“You’re a traitor Steve…a traitor!” shouted Marilyn Berkon, a member of a group called Citizens Defending Libraries. She was disappointed after the New York City Council approved the sale and redevelopment of the Brooklyn Heights Public Library on December 16.
Most of the city council members disagreed with Berkon. Forty-five of them voted in favor of the deal, and some of them had high praise for council member Stephen Levin, who helped shape the final deal. “This is one of the best deals we have ever had thanks to the intervention and insistence of council member Levin.” said councilmember David Greenfield, chair of the Land Use Committee.
The fifty-two-year-old library building is being sold for $52 million to Hudson Developers, who will tear it down and erect a new 36-story high rise. The ground floor of the building will be a newly constructed library. It will be reduced from 35,000 square feet to 21,000 square feet, and the remaining floors will include luxury housing. (While the construction is taking place, the branch will temporarily relocate to 95 Remsen Street, at Our Lady of Lebanon Church, five blocks away.)
However, the deal does include benefits for the local community. For local elementary school students, for example, a section of the new library will be set aside for science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) labs. Additionally, the project is to bring 114 units of affordable housing into the neighboring Clinton Hill, set aside for renters who make between 60-165% of the area median income—$41,000 to $113,000—which is in addition to the new library development plan.
Some groups are cheering the deal. In tune with the Christmas spirit, members of Build Up NYC, a union-affiliated workers’ alliance, came to the meeting dressed as Santa Clauses and sang Christmas carols—inspired, they said, by the new development. Michael Halpin, a spokesman for Build Up NYC, said, “The development of the library has come a long way from the original proposal. There are levels of affordability which make the housing agreeable to the community. And there is a commitment to good middle class jobs, family-sustaining wages, health benefits, and retirement security.”
On the other side of the argument, a group of 15 members of Citizens Defending Libraries were holding placards that said “DON’T SELL OUR LIBRARIES” while the meeting was in progress. In the aftermath of the December 10th decision by Council member Levin to approve the sale, the group placed a box of “presents” under the Brooklyn Heights Promenade Christmas tree. The labels said “Merry Christmas to Hudson Companies from Steve Levin and Brooklyn Heights Association.” Besides calling city council members and attempting to lobby them against the sale, the group has taken to social media to share a “library song,” produced by Judy Gorman, a local Brooklyn musician and member of the group, which opposes the deal.
But all their efforts seem to have gone down the drain.
After the voting, Marilyn and Michael D. White, the founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, confronted Levin, the council member for community district 2.
Marilyn White questioned him: “They have a $300-million-dollar surplus more coming in and yet you sold it to a private developer who has no interest in the public?” she said, and added, “Are you trying to say that this library is bigger than ours? Oh c’mon, Steve, look at the truth!”
Even before Levin was able to answer the question, Michael White asked, “How long was this deal in the works?
“It expensive to sell public assets,” he added. “It is expensive to shrink libraries. The public is going to suffer because we would have to tear down this sturdy, recently upgraded library and then we are going to have to wait years for any kind of replacement. Maybe those who care about libraries should be deciding what should happen with them?”
“This is very sad because we don’t know where it stops and if we can’t stop them at libraries, where do we have to stop them?” he added. Group members said they haven’t even begun fighting.