BHB spoke recently with Borough President Eric Adams, Alexandra Bowie, President of the Brooklyn Heights Association, Emma Woods, spokeswoman for the Brooklyn Public Library and Michael White of the Brooklyn Heights-based public watchdog Citizens Defending Libraries regarding the proposed sale to developers of the BPL branch at Cadman Plaza.
At a reporters’ roundtable attended by the BHB last Wednesday, October 23, Borough President Adams—who as a candidate pledged to oppose any library sale—addressed the library issue head-on, admitting that “It’s a complicated conversation,” but adding, “I am opposed to selling off any public space. Once you sell it off, you can’t get it back.”
Adams suggested a series of conversations with all interested parties to arrive at a “better understanding of what is the real dollar amount we’re dealing with in capital expense” and to determine a “pathway to address some of the capital issues we have beyond the [BPL] system.”
Ms. Woods of Berlin Rosen, speaking for the BPL, emphasized in an e-mail response that the financial challenges facing the library are indeed daunting.
“With $300 million needed for system-wide maintenance and $82 million needed for emergency infrastructure repairs, Brooklyn Public Library is facing a deferred maintenance crisis that is impacting every neighborhood in the borough,” Woods wrote. “At Brooklyn Heights, one of the highest-need branches, we are simply unable to deliver the level of service the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood deserves.”
But Citizens Defending Libraries, a vocal opponent of the proposed sale, believes that the BPL has inflated the Brooklyn Heights’ library’s deferred capital maintenance cost, which has been pegged at $9.2 million, including an estimated $3.5-$4.5 million for a new HVAC system.
Michael D.D. White, co-founder of CDL with his wife, Carolyn McIntyre, said last Monday that “the fact that they [BPL’s capital needs] are greatly exaggerated right now as an excuse to sell libraries means that the amount of money we are looking to spend is a lot less than the BPL is saying.” According to White, accessing public funds, not liquidating prized assets, is the better way to alleviate the BPL’s financial challenges: “There is money currently available in the city budget to be re-allocated for fixing and improving our city libraries.”
Referring to the Central Library Plan for the New York Public Library’s main branch, Mr. White identified that $350 million dollars—including $150 million from the city—has been proposed to fold the Mid-Manhattan and the Science, Industry and Business libraries into the iconic 42nd Street branch. White suggested the NYPL abandon this plan and instead use available city money to “benefit branches throughout New York City” including Brooklyn.
Averring that libraries “cost virtually nothing to fund—between 0.5 and 1 percent period [of the overall city budget],” White believes that the Mayor, the NYC City Council and local community boards will sustain public libraries because of the vital services they provide.
Indeed, at his roundtable last week, Borough President Adams stated that $1.5 million from the 2014 – 15 Brooklyn Borough President’s budget is earmarked for the BPL, the largest single allocation of capital funding.
But Adams stressed that “The library at Cadman Plaza is not an individual library, it’s part of the BPL. …[W]hen you have an urgent capital need, you have to come up with a plan as to how to address that need. …[H]ow do you sell off assets that have a larger dollar value?”
Alexandra Bowie of the Brooklyn Heights Association emphasized that the BHA is committed to “fighting to get the best building and best library possible for the neighborhood.” Last year the BHA issued a public statement, in which its board conditionally supported the sale of the site—a position that has generated much discussion in the blogsphere.
Ms. Bowie said by e-mail, “We do not know whether the project will go forward and whether a new building will be built. At the BHA, we feel that we will better serve the community if we stay at the table to negotiate with the BPL…” She insisted that the strategy is yielding results: “We have already achieved success with this approach: the proposed new library is bigger than when the BPL started, and the BPL has committed to providing interim service throughout the construction period.”
According to Emma Woods, the BPL spokeswoman, the library is sensitive to an issue that has polarized local residents. “We look forward to continuing our robust public dialogue, including ongoing meetings with the Community Advisory Committee, all in advance of the City’s full land use review process,” Ms. Woods said last week. “Working with the City and a development partner, we can build a brand new branch, and raise money to address some of the Library’s overwhelming needs in other neighborhoods.”
When questioned if Citizens Defending Libraries would bow to consensus if it were determined that the library site would be sold, Mr. White responded that “we would be trying to shape the public benefit moving forward, [and] we would…be looking to shed light on what’s happened.” White referenced the fate of the Donnell Library Center, a heavily utilized branch of the NYPL that was demolished in 2009 to make way for a 46-story $400 million hotel/condo complex.
“We are still calling for an investigation [into the Donnell sale] and we are still calling for a library of comparable size and stature to be returned to that area,” White maintained, “even though that involves expense that wouldn’t be necessary had it not been destroyed in the first place.”
CORRECTION: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ office clarified on May 1 that for the first half of the 2015 fiscal year there will be a total of $15 million dollars in the Borough President’s budget for capital allocations. Of that total, $1.5 million will be allocated for capital repairs at the Brooklyn Public Library. The story as originally posted erroneously stated that $15 million would be allocated to the BPL.