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Controversial Brooklyn Heights Library Tower Moves Forward

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Even with an outpouring of opposition present in the audience, Community Board 2 of Brooklyn voted last night at a meeting at St. Francis College to approve its land use committee's recommendation to demolish the existing Brooklyn Heights Library building in order to build a 36-story condo tower, with a new library space on the ground floor. The vote, which came out to 24–14-4, pending review, was announced during a rare moment of silence during the meeting, as the raucous and impassioned audience, much of which was composed of community members against the plan, audibly responded to almost every statement made by board members—l with applause for statements pointing out flaws in the proposal or boos and angry shouts for comments in favor of the new development. Opponents of the recommendation expressed concern that the influx of residents brought in by the new housing would only exacerbate the neighborhood's existing problems of insufficient space in public schools, lack of economic diversity, and general overcrowding. But in the end, those who believed that the development, bringing in a new library space and affordable housing—albeit not on site—would be a positive addition won out.

The debate over the future of one of Brooklyn's most treasured libraries stretched through hours and hours of discussion, with last night's meeting scheduled ad hoc because of the timeliness of this topic and several other agenda items. (The board's calendar normally allows for a recess in the months of July and August.) At the first hearing, on June 17, the Brooklyn Public Library presented its rationale for selling the building and allowing the development to happen, citing the improved space as paramount to the library's future. But because the issue proved to be extremely polarizing—testimonies went until 10:30 p.m.—the board voted 6-4 to postpone deciding on a recommendation, even with the time restrictions stipulated by New York City's Uniform Land Use Review Process.

Then, on July 6, the land use committee met and approved the proposal with three addenda:
· First, following construction, a reserve fund of at least $2 million would be formed to cover capital costs and repairs after construction.
· Second, the new library would have as much "usable" floor space as the current library.
· Third, CB2, the library, and several other public officials would oversee the execution of a Community Benefits Agreement and Memorandum of Understanding to ensure that the developer, Hudson Companies, keeps its promise to build the affordable housing before breaking ground on the tower and to find or provide space for an interim library while construction is ongoing.

Last night's vote was intended to weigh in on the recommendation after its modification by the land use committee. The meeting began with a motion by board member Eric Spruiell, part of the land use committee, to remove the word "usable" from the second addendum, citing the vagueness of the word and its implication that the amount of library space in the new facility will not match the maximum space available. The motion failed with only nine yeas.

Doreen Gallo, another board member, tried to pass a more extensive resolution that would've made the June 16 denial on the recommendation the board's final vote. She claimed that the second meeting's radically different vote was due to the absence of some board members at the first meeting and the lack of formal presentation by the library or the developer at the second meeting. Gallo's proposal was popular with the crowd, but it was quickly shut down by board, as Gallo technically presented during discussion on Spruiell's motion and therefore out of order ("You're out of order!" shouted an audience member, in response) and because Gallo's supposition that a recommendation must be made only when all voters are up to speed is not actually in accordance with board bylaws ("Are there no rules at all?" asked another audience member.)

Then, the discussion turned to the existing recommendation, and board members deliberated for nearly an hour on the merits and pitfalls of the proposed development. Several speakers noted the lack of protection for construction workers in the recommendation. Hilda Cohen, a member of the land use committee, emphasized that CBAs would not suffice, as "they are unenforceable pieces of paper." Many other board members were concerned that the influx of wealthy residents would continue to overcrowd the existing infrastructure, i.e. schools, while offsetting the economic class range of the neighborhood.

"I'm concerned that this is another case where we're not thinking about the long-term consequences," said Alejandro Varela, also calling the proposal a "charter school approach to land use." His comments were met with loud applause. Kenn Lowy noted that the neighborhood has only gotten one new school in recent years, and yet its population has expanded greatly. "There's no infrastructure," he said. "I don't know how we can even think about approving a plan when we know it's not going to work."

The affordable housing component was discussed as well, with several board members taking issue with the recommendation's plan to build 114 affordable units off-site in two new buildings, outside of Brooklyn Heights, in order to maximize the number of units built. "The one neighborhood in Brooklyn that actually needs affordable housing is Brooklyn Heights," said Lowy. Later on in the meeting, Juliet Cullen-Chang pushed back against Lowy's statement, saying that her personal belief is that New York City, on the whole, is what's in need of affordable housing. Therefore, it makes more sense to her to build as many units as possible, paying less attention to the neighborhood in which the new units will be located.

Several board members who favored the development spoke about how the money for the project would essentially be used to complete a much-needed and long overdue revitalization of the library. After all, some said, if the library asked for this project, then there must be some reason to honor its request.

When the vote was finally announced, audience members stood up and waved their flyers and posters angrily while shouting or jeering at the board. Within seconds, the crowd erupted into a chant of "shame on you," which lasted for a few minutes before the audience began to thin. The upside: Although the majority of the community members present at the meeting left the building unsatisfied, they'll definitely be tracking the project closely, watching for the developer, the library, and the community board to fulfill their promises on affordable housing and safe jobs, among other issues.
—Wesley Yiin
· Bibliophiles Attack Condo Plan for Brooklyn Heights Library [Curbed]
· This 36-Story Tower May Replace the Brooklyn Heights Library
· All Brooklyn Heights Library coverage [Curbed]