Brooklyn Heights Library Sale Sparks Renewed Debate at Borough Hall Hearing

Janaki Chadha Aug 26, 2015

On August 18, community residents, library representatives, and other advocates gathered at Brooklyn Borough Hall for a hearing on the proposed $52 million sale of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library to Hudson Companies, a real estate firm hoping to build a 36-story luxury rental development in its place. The plan, which the BPL board has already agreed to, has yet to be evaluated by Borough President Eric Adams, who held the hearing to gain feedback from the community before he offers his own take.

At the start of the hearing, representatives from Hudson Companies and Linda Johnson, head of the Brooklyn Public Library system, presented details about the project, which will include 139 units of market-rate housing in the Brooklyn Heights tower, as well as 114 units of what proponents advertise as affordable housing that will be located at a pair of sites two miles away in Clinton Hill. As part of the plan, $12 million has been promised for a new library branch on the ground floor of the proposed building, and BPL intends to put the other $40 million towards renovations for other libraries in the borough.

Johnson spoke to the crowd of more than 100 people on how she believes the public has lost sight of the realities of the development, and reasons why they should see the project as a positive change.

“What is really going on here is that the libraries need safe, good spaces that are not only warm in the winter and cool in the summer but that are inspiring,” she said. “If we want our children and our grandchildren to have the sentimental attachment to their libraries that we have for the libraries that we visited when we were children, the libraries cannot be the very same libraries that existed generations ago.”

She and other representatives from the BPL cited rising maintenance costs and a lack of funding from the city to be able to be able to properly deal with them.

“This project is not only going to build a brand new library for the Brooklyn Heights community, it’s going to raise a game-changing amount of funding for the Brooklyn Public Library system,” said David Woloch, Executive Vice President of External Affairs at BPL. “We are up against $300 million in unfunded capital needs for our 60-branch system. And we get, on average over the past few years, $15 to 20 million a year from the mayor, the city council, and the borough president, all combined.”

Testimony in support of the proposal continued on this note, with speakers citing the various lack of amenities in the Brooklyn Heights branch, such as a lack of air conditioning in the summer, and how this plan offers a solution to those issues. BPL board member and longtime Brooklyn Heights resident Hank Gutman spoke of the challenges facing libraries today and the difficulties that come along with century-old buildings transitioning into a digital world.

“It would be wonderful if the government fit the entire bill but even with generous support we’ve secured, it doesn’t come close,” he said. “And that’s why I’m here to testify in support of this proposal.” Several Brooklyn Heights branch employees spoke of the great benefits library improvements could provide. Rachel Teimann, who is a children’s librarian at the branch, expressed excitement at the prospect of a new “state of the art, 21st century” facility.

Union members from the organization Build Up NYC were also present at the hearing. In her testimony, the organization’s representative Carole Raftrey said the project could benefit the community, but only if it is done in a responsible way, urging Hudson companies to provide, “good jobs that Brooklyn residents deserve.” Hudson Companies representative David Kramer stated that while the company is more focused on local hiring in an effort to help grow the local economy, the company does “anticipate substantial number of union contractors since this is a big, complicated project.”

But many community members see the sale as emblematic of a more generally negative path the city is taking. Critics pointed out ways in which the proposal perpetuates class barriers (through affordable housing units being built away from the Brooklyn Heights building), and took issue with the very idea of public land being sold off to a private company.

Kramer offered a response to this. “There is rarely an affordable housing project that doesn’t involve the disposition of city land,” he added. But critics of the plan were not convinced, many still viewing the project as a classic example of corporate interests being put above the wellbeing of the public. Several testimonies also questioned the promises made by BPL and the developers, bringing up the fate of the Donnell Library Branch in mid-Manhattan, which NYPL sold to Orient Express Hotels in 2007 with a similar promise of a new, state-of-the art library. The site now belongs to a different company, and the replacement library has yet to be completed. As Paula Gladster stated in her testimony, “[The planned replacement] is an underground space less than one third the size of the original.”

Longtime Brooklyn Heights resident Noman Savitt expressed strong skepticism that this is the only solution to the issues facing the library.

“In the very darkest days of the city, during World War I, the Depression, World War II, the dot com crash, the financial crisis—when the city had dire and perilous problems—we still managed to hold on to and fund our Brooklyn Heights public library and other libraries,” he said. “Despite the library renovations in 1993, which cost us millions, we are told that we now cannot afford to fix a lowly air conditioner and do some very basic maintenance, maintenance that other libraries all over the city are able to do.”

But most testimonies from those opposed to the project seemed to point to a much broader disconnect, one going beyond this specific proposal to concerns about the priorities of the city as a whole. Robert Teckler, who has owned a house in Brooklyn Heights since 1966, expressed this disappointment to the crowd.

“The mayor and Brooklyn president seem to have forgotten what a library is meant to be,” he said. “[It’s] not a store to be concerned about the number of customers or sales, but a way to allow all members of the society, regardless of their income, the free chance to learn about anything.”

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