BPL’s Johnson Holds Her Own Against Opponents of Heights Library Plan; Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Roasting Company Named as Retail Tenants

Last night in the third floor Community Room at Brooklyn Borough Hall, the Brooklyn Heights Library Redevelopment Project was exposed to public scrutiny for the first time. In a dress rehearsal for the official community appeals process the much-debated project will need to pass through before becoming reality, members of the project’s Community Advisory Committee (CAC) as well as the general project took the opportunity to praise—and condemn—the multimillion dollar proposal.

Presided over by Brooklyn Public Library President Linda E. Johnson, who maintained a sense of humor despite pointed criticism from Michael White and others representing Citizens Defending Libraries, the two hour-long public discussion offered observers substantial fact, theater and dissent.

Despite CDL efforts to the contrary, the evening’s presentation confirmed that BPL has crafted a well-thought out and realistic proposal to replace an aging but extremely popular local library at one of Brooklyn’s most expensive real estate addresses.

In the first meeting of the Brooklyn Heights CAC since BPL announced the selection of the Hudson Companies to develop and Marvel Architects to design a residential tower containing an entirely new library on the Brooklyn Height Library branch’s Cadman Plaza West location, Borough Hall’s largest public venue was filled with community residents eager to hear what BPL has in store for its local branch.

The CAC, whose members are drawn from community groups and politicians representing the Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO neighborhoods, were presented details of the winning proposal. CAC Chair Peter Aschkenasy noted that a selection process beginning in December 2013 had resulted in 150 hours of deliberation by various BPL committees tasked with overseeing an process that narrowed 14 architectural proposals down to a single finalist.

Here Are The Proposals For the Planned Redevelopment of the Brooklyn Heights Library

The Hudson Companies’ bid is for a residential building that may tower as high as 40 stories over its triangular site flanked by Cadman Plaza West and Clinton Street on the cusp of the Brooklyn Heights historic district. In return for one of the more prominent architectural parcels in the area, Hudson Companies agreed to pay the City $52 million dollars.

The City will turn over those proceeds to BPL, which will also get a two-story shell for a completely new branch within the new tower, a library that will continue as city property. Hudson will also provide an interim library space—to be located 5 blocks away at Our Lady of Lebanon Church—as well as 114 units of affordable housing built at a different location in District 2, housing that must be completed at the same time as the approximately 130 luxury residences on the library site.

Brooklyn Heights resident David Kramer, Principal, the Hudson Companies, specified that the new library’s entrance will remain on Cadman Plaza West, and that to a five-story deep parking garage will be there also. The entrance to the residential tower—flanked by two small ground-floor retail spaces containing Brooklyn Roasting Company and Smorgasburg—will be located on Clinton Street. Kramer also said that St. Ann’s School, a local K-12 institution across the street from the library site, will purchase a below-grade gymnasium space in the building.

While the CAC as a whole appeared favorably disposed to a proposal that was publicly announced two weeks ago, individual members offered pointed questions about a complex transaction that will ideally provide BPL with as much as $40 million dollars for capital repairs and technology upgrades throughout the financially strapped institution’s 60 branches.

BPL is responsible for promoting the literacy for the community in any manner they are comfortable; we want the children of Brooklyn to have strong memories of what a library is about.
BPL President Linda E. Johnson

Jim Vogel, representing State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, sought to clarify exactly who will maintain the new library’s HVAC system, a key consideration given the Brooklyn Heights Library’s broken air conditioning system has necessitated severely reduced summer hours the past three years.

Mr. Kramer explained that the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which will oversee construction for the City, insisted that the new library’s HVAC equipment be entirely maintained by the building condominium corporation, not BPL.

Doreen Gallo, CAC member representing the DUMBO Neighborhood Association, expressed dismay regarding community involvement with the approval of the Hudson Properties proposal. To great applause, Ms. Gallo explained that much of the community is against the sale of the property for housing, mainly because of the lack of infrastructure to sustain additional residents.

Pointing out that because the CAC hadn’t met since spring, the project was approved without CAC input, Ms. Gallo also questioned BPL’s estimate that $9 million was needed to repair the Brooklyn Heights branch’s failed HVAC system.

Ms. Johnson coolly responded that Gallo was not not the first person to disbelieve that number, stating that New York City Council Member Steve Levin was directed to the NYC Department of Design Construction which not only verified that figure, but specified that $9 million was in fact a conservative estimate.

Ms. Gallo then cited the Dock Street project in DUMBO as an example why community opponents have little chance of altering a project once it advances to the City’s Universal Land Use Review Process (ULURP), an important future milestones for the BH Redevelopment Project.

Johnson defended ULURP as a primary means for the public commentary while also mentioning a series of as yet unscheduled build-out meetings to be held at the BH branch. These sessions, open to the public, will allow further community input on the new branch’s design, roughly estimated at $10 million.

When the floor was opened to public comments, a floodgate of negative opinions about the project was unleashed, with BPL’s Johnson the focal point of the dissenting public’s ire. Justine Schwartz, a persistent critic, complained about the “piddling” price paid for the site, benchmarking her opinion against million dollar parking spaces in Manhattan.

Marie Rocha asked precise questions about how the AMI (Area Median Income) for the affordable housing component will be determined, explaining that the offsite location for below market rate units was a new version of the “poor door,” a reference to other NYC residential projects that have separate entrances for luxury and affordable housing residents.

In response Mr. Kramer specified that the AMI percentages were tiered at 60, 80, 100 and 105%. Later he also clarified that EDC has specified that no tax abatements will be offered to purchasers of the market rate condominium units.

In one light-hearted moment, Ms. Johnson petitioned the crowd for quiet so she might finish explaining a particular point. A shout of “No!” came from the project’s assembled opponents, causing the BPL president and others to chuckle.

Then Michael White stepped up to the microphone. Brandishing poster-size images of the losses of public space that his organization believes is at the project’s core, White, who founded Citizens Defending Libraries with his wife, Carolyn McIntyre, proceeded to turn the steely Ms. Johnson into a sympathetic figure.

With his voice rising – first for dramatic effect but ultimately in what appeared to be unrestrained fury, the CDL spokesman attempted to shout down the BPL president and any any opposed to his view that the library sale was a misguided financial decision that will only net untold millions for the developer and any consultants connected to the project.

Following White’s virtual soliloquy, Mr. Kramer explained that the Hudson Company’s contract with EDC specified that any and all consulting costs would be borne by his firm. Kramer also pegged the actual value of the project at $70 million, including interim library cost and all steps necessary to complete the project by the three year deadline imposed by the EDC’s RFP.

The final person to step to the microphone was Mike Murphy, who explained he was relatively new to the community.

Striking a positive if somewhat naïve closing note, Mr. Murphy said, “I’m excited for public commentary. It’s a tough process ahead but worth it because the library we’re going to get will be better than expected.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Randazzo for BHB

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  • bethman14

    Mike White distinguished himself as a singularly nasty and uninformed bully last night. Having read through his latest bizarre blog post its truly extraordinary to me that anyone actually takes this clown seriously. Its long past time for a mature and responsible dialogue about this project without Mike’s lies, fact-twisting and conspiracy theories.

  • Reggie

    I just re-read the DSM-IV and, as an objective observation and not a clever insult, many of the project opponents displayed behavior last night that is consistent with the general criteria for a personality disorder. As the saying goes, “Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you,” so perhaps their suspicions are warranted. One layperson’s opinion.

  • Slyone

    Regardless of the personalities, the school capacity issue is a serious one that the public officials evaluating this project need to address. We cannot bring new residential construction into the zone of an already significantly overcrowded public school without a plan for expanding capacity. I hope those evaluating this and other new construction projects in the PS8 zone take this problem seriously, and that we can come up with serious, workable solutions.

  • marshasrimler

    I agree, Note that not one of our currently elected local officials or the Brooklyn Borough President were present last night to listen to the public both pro and con. The most notable absence was Councilman Stephen Levin . This is a municipal issue ..Politicans like Mr. Levin re tying to hide on this sale of the last piece of city owned land in Brooklyn Heights to a private developer. Maybe its because he has been over lobbied and fed at all the luches he has had at Mr. Ashkenasy’s home.
    I understand this has been a standing lunch appointment since Mr. Levin’s election

  • Reggie

    Or maybe it is because he was at a long-scheduled meeting of his own. He sent a rep, standard practice of elected officials.

  • Quinn Raymond

    A 5-story parking garage is really unacceptable. The City needs to waive the mandatory parking requirement.

    There is absolutely no reason we should be incentivizing more car use, especially on traffic-choked Clinton street.

  • Justine Swartz

    Is it possible you can comment without personal offensive characterization? Stick to the facts and your arguments might be informative.

  • bethman14

    School capacity is absolutely a serious issue, here and all over Brooklyn. And I agree that we need to address capacity issues seriously and come up with actual solutions. I don’t think we should be opposing all development anywhere because of school capacity concerns. The City is growing and needs more housing and that housing should be in already dense, transit oriented neighborhoods like this. Lets hope we can have a serious conversation about how to accommodate growth appropriately without just saying “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody.”

  • bethman14

    Do you have a substantive and constructive idea about how to make sure our community has an exceptional library or are you more concerned with where Steve Levin eats lunch?

  • CheBk

    I agree. In addition, our subway system is over-burdened (I often need to let 2 full trains pass before I can get on during rush hour), and our neighborhood now has no E.R. for critically sick/injured people. How many more people can we fit into the neighborhood without expanding infrastructure?

  • Doug Biviano

    Here’s a solution. NYC holds onto the library site and expands to have a new public school above the library… oh wait, once we sell that property we will have no place to put a full size school in the neighborhood and we’ll get a bologna 100 seat co-located school or one stuck in a commercial space without a gym or auditorium. Once we sell the library site, we lose something priceless forever (I value that site at lot more than $40 million chief). As a society, We have lost complete perspective of what is important. Basically, the same exact principles apply to LICH.

  • Doug Biviano

    Bethman14: Why are you calling someone who really cares about his community a clown? And doing so anonymously to boot. After you answer the question, maybe you’ll have the courage to share your real name too.

  • Doug Biviano

    Marha is worried about whether or not Peter Aschkenasy is lobbying Levin to get behind RFP or at least stay out of the way. That’s a fair question because what lobbyists want for their usual developer clients almost always win out over the needs of communities. In other words, the community has been cut out and that’s why it matters who Steve Levin is eating lunch with. Doing a search in the NYC lobbyist database, Ashkenasy is not registered but that does not mean he isn’t trying to influence elected officials.

  • bethman14

    Nice idea. How do you propose paying for it? Oh right….find someone other than yourself or your friends to tax, right?

  • Doug Biviano

    Oh yeah, I forgot we’re broke with all this record development, density and real estate prices. What a sham.

  • bethman14

    Yeah…as is his constitutional right. Just like you and Marsha and Mikey DD are trying to influence elected officials to do what you want….that’s called democracy. Whats your point?!

  • bethman14

    You forgot that not only is NYC broke its also drowning in debt floated by irresponsible politicians like you who figured we could have our cake and eat it to.

  • Doug Biviano

    We don’t get monthly lunches with Levin… and I smell campaign contributions in the air. We’re also trying to keep a public asset public — not sell it off to private interests forever. Who are you? What is your name? Do you have the courage to say your full name?

  • Remsen Street Dweller

    No, only the 1% has their cake and eats it, too. Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Real Estate.

  • Doug Biviano

    bethman14 — what is your name?

  • bethman14

    If the Founders could use pen names to right the Federalist Papers I’m more than happy to be anonymous on a blog. Besides it aggravates you an Marsha so much!

  • bethman14

    Ok, so you’re not a very good lobbyist! I still don’t see your point.

  • Doug Biviano

    Nah… I just think it exposes you as a fraud– nothing more than a shill on the payroll.

  • Slyone

    I think we should be discussing solutions alongside any approval of
    additional residential housing, and I have confidence that our elected
    officials can and will help with this process. I don’t know what the
    best solution is, but I think finding a solution to this school capacity
    problem needs to precede the approval of additional new residential

  • Remsen Street Dweller

    Rich lobbyist get to buy people. Poor lobbyists don’t.

  • Heights Observer

    Not only a shill, but one who doesn’t know the difference between “right” and “write”.

  • David on Middagh

    Yeah, what a homophone.

  • petercow

    Seriously. These people need to switch to de-caf. Or Thorazine.

  • petercow

    I’m not anonymous, and I’ll say the same.

  • Doug Biviano

    If the political will is there to save the BPL (which I doubt there is) I have a plan:

    Our BPL libraries are said to need $300 million in urgent capital repairs (inflated I’m sure and some more urgent than others) and is the pretext behind the library sell-off to developers for mere fractions of the true value to our communities of the land beneath. It is my understanding that the Brooklyn Borough President (like all BPs) is given control of 5% of the NYC Capital Budget of $6.1 Billion (2015) or approximately $300 million. Linda Johnson said Tuesday night that NYC allotted $18 million in capital improvements this year for BPL. So if the BP cares about his constituents and their Brooklyn libraries he could create a 5 year plan where he allocates $42 million a year (plus $18 million from NYC) for the next five years to fix the libraries and still have $258 million to allocate elsewhere each of these years.

    The libraries could be saved and other priorities can be funded, but only if it is truly a priority to save the BPL and not sell of the land.