The Brooklyn Public Library’s controversial plan to sell its Brooklyn Heights library branch site begs the question: who best represents the community’s interest in this project?
According to BPL senior leadership, the intent is to sell the Cadman Plaza site to a developer who will build a 40-plus-story tower housing a new library while providing for an interim facility during construction. The proposal is of intense local interest, entailing as it does the demolition of the current library, which some consider a local—albeit not designated—landmark, and the addition of another skyscraper to the Brooklyn Heights streetscape.
Besides BPL, the most influential player in determining the library’s fate may be Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. The newly elected Beep, who during his campaign vowed to oppose any sale of library properties, says that his primary concern is the condition of BPL finances.
“The library at Cadman Plaza is not an individual library, it’s part of the BPL,” the Beep stated at a press roundtable held last month in Borough Hall. “[W]hen you have an urgent capital need, you have to come up with a plan as to how to address that capital need. And some of the ways of doing that, how do you sell off assets you have that have a larger dollar value?”
“I need the library to open their books,” continued Adams. “Show me what’s the real capital issue…”
Mr. Adams recently convened a task force to examine capital needs for the entire Brooklyn Public Library system. But he cautioned, “To date, the task force has not addressed any conversation related to a potential sale of any site or building in the system.”
Driving the proposed sale, BPL claims, is a whopping $300 million in deferred capital repairs, including $82 million in immediate needs. With private donations averaging only $5 million annually, according to the Library, capital funds must come either from selling off assets or from the budgets of public officials.
One tempting target is $150 million earmarked by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for the New York Public Library’s recently abandoned Central Library Plan. Mr. Adams, for one, sees the benefit of pursuing any and all funding sources to keep Brooklyn libraries open: “My library task force, charged with the goal of representing the diversity of our many branches, analyzing our capital challenges, as well as identifying revenue options and creative solutions to ensuring quality service for all librarygoers, is considering all options for potential funding, including the $150 million previously earmarked to the Central Library Plan.”
The BPL, however, has no present plans to lay claim to the CPL funds.
“We have to have a coordinated solution that looks at accessing funding from a whole different bunch of sources,” said Josh Nachowitz, BPL’s Vice President of Government and Community Relations. “I think it’s disingenuous to look at any one pot of funding, be it the money that NYPL has set aside for the Central Library Plan, be it the money we’re expecting to generate from this project, be it funding from the BP, the City Council or the Mayor or the State Assembly. One entity is not going to be capable of addressing this entire problem.”
Lucy Koteen, a member of the Borough President’s library task force, disputes the BPL’s arithmetic.
“I think the [critical] issue is their lack of transparency,” said Ms. Koteen by email. “No one knows how they are spending their money or how their estimates for repairs are derived. We only know that there is a huge spiral upwards in what their costs will be.”
“Libraries are public assets that should be adequately funded just like any other public institution,” said Koteen, when asked for her position on the Brooklyn Heights Library plan. “I’m working with Citizens Defending Libraries in opposition to the sale of this or any library.”
Another public body pondering the library’s fate is a Community Advisory Committee created by BPL prior to making its plans public. According to Nachowitz, not only is the CAC transparent, it has helped shape the proposal.
“We started talking to the community and having meetings in January of 2013, which was a good six months before we internally started putting pen to paper and drafting the RFP,” said Nachowitz in an interview with BHB. “[I]t looked to some people like the process hadn’t been formed or it was unclear what was going on, but it was really helpful for us to begin those conversations and get solid feedback from stakeholders in the community early on in the process.”
Doreen Gallo, a CAC member and the executive director of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance, believes “the Brooklyn Heights Library CAC has the potential to be effective moving forward…[only] if we meet regularly, have discussions with healthy debate and include representatives from other community groups including Citizens Defending Libraries [CDL].”
Michael White—head of CDL and a tireless critic of the planned sale—professes no faith in either the CAC or the BPL. A member of the Borough President’s library task force, White has not been included in CAC discussions despite his extensive advocacy about the issue.
“In that same spirit of hucksterism, Mr. Nachowitz touts the CAC as being a transparent process?” Mr. White said in a recent post on BHB. “Would that be the same CAC that was chaired by Ms. [Deborah] Hallen from the Friends [of the Brooklyn Heights Library] 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!”
Due to its support of the Cadman Plaza branch sale, the Brooklyn Heights Association’s likewise suffers White’s wrath. But BHA president Alexandra Bowie remains steadfast about her organization’s role in representing the Brooklyn Heights community.
“At this point, the BHA’s position is what it has been throughout: the BHA does not know if the project is going to move forward, but if it does we want a working branch of adequate size for the nearly 290,000 checkouts each year, with interim service during any period of construction, inside a building that is well designed and is a gateway to the neighborhood,” said Ms. Bowie by email.
“We believe that it is in the best interests of the neighborhood for us to remain in a position—as a member of the Community Advisory Council—where we can negotiate for design changes and improvements on behalf of the neighborhood.”