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