BHB Exclusive: BPL President Johnson Talks Brooklyn Heights Branch, Library’s Future

Since April, BHB has covered the developing story of the status of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Heights branch on Cadman Plaza West, driven by neighborhood concern over the condition of the building, as well as its ultimate disposition. Will it be renovated? How soon? Demolished? What will rise in its place? A high-rise? How high? How much will it cost? How will it be paid for? How long will it take? What will library users do in its absence?

Investigation into the situation led to a deepening interest in the larger picture of an institution burdened by a massive backlog of unfunded capital expenditures and a ballooning deficit that threatens the Library’s ability to fulfill its mission: the maintenance and nurture of a system of some 60 branch libraries as well as the monumental Central Library at Grand Army Plaza, at a time when library usage has grown dramatically.

BHB spoke recently with Linda E. Johnson, President and CEO of the Library, about the current status of the Brooklyn Heights library project and other concerns, as well as future prospects for the system, exemplified by BAM South, an innovative new space in the BAM Cultural District that the Library hopes to bring online in 2017.

What emerged clearly throughout the 45-minute phone interview was Ms. Johnson’s optimism regarding her organization’s future, and the value she and BPL’s executive team place on a strategic planning process they believe has substantially improved one of the country’s largest libraries.

Ms. Johnson did not hesitate to emphasize her credentials. Not only a successful executive and fundraiser at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, she had previously served as CEO of the Library Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the nation’s tenth largest system. She came to Brooklyn knowing the difficulties but attracted by the challenge of leading a prestigious organization in transition, one with an enormous responsibility to the diverse communities in which its branches are located.

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  • marshasrimler

    Ms. Johnson just does’t get it. She dismisses the opposition to the library destruction plan as a small group.. a noisy group.
    She talks about all the $ that will go to the other libraries from this project.. This is a divide and conquer technique that was used in Atlantic Yards. Diminishing the opposition is part of her and the boards elitism.. Back to Manhattan or even Philly for her. Personally I hope she goes back to her native Philly and gets our of the 5 boroughs

  • Name

    It is small and noisy. Havent spoken to a single person in the Heights that is opposed to the new direction – including the new residential tower.

  • marshasrimler

    and who are you if you are so are so sure of your supporters?.. Don’t hide Josh come out of the wood work.

  • Michael D. D. White

    In obvious ways the BPL has intentionally inflated its estimate, promulgated again here, of the cost of repairing the Brooklyn Heights Library. Until the day that the BPL corrects their obvious efforts to skew information it will be obvious that they are acting in bad faith.

    The world is going digital says Ms. Johnson? Is that by choice or necessity? When the BPL takes all the books off the shelves like at the Brooklyn Heights Library they are most likely intending to provoke the result they are pretending to neutrally observe. People want their physical books and they they want to be able to browse and discover at the library. See our Citizens Defending Libraries for links about this well-studied issue.

    Ms. Johnson offers kind words for the Red Hook library? She doesn’t mention that she has plans afoot to shrink this currently very small library (7,500 sq ft) and PRIVATIZE its space using PUBLIC funds via a Bloomberg-created private company. Same with other libraries including the Williamsburg. See:

    Thursday, July 3, 2014

    Spaceworks And Its Privatizing Space Grab Of The Libraries

  • realitybasedcommunity

    There is nothing more hillarious than a self-described blogger posting comments on a blog complaining about technology and digital access to information. Freakin’ hillarious, seriously!

  • notonmywatch

    Really now,

    Get the facts and compare them to the media and proponent posturing.

    The BPL doesn’t own the properties. The BPL is chartered with building and maintaining libraries, not residential or commercial space or renting out (they call it licensing) space taken from a library and given to artists for private use (see the planned closure of the Red Hook Library for 6 months so that it can be downsized for that purpose).

    Also, check out the Articles of Incorporation of the BPL. Might be enlightening.

  • notonmywatch

    Oh, she gets it. She is a consummate 1% hired gun. Brooklyn is a special place and deserve special leaders. The thought (from the article) that you wouldn’t provide substantially the same services at all the branches is telling. Any MBA can optimize for least cost. So can the city. If the BPL can’t, or won’t, maintain the libraries with the funds they are given (open the books if you feel the funds are not adequate), then step aside.

  • my two cents from Brooklyn

    thanks for this article. someone just forwarded it to me…
    I live in Brooklyn Heights and honestly, I’ve seen and heard and personally several people against this deal. Actually, I believe there was a petition last year (full disclosure: I signed it) with about 15,000 or 16,000 signatures in it opposing to the sale – so I’m not sure if that qualifies as a “small group.”

    ultimately, the library system as schools and hospitals are public assets, supported by our tax dollars. they do not belong to the people who (for a limited amount of time) is running them. it belongs to us all – therefore they can’t be sold unless there’s a public referendum that votes in favor of it.

    I also know one thing or two about fiduciary and trustee obligations: Ms Johnson here (whom I don’t know) seems to be failing in the No. 1 fiduciary obligation which is to protect the asset she oversees, instead of selling it to the highest bidder – even if there’s a remote possibility that a “brand, new, shiny branch” will be part of it.

    I say “no” wholeheartedly to her plan as it is short-sighted and wont address the bigger issue underfunding of public assets. also in a city increasingly encroached by high rise, luxury condos (supporte with tax abatements) public buildings, parks and other public spaces offer a respite to all.

  • marshasrimler

    i like that she and her Board need to step aside

  • District 13 parent

    Thanks, BHB, for posting this interview. A telling point, I believe, is that Ms. Johnson did not use the word “book” until the very last page, and then only in conjunction with the word “deal.” Whereas she is passionate about the raising of funds and courting of developers, she apparently does not realize that many people come into the library to read. Books. The noun, that is, not the adjective modifying “deal.”

  • Kay Corkett

    Ms. Johnson says: “You’ve got a piece of property that has an extraordinary amount of value.” So true. But what Johnson means by ‘value’ is “monetary value” and that is the heart of the whole controversy. A “NOT so small number of us” who use and love the Heights library feel very strongly that the most important value in the building and its land is NOT its monetary value but the fact that it is part OF and belongs TO the community which it serves in a way that a storefront in a towering glass condo could never do. Many Heights and neighboring residents (who she doesn’t get to see or hear because we’re working and/or raising children) believe that we should not prostitute the Heights library and its land so Johnson can add another diamond to her resume by being able to brag that she brought millions of dollars to the BPL system during her tenure by selling the family’s REAL jewels, Brooklyn’s small, local branch library buildings.

  • notonmywatch


  • Kay Corkett

    Interesting. I’m not part of the ‘small and noisey’ group you and Johnson speak of but I am a Heights resident and have spoken with many other residents who are opposed to the new residential tower. Guess it depends on how large a circle of friends and acquaintances you speak with.

  • concerned citizen

    thanks for this article BHB.

    I use this branch of the library. have done it for years (even though Im also tech-savvy, kindle user).

    I particularly like that it provides a service to many impoverished patrons in Brooklyn, who use it to access (other than books) computers and valuable training – that goes from how to prepare your resume to how to fill your tax forms, and how to look for jobs, etc.

    I really doubt it that if we house a smaller and glitzier branch inside a glass tower condo, those patrons will have the same access to the branch as they have now.

    I’m not very familiar with this whole discussion, but I found it crass and actually shocking for the president of the library to say this branch has enormous “value” – and what she meant by that was monetary value.

    but this is New York, right? and the the rich usually get their way….

  • Name

    Or how open-minded and forward-looking your circle is… If you are a silly NIMBY with no desire for change, well then yes… I understand.

  • Name

    So many of these posts are fake — it is really hilarious.

  • marshasrimler

    so name.. who are you?

  • marshasrimler

    your point is exactly why the Brooklyn heights Associations supports this destruction plan.
    The BHA does not want the improvised in the neighborhood. Shame on them

  • District 13 parent

    Mine wasn’t. For what that’s worth.

  • Chubby Burkhardt

    I am really looking forward to a resolution, no matter the outcome, of the Brooklyn Heights Brooklyn Public Library situation. All this opposition is not likely to have an influence on the eventual outcome. Furthermore, continuing posts by Marshasrimler is getting old and redundant. Hopefully a resolution comes soon and the blog can move on to other topics.

  • Oldtimer

    Hmm. Scott Stringer audited Queens– when will he come to Brooklyn? And why is “highest and best use” always conflated with monetary value? Community destabilization is happening everywhere, including here: Hospitals, parks (because BBP must have that Empire Stores shopping mall with the highest commercial rents in DUMBO, and a 31 story tower within the park footprint), and a megatower over a shrunken library… So much for our “progressive” Mayor, who’s so passionately devoted to real estate development and tourism that ANY community opposition is derided and arrogantly dismissed as out-of-line and not worthy of discussion/negotiation. When deBlasio kept on Bloomberg’s EDC team, and with his approval of current boards that are only ostensibly acting in the public interest, the handwriting was on the wall. Those nice shiny new highrises are all that counts!

  • marshasrimler

    chubby.. the eventual outcome will be against the sale of pubic property. you are getting old too. why not give it a rest

  • stuart

    This lady is a tall willowy impostor. A perfectly cast Bloomie gal pal and hired gun. She is hardcore 1% with less than zero interest in Brooklyn or its non-willowy inhabitants. A perfect shark in Prada.

    A social climber and rich man’s companion. A total cipher.

  • Michael D. D. White

    I am not complaining about digital access, rather the absence of physical books to browse and refer to and the removal of resources in general. For instance, the absence of Jane Jacobs’ books some of which are not only not available in the library, they are not available digitally at all. Last time I checked (recently) neither was Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker.” And you may have noticed it if you read what I have written and write about that I am often directing people’s attention to physical books that I am reading physical copies of.

    Now that I have engaged in some more additional amplification about who I am, who are you and how do you self-describe yourself? I always like to to know who I am really dealing with and from what community.

  • Michael D. D. White

    “So many of these posts are fake”? — Like the person posting as “Name” who hasn’t “spoken to a single person in the Heights that is opposed to the new direction”- By my reckoning that’s a person who only talks to developers. We are out on the street constantly talking with people and the very few people (other than an occasional developer) who think they may favor the plan to sell and shrink the library (because of a bigger replacement library etc.) are simply misinformed (deliberately so by Johnson and the BPL) . . a few facts and they quickly sign the petition.

    Most people are outraged and extremely angry at the BPL and the BHA.

  • Mary

    “Small” vocal groups are at the heart of protecting neighborhoods. A small local group (BHA) saved Brooklyn Heights from being dissected by the BQE in the 1960s. Where is that activist spirit now?

    It’s also interesting that the EDC is vetting the proposed sale. This is the same agency that refuses to close the downtown heliport, in spite of vocal opposition to it from every City Council and Congressional representative for waterfront residents.

    Mayor De Blasio hasn’t stepped up either, for libraries or LICH, despite his public advocacy when in that office.

    The Brooklyn Heights branch is a rare, small-rise urban treasure, as all true locals know. All revenue is not necessarily good revenue. We are selling off our public lands for short term profits, and changing our city scape for the worse.

  • Mary

    BTW Michael Randazzo: The BH library is on Cadman West, not East.

  • bethman14

    Sorry Micheal, you’re the one doing the deliberate misinforming. Its really outrageous how violently you twist the facts, take quotes out of context, report rumors as if they’re confirmed, etc. Any commenter on this blog that you disagree with you immediatly dismiss as someone who must either be a developer, a BPL employee or someone “not from the community,” by which I assume you mean the WASP 1% that seems to be your prime constituency.
    The community deserves a fair and honest convesration about this project free from your fear mongering and Tea Party like hysteria.

  • bethman14

    well said man. well said indeed.

  • notonmywatch

    I also believe that there has not been a fair and honest conversation about Ms. Johnson’s and the board’s goals and motives and the impacts of those goals and motives relative to the mission of the BPL. Ms. Johnson is out on quite a limb with this interview. And the BHB allowed her to bring as much rope as she wanted. This is a rare time that the BPL acknowledges that it doesn’t own the libraries. So all of the posturing is about providing a fig leaf for the city to cash out on a public resource without public input. Time to start taking names. In all probability Ms. Johnson will be sacrificed by the board soon enough.