BPL’s Nachowitz, Skrodelis and Woloch Discuss Brooklyn Heights Library Plans

The BHB recently sat down with senior management of the Brooklyn Public Library to discuss how plans to sell the site of the Brooklyn Heights branch library to an as yet unnamed developer are evolving amid many variables, not the least of which is community concern about the project’s impact on its Cadman Plaza neighborhood.

In an hour-long discussion at BPL’s Cadman Plaza location, Josh Nachowitz, Vice President of Government and Community Relations; David Woloch, Executive Vice President for External Affairs; and Uldis Skrodelis, Brooklyn Heights Branch Manager, spoke about what’s at stake as BPL prepares to move forward on an ambitious, but controversial, plan to remake its Brooklyn Heights location into a signature destination.

In Mr. Skrodelis’ cozy office on the branch’s second floor, the three spoke about BPL’s discouraging current fiscal situation: a $300 million dollar capital infrastructure deficit—including $82 million in immediate repairs—that threatens BPL’s long-term stability; and they expressed why they believe it’s essential that BPL sell one of the organization’s land holdings in order to aggressively confront the situation.

According to Nachowitz, who plays a lead role in the BPL’s development process, the Brooklyn Heights branch situation offers a unique opportunity to think in fresh ways about libraries in city spaces.

“[It’s] a departure from the way BPL, NYPL and other big urban libraries have built libraries in the past,” said Nachowitz, “where you have a cookie-cutter idea of this amount of square footage for shelves and X-Y-Z amount of square footage for staff space and this formula of square footage for reading areas.”

We want to break that mold and take advantage of the fact that this is going to be the first and probably the only library that we are considering—given our budgetary situation—building brand-new, from the ground up, anywhere in Brooklyn.”

BPL willingness to meet with the BHB may well reflect the organization’s concern following the New York Public Library’s decision to abandon its controversial Central Library Plan. The failure of the CLP, scuttled due to spiraling costs as well as a determined opposition, focuses speculation on the BPL’s decision to proceed with the sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch location, a decision that has antagonized some Brooklyn Heights residents.

Now that the CLP has been abandoned, $150 million dollars earmarked for the project by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will be allocated by the NYPL for other purposes.

Asked if BPL intended to make a play for this money, Nachowitz responded: “[If T]here’s money that’s been appropriated to the New York Public Library through the budget process, the Brooklyn Public Library institutionally would no more publicly request …that money for us then NYPL or the Queens Library would make a request that any money that’s appropriated to the Brooklyn Library be re-appropriated to them.

In response to a suggestion that Borough President Eric Adams ask for these funds on BPL’s behalf, Nachowitz replied: “If other institutional actors want to pursue that, then that’s their choice.”

Despite community concern about exactly how much the BPL will benefit from selling the site for development as a high-rise residential tower, both Woloch and Nachowitz were emphatic that the Library’s plan will not only be successful, but will ultimately be embraced by local residents as the best possible solution.

“There are two paths here,” explained Woloch. “There’s the path that we’ve proposed to have a new library in a new building on the site. The other path is that we fix this building with $10 million in capital needs which we don’t have. Let’s say that somebody tomorrow wrote a check: ‘Here’s your $10 million, go ahead.’”

That $10 million dollar figure is purely for infrastructure and the building envelope—it doesn’t include any interior renovations. So if we went down that route that will be $10 million dollars put into the infrastructure of this building, it would be closed for a minimum of two years, and when the doors re-opened it would look exactly the same as it does right now.“

Nachowitz was upbeat about just how beneficial the sale will be for BPL. “The way we’re structuring the deal…, we will get whatever the purchase price is agreed upon. [W]e get 100% of that price in capital dollars from the city. The library will use that money to pay for all the interior work, things like buying a new collection, buy new furniture, the floors, computer systems, the interior demising walls, setting up where the meeting rooms will be, the auditorium space.”

As part of the project the developer will give us, free of charge, the core and shell. [W]hich is a big deal—so…we’ll share the mechanical system with the building so that all of the plumbing and the piping will come from the developer, which is a significant cost, several million dollars. The developer is required to create a condominium regime,…an expensive legal process, and then transfer the condominium to the city for a dollar.”

The developer will also pay 100% of the costs to lease and outfit the interim space, providing BPL with a temporary library of between five and ten thousand square feet within half a mile of the present building.

The discussion ranged over the BPL’s process for vetting purchasers, the problems associated with relocating the branch for a number of years, and what the community might expect with regard to voicing opinions on a project that will have major impact in the neighborhood.

“It’s been clear from day one: this is a political process,” Nachowitz said about selling the site and building, both of which are owned by the city. “We have tried to go out of our way to be as transparent as possible through forming a CAC [Community Advisory Committee] very early in the process. When we first started discussing this six months before we even released the RFP, we began having community meetings that were open to the public and well attended by a lot of vocal opponents of the project.”

Once the sale is approved and a temporary location secured—by the developer—the project then goes to ULURP [Universal Land Use Review Procedure], the city’s process for approving major land use decisions. According to Nachowitz, ULURP involves reviews by the community board, the borough president, the city council, the city planning commission and ultimately the Mayor, providing the community ample opportunity to vet the BPL’s decision.

“It’s a six to seven month process, there are public hearings, the community board typically holds at least two or three public hearings, the borough president—at least Marty Markowitz’s policy was always to hold a full public session in the evening of any project that was going through ULURP [and] I would hope that Eric Adams will uphold that tradition—there is ample opportunity for him to weigh in.

This [can] be an iterative process with all the stakeholders and all the elected officials to come up with a project that reflects the community’s needs and desires and build a much better library for the future.”

Of particular interest was the the Library’s response to the question of what may happen if there is continued community opposition. Nachowitz—an old hand at these issues given his ten years working for the Economic Development Corporation in the Bloomberg administrations—was confident that there can be a productive dialogue about a project that embodies the BPL’s future.

“[T]he library is a part of this community. We don’t view ourselves as an alien institution coming in here. Uldis [Skrodelis, Brooklyn Heights Branch Manager] is here every day, the library is here every day. We want to be here as a part of this community and as essential to the fabric of this neighborhood as long as we possibly can.

PHOTO: David Woloch, Josh Nachowitz and Uldis Skrodelis at the Brooklyn Heights branch of the BPL

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  • Karl Junkersfeld

    Excellent article Michael. It will really be great to have a 21st century library in the neighborhood. The last 3 times I researched a book about Brooklyn history that was suppose to be located in the Cadman Plaza Library, it wasn’t there and it was a reference book. They never have the book I want. Never. Also, I am tired of traveling to the Manhattan Battery Park branch to hang out and read a book. Unfortunately for me, aesthetics are part of the library experience and Cadman Plaza has none. It is depressing walking in there. I’m sure the new library will be comparable to the Battery Park Library in appearance and maybe have iPads available instead on clunky old laptops taking up unnecessary space. Again, it is the 21st century.

  • marshasrimler

    If they persist in this ill advised plan.. we will see them in court
    This plan will go down and we will get a newly refurbished library.

  • Michael D. D. White

    Wow! Every time you waive at the BPL the possibility of the Brooklyn Heights Library getting some money to effect repairs at the Brooklyn Heights Library they want to waive away the possibility by again jacking up the cost of “repairs” they say are needed. Now, in this article, spokesperson Nachowitz jacks up still further the last projected cost of repairs that once began down in the hundreds of thousands to exceed the last previous inflated BPL estimate of $10 million. How does he do that? By what mysterious magic does he attempt to inflate again? He says that previous inflated estimate didn’t include “any interior renovations.” God love Mr. Nachowitz for consistently delivering quotable absurdities, what can truly be called “money quotes” in every sense of that phrase!

    And now the purported reason to sell and shrink this central library is to buy “new furniture”? This is where the heads are at of the people we are entrusting with our precious public assets? Besides, what’s wrong with “the floors” of the current library that it would be worth selling, demolishing and shrinking a entire central library to get “new” floors?

    As for “buying a new collection”: Don’t hold you breath if the current BPL administration crew stays in charge. What happened to the old collection? Ask the librarians where the books went, whether those books have been emptied out as part of the real estate sell-off plans, and you can watch them shed silent tears of acknowledgment.

    The developer will give us “the core and shell” as part of the project “free of charge”? says the upbeat Mr. Nachowitz? Ain’t nothing being be offered for free here. And `absolutely free’ is the oldest huckster sales pitch there is. Does the public also get a set of “free steak knives”? If you believe Nackowitz saying this stuff is for “free” you’ll also likely buy his proffered idea that it is somehow assured that money from a library sale and shrinkage would go to the library, something else that just ain’t so (as Nachowitz has previously admitted).

    In that same spirit of hucksterism Mr. Nachowitz touts that CAC (Community Advisory Committee) as being a transparent process? Would that be the same CAC that was chaired by Ms. Hallen from the “Friends” group who says that it is absolutely NOT within her power to oppose the sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library or do anything that is in the least way oppositional to the will and desires of the BPL? The same CAC group where the Brooklyn Heights Association was similarly featured already condoning the sale and shrinkage of the library and saying they were there to follow the lead of Hallen’s small Friends group. Transparent? Hogwash and eyewash!

    Nachowitz suggests this should “be an iterative process”? That means he wants a process wherein each new iterative frame is successively constrained within the boundaries dictating the sales and shrinkage program the Bloomberg administration launched with a deliberate underfunding of libraries at a time of greatly increasing use.

    How does Nachowitz tap dance to describe shrinkage?: It’s getting rid of “a cookie-cutter idea of this amount of square footage” and “space” needed for a library. Because, says Nachowtiz if space can be used `flexibly’ for several things at the same time the public can get by with LESS space. But that means, among other things, that you have to eliminate the quiet spaces in libraries, that they will no longer be quiet as everything happens all together on top of everything else. Read about the idea of tiny “flexible” libraries here: Thursday, April 25, 2013, Building a “Murphy Library.”

    http://noticingnewyork.blogspot.com/2013/04/building-murphy-library.html

    This is a very good article that shows just how insidiously untrustworthy the BPL’s rhetoric is.

  • Daniel Trotta

    The real problem is Linda E. Johnson. She obviously hates her job and has contempt for the public and should just leave. Nachowitz at least has some social skills, but he is her lap dog. Stringer can’t audit these tools of the developers soon enough.

  • Michael D. D. White

    Karl,

    If your are really so into aesthetics, let me sell your apartment for you and in a few years I’ll give you a new much smaller one with some great aesthetics, I can do some new paneled surfaces, windexed glass (not too much underground space), all new furniture, new floor surfaces (how would you like bamboo?). . . . AND I will throw in a free new computer, whatever they are selling four or five years from now, nothing “clunky”- We’ll take good care of you. Heck, at the price iPads and laptops will selling for by then I bet I can give you two computers, both sleek 21st century little babies.

    You’ll love your flexible little Junkersfeld home and new computers so much you might never think about going out to the library again.

  • Name

    What a sad, sad life.

  • Justine Swartz

    The majority of CAC members are opposed to the Selloff of Cadman Plaza Library. The community of Brooklyn Heights residents as shown by polls and petitions are against this betrayal of public trust.

  • Carlotta

    I recall a state assemblyman saying that developers of his library paid for the space to be built out as determined by the library’s architect. How come Nachowitz is sooo excited to get “free space” from the developers? If this plan goes through, I believe this community will be sorely disappointed in their new library and even more disappointed in a giant structure looming over their neighborhood.

  • Reggie

    Feel free to not turn that card over, but what would be the grounds for your lawsuit?

  • District 13 parent

    I hate to say it. I think they should start over and invite community input. One of the reasons this has been so poorly received is that it was presented to the public as a fait accompli. Why don’t they ask what we want? Why not give the public some reassurance that the library matters as much if not more than the profits of the developers? Why don’t they study what works well at the branch? I actually don’t want a signature destination. I want a library full of books. The only reason I use the computer is for the card catalog. And I want lots of light coming in through windows, not a sub-basement experience. I don’t want to hear about destination spaces; I want to hear about places where people can come to find books. Which, needless to say, should include the same superb children’s space that the current branch holds–but a wonderful reading room for adults as well. And an auditorium. And bathrooms that are not disgusting. Too much to ask? I hope not!

  • Carlotta

    I wonder if Mr. Skrodelis can see in the dark. Or are bulbs going the way of books at the Cadman Branch?

  • library patron

    Marsha is right. Legal action is the way to get the results.

  • Lucy Koteeen

    Can you count the talking points in this article from Mr. Nachowitz all put together by the expensive PR company they hire. If they stopped hiring expensive PR and lobbying companies there would be money for libraries. Throw in these hire priced vampires like Nachowitz and Marx ($781,000 — including housing, tuition and other compensation) and you got whole lot more dough.

    And what is this position Vice President of Government and Community Relations? Does that mean the guy who works to sell real estate? If he is in charge of community relations, he should be immediately fired. Community relations with the actual community, the library reading community, as opposed to the real estate community, could not be worse. The first step is to get rid of all this baggage like Nachowitz and the lobbyiests and PR flacks like Joni Yoswein’s company and give that money over to take care of the capital needs of the libraries. There must be millions tied up there.

    And for goodness sake-the cost of repairs has escalated from $350,000 to $11 million and now throw in new furniture that no one asked for.

    Do you recognize these talking point words: cookie-cutter, unique ideas,signature destination, break the mold, aggressively confront the situation, long-term stability, building brand-new, from the ground up, productive dialogue, institutional actors, TO NAME A FEW TALKING POINTS.

    Remember that the NYPL just wasted at least $18 MILLION dollars on a plan they just scrapped. How much has the BPL wasted so far on a plan that the community does not want and does not need all to service (read pimp) for the real estate industry.

  • marshasrimler

    thats right insult people when you have no answers

  • marshasrimler

    that is not for discussion in this venue

  • Reggie

    Of course. That said, I doubt you have any.

  • Nabey

    Something doesn’t add up here – $10M is a lot of construction. And all the furniture in that place can’t be worth more than $10k.

    I’m not buying the smoke and mirrors that we would close up the branch for 2 years to “fix the infrastructure” and not be able to manage replacing a couple chairs and computers.

    If you’re worth your salt, you could find some furniture bargains and organizations willing to donate a couple computers (if you were Really that hard up for the cash). Unless you just didn’t want to.

    I can’t be the only person who smells something funny

  • marshasrimler

    wrong

  • Neighborhood mom

    I couldn’t agree with Karl more. The current library is not what the people of Brooklyn deserve. It is outdated, not well maintained, and unattractive. They frequently don’t have the books we are looking for, and the children’s space, while large, is poorly kept and largely a place where children’s caregivers sit around talking while the kids are ignored and consequently wander around aimlessly or are plunked down in front of the computers to play games (and by the way–aren’t libraries supposed to be about reading and literacy, especially for our youngest?). If you were to close your eyes and envision the library of your dreams, this would not be it. Not even close. So let’s suspend disbelief and cynicism and work constructively–through dialogue rather than strident attacks– to encourage the creation of a library that all of us booklovers can love.

  • Justine Swartz

    You are right! Let’s spend the money and recreate Cadman Plaza library that is bursting with books, engaged
    librarians, and a welcoming decor. Let’s fix the air-conditioner and heating system.
    We don’t want a 55 storied condominium with a segregated dreary library, in the basement.

  • marshasrimler

    yes.. the current library has been purposely allowed to decline due to the BPL slumlords..we can refurbish it without giving away public assests

  • Ruth Eiss

    That’s a good idea, Michael. We moderns need not be constrained by old ideas of space. I hear the Queen of England is having trouble paying the rent on HER property. Why not set her up in a nice, state of the art trailer with all the amenities! This innovative approach could be replicated globally.

  • Ruth Eiss

    HOW MUCH, INDEED?

  • Ruth Eiss

    I want to be able to go to Rachel (the librarian in the children’s library) to find books to interest a child in reading. I want to know that the newly formed books for prisoner program will continue. Enough skulduggery and chicanery.

  • Andrew Porter

    My chief concern about the replacement is that another enormous building will be constructed, literally across the street from the BH Historic District. Slowly the BH Landmarked area is being surrounded by giant high-rises which cut off sunlight and increase the strain on the neighborhood’s infrastructure. Look what is happening on Montague and Remsen, just outside the height restrictions that Landmarking affords BH, not to mention downtown Brooklyn, DUMBO, and the area east of Court Street.

  • concerned brooklyn resident

    yes, it would be great to get extra funds in order to repair the library and add more books and upgrade computer systems. but selling it is not the solution!
    a couple of points:
    1st) – once the property is in private hands, there´s no guarantee the new owner of the property will fulfill its obligations. really, there´s never a guarantee. the city and the citizens are no longer the owners of the building
    2nd) – it will take years, almost 10 in the case of Donnell Branch in mid-town Manhattan for a “brand, new, sleek” library – that looks more like a na Apple store with no librarians, to open. (actually, Donnell has yet to open)
    3rd)- even if BPL sells this one, it wont address their $300m funding gap, so will they sell another? and another? and another? until they sell everything?
    4th) I have been paying taxes for years in Bkn Heights that go in part to fund these branches to see my money susidize luxury housing intead (through the tax abatements the developers will pass to the new condo residents)? no way, sorry.
    Im with the reader who said the president of BPL is failing on her fiduciary duties to protect these branches and fight for funding.

  • Michael D. D. White

    Let me read back from the points above and see if I get am getting it right:

    * NOT MAINTAINING A LIBRARY can be cited as a suitable reason to sell and shrink it.
    * EMPTYING A LIBRARY OF BOOKS (preparatory to a sale) can be cited as a reason to sell and shrink it.
    * Alluding disparagingly to the undesirability of OTHERS using a library can be cited as a reason to sell and shrink the library. (Frankly, I think that the notion that our library users are somehow an undesirable or threatening set of “others” is only promulgated or believed by those never actually using the library.)
    * The way to achieve belief that the BPL’s sale and shrinkage of the library will result in a library the people of Brooklyn deserve is to CLOSE YOUR EYES (and have that library. . IN YOUR DREAMS?)
    * The best way to UPDATE a library (if that is truly necessary or a priority) is to tear it down and shrink it.
    * When the BPL, wanting to sell and shrink a library, doesn’t maintain a library and empties it of books one should deal with the BPL by SUSPENDING DISBELIEF AND CYNICISM.

    Did I get that all correct?

    If so, then were it the case that the BPL wanted (with no desire to benefit the public) to promote a real estate deal involving the sale and shrinkage of a library it seems the BPL would:

    * NOT MAINTAIN THE LIBRARY
    * EMPTY IT OF BOOKS
    * Hope that a public would CLOSE ITS EYES to reality and be distracted by silly DREAMING
    * Encourage the public to SUSPEND DISBELIEF AND CYNICISM about the BPL
    * Hire an expensive PR firm to come up with a set of talking points (as Ms. Koteen refers to below) to underpin and framework the promulgation of such nonsense, likely including an effort to factionalize communities hoping to create discord and play them off against each other.

    How interesting that such appears to be what the BPL is actually doing. I wonder if the BPL and their lobbyists are reading what “Neighborhood mom” wrote (or even writing it).

  • Michael D. D. White

    Here is a response to the “featured comment” from “Neighborhood mom.” – It appears below but I didn’t know how to have it appear up where the “Neighborhood mom” comment is “featured”
    * * * *
    Let me ["Neighborhood mom"] read back from the points above and see if I get am getting it right:

    * NOT MAINTAINING A LIBRARY can be cited as a suitable reason to sell and shrink it.
    * EMPTYING A LIBRARY OF BOOKS (preparatory to a sale) can be cited as a reason to sell and shrink it.
    *
    Alluding disparagingly to the undesirability of OTHERS using a library
    can be cited as a reason to sell and shrink the library. (Frankly, I
    think that the notion that our library users are somehow an undesirable
    or threatening set of “others” is only promulgated or believed by those
    never actually using the library.)
    * The way to achieve belief that
    the BPL’s sale and shrinkage of the library will result in a library the
    people of Brooklyn deserve is to CLOSE YOUR EYES (and have that
    library. . IN YOUR DREAMS?)
    * The best way to UPDATE a library (if that is truly necessary or a priority) is to tear it down and shrink it.
    *
    When the BPL, wanting to sell and shrink a library, doesn’t maintain a
    library and empties it of books one should deal with the BPL by
    SUSPENDING DISBELIEF AND CYNICISM.

    Did I get that all correct?

    If
    so, then were it the case that the BPL wanted (with no desire to
    benefit the public) to promote a real estate deal involving the sale and
    shrinkage of a library it seems the BPL would:

    * NOT MAINTAIN THE LIBRARY
    * EMPTY IT OF BOOKS
    * Hope that a public would CLOSE ITS EYES to reality and be distracted by silly DREAMING
    * Encourage the public to SUSPEND DISBELIEF AND CYNICISM about the BPL
    *
    Hire an expensive PR firm to come up with a set of talking points (as
    Ms. Koteen refers to below) to underpin and framework the promulgation
    of such nonsense, likely including an effort to factionalize communities
    hoping to create discord and play them off against each other.

    How
    interesting that such appears to be what the BPL is actually doing. I
    wonder if the BPL and their lobbyists are reading what “Neighborhood
    mom” wrote (or even writing it).

  • Lynn Rosen

    The library works well for most of us. Of course we are not the ones who are real estate dealers or money hungry savages. Closing this library even temporarily will be inviting children to hang out in the street. A library is a doorway to knowledge. I say shame on you hungry charlatans. I was in the library last week. I don’t see any reason to do this.

  • Justine Swartz

    “The library will use that money to pay for all the interior work, things like buying a new collection, buy new furniture, the floors, computer systems, the interior demising walls, setting up where the meeting rooms will be, the auditorium space.”
    TOO BAD NACHKOWITZ DOESN’T MENTION BUYING
    BOOKS. I guess that is not important to him.