With Pacific Branch Sell-Off Stymied, Brooklyn Public Library Presses on With Development Plans for Brooklyn Heights

The Brooklyn Heights branch may not be long for this world. (flickr)

The Brooklyn Heights branch may not be long for this world. (flickr)

Earlier this week, the Brooklyn Public Library’s controversial plan to raise funds by selling off its Pacific Street branch suffered a serious setback. As a condition of City Council approval for the nearby BAM South development, the future of the branch will now be determined via a potentially-lengthy community planning process. And though the process doesn’t necessarily preclude a sell-off (the branch is still slated to be replaced by a 16,500-square-foot space in the BAM South development)—it at least leaves open the possibility of salvation.

But with the Pacific Street sale off the table for now, the Brooklyn Public Library is wasting no time in moving forward with its other sell-off plans. Today, it put out a request for proposals seeking redevelopment partners for the Brooklyn Heights branch at 280 Cadman Plaza West.

Following the model of the New York Public Library’s Donnell Library branch (though, one hopes, avoiding the many pitfalls which dogged that redevelopment deal), the Brooklyn Heights sell-off is intended to eliminate the problem of an aging structure in need of more than $9 million in repairs, according to the library, and to raise capital funds for the cash-strapped institution.

Which sounds good in theory (aside from the part about the library selling off its land to cover budget shortfalls—an undeniably short-sighted solution for what is likely to be an ongoing issue), but as they say, the devil is in the details.

And the details, as Donnell illustrated, can be quite complicated. Like Donnell, the Brooklyn Heights branch will almost certainly end up on the bottom of a luxury residential tower (the RFP calls for residential, commercial, retail or community uses, but any developer worth his salt knows that residential is where the money’s at) and will need to be relocated during construction. It will also mean a significant loss of square footage—the RFP is seeking a 20,000-square-foot library, one-third of the existing library’s 60,000 square feet, though the Brooklyn Public Library maintains that the new branch library will be approximately the same size of the old one, as the business library and a significant amount of storage will be relocated offsite. (The Donnell branch is shrinking from 97,000 square feet to 28,000, but the NYPL likewise points to the offsite relocation of numerous services.)

At least during this stage, though, the library is in the position of making demands rather than compromises, and according to the RFP, the library is looking for a project that generates “significant funds above and beyond the funding required to build and fit out the new Brooklyn Heights Library” and a project that is of “the highest possible architectural quality and [is] sensitive to the historic nature of the Brooklyn Heights community.”

Moreover, this attractive, revenue-generating, somewhat contextual tower can’t just stick the entire library in the basement (as developers are wont to do): the RFP mandates that no more than 5,000 of the 20,000 square feet of the branch can be below-grade (why not none of it?) and that the branch should be oriented to maximize natural light.

And in a move that seems designed to avoid the problems of Donnell, the RFP asks for proposals that minimize the branch’s closure time and provide for an alternate space during construction. In addition, we were told, designs will include safety mechanisms to protect the library against project delays. There’s also a vague sustainability requirement. In the words of the RFP, “the design shall maximize the sustainable performance of the development by integrating sustainable design practices as proposed in the Respondent’s Green Building Plan.”

The redevelopment plan was heralded by Brooklyn Downtown Partnership president Tucker Reed, who told The Observer that “from the perspective of the community in Downtown Brooklyn, the combined development with the library, the private sector solution, is a great thing.”

Well, not quite the entire community—some members of the community remain very much opposed to the project, and they’re asking a multitude of important questions about the trade-off. Though the 1960’s building proposed demolition has not caused nearly as much outrage as the destruction of the Pacific Street branch. And a number of community groups have (kind of) come around, like the Brooklyn Heights Alliance, which announced earlier that it would not oppose the plan so long as the library provided for continued service during the interruption, the new library was “of adequate size” and the proceeds went to the library (whatever that means).

Of course, things won’t actually get interesting until the public can see what the proposals, which are due by September 19, actually look like.