  Raftrey testified that Hudson Companies, the developers on the project, are paying $52 million for land with a market-value of $78 million. Labarie testified that Hudson Companies refused to commit to “using contractors who participate in state-approved training and apprenticeship programs,” and noted that such programs are necessary because they provide training to workers that “can literally be the difference between life and death.”  Further, Labarie noted that Hudson Companies refused to provide priority hiring for residents of the City. Ramsey testified primarily to his issues with the affordable housing provision of the proposed asset sale and library redevelopment because the housing will be offsite, two miles away from the new library. The primary development location will only provide luxury housing. Further, Ramsey testified that the affordable housing provided would be predominantly studio and one-bedroom apartments, while the Brooklyn borough is in need of real affordable units to house families, instead.

Several long-time local residents testified in opposition to the proposal.  One of their main points of contention with the proposal was the high price tag put upon the affordable housing units.  Several local residents testified that the library had just undergone a redevelopment and expansion in 1993, and that the Brooklyn Heights library’s status as the branch with the highest user-frequency in the BPL system indicates that it is perfectly suitable for public usage, as it exists today, and need not be sold in substantial part to make a profit.  Additionally, several local residents testified that the Brooklyn Heights library branch is important as a historic piece of architecture that should be preserved rather than destroyed.

On December 10, 2015, after negotiations, the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions voted unanimously in favor of a modified proposal. The modified proposal provides for more publicly accessible square footage in the new Brooklyn Heights branch, the development of an additional, new BPL branch off-site, STEM educational programming for local public school students, and lower-priced affordable housing.

At the meeting, Council member Stephen Levin, who represents Brooklyn Heights, described the extensive modifications made to the proposal and voiced his support in favor of the proposed public-asset sale and library-redevelopment plan as modified.  Council member Levin began by describing the current state of significant financial despair facing the Brooklyn Public Library system as a whole, and explained that these financial needs need to be dealt with immediately.  The City owns the air rights above the Brooklyn Heights library branch, but it is unable to use them.  The only way the City can benefit from these air rights is by selling them.

The modified proposal is the product of extensive negotiations and community feedback, and includes several key additions. The new Brooklyn Heights library branch will be larger than originally proposed by more than 5,000 square feet and will be the most robust library in the entire Brooklyn Public Library system. The Brooklyn Heights library branch will be open for patron-usage seven days a week.

In addition to a new Brooklyn Heights library branch, a new, 5,000 square-foot library branch will be constructed to serve the neighborhoods of DUMBO, Farragut, and Vinegar Hill. This library branch will also maintain operations seven days a week.

Nine thousand square feet of the new Brooklyn Heights library branch will be set aside for use exclusively as STEM education laboratories with programming provided by the Department of Education for students located in Brooklyn Community School District 13.  According to Council member Levin, this STEM lab program will be the first to open in New York City.  Additionally, the developer entered into a profit-sharing agreement with the Brooklyn Public Library that will exist in perpetuity, which requires the development to give the BPL system a percentage of the annually earned income that is in excess of a set amount. Further, the affordable housing will be available for AMIs that are no higher than 125%, in contrast to the originally-proposed high of 165% AMI.

The Land Use Committee also voted to approve the proposed redevelopment plan with the modifications at its meeting on December 10th, 2015, where seventeen Council members voted in favor, Council members Jumaane Williams and Inez Barron voted against, and Council member Rosie Mendez abstained.  At the City Council’s stated meeting on December 16, 2015, forty-five Council members voted in favor, Council members Robert Cornegy Jr., Mendez, and Williams abstained, and Council member Chaim Deutsch was the lone vote against the proposal.  The application will now return to the Brooklyn Borough Board on February 2, 2016 for further review.

City Council: LU 0301-2015, 0302-2015 (Dec. 16, 2015).

By: Jessica Soultanian-Braunstein (Jessica is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School graduate, Class of 2015)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.