February 6, 2013

Brooklyn Public Library faces branch closures


The Brooklyn Heights branch, circa 1960s.

You would think the fate of the still-nonexistent Donnell Branch of the NYPL might make library administrators leery about any plan to sell off a library building or its site to a developer on the promise that the spiffed-up or brand new building would contain eventually a small library. But you’d be wrong. Because that’s exactly what’s going on in Brooklyn right now: the Brooklyn Public Library has confirmed that they’re relocating the Brooklyn Heights branch on Cadman Plaza and are considering a real estate deal that would put a residential building on the site, with a library tucked in there somewhere (see the pdf titled “Building a Better Brooklyn Heights Library” on the library’s site here).

The BPL library system is hurting for money: it’s in need of approximately $230 million for repairs, and the Brooklyn Heights branch in particular had major problems last summer with their air conditioning, which led to 30 days of all-day or early closings for the library. Meanwhile, the BPL’s budget has been cut, and library use has grown, says an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on the proposed changes. Which may include the closure of branches in Ft. Greene, Red Hook, Brownsville, and Boerum Hill. The library’s rationale, beyond the immediate finances, is that these branches, according to this recent report by Center for an Urban Future, are underused.

But this argument is a little hard to swallow when it comes to the Cadman Plaza location, which contains both the Brooklyn Heights circulating branch and the Business & Career Library. BPL’s President & CEO Linda Johnson’s plan calls for the Brooklyn Heights library to be temporarily housed elsewhere and the Business & Career Library will be moved into the central library on Grand Army Plaza. This seems counter-intuitive to say the least, since Cadman Plaza is the very heart of the downtown Brooklyn business district, not to mention the site of Borough Hall. And indeed, from the Eagle article:

Two Brooklyn Heights area leaders suggested to the Brooklyn Eagle on Tuesday that they were perplexed by the BPL’s plans.

“This is the third largest business district in the city,” said Judy Stanton, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association. “It seems odd to move the business library further away.”

The branch gets “a lot of customers and runs a lot of programs,” a library insider said. “Why would anybody go to Prospect Heights? They work here — all of Court Street, the real estate people, banks. Eastern Parkway is a residential area.”

Even BPL itself boasts online about the business library’s current Downtown location, “the borough’s business, financial and civic district.”

What seems to be going on here is not necessarily decision-making based on the actual needs of the communities being served — rather, it’s real estate shuffling, with reduced city budgets as the justification for all changes. Indeed, in 2011 Johnson was quoted in a Daily News article on the subject:

“There are certain pieces of real estate we have that are very valuable,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to figure out . . . how to take the valuable real estate and use it to take care of my other assets. And not to leave that neighborhood, but just to do some kind of interesting project with a developer.”

To which I have to say: your assets? And “interesting project”? This is not a good time for the library to make its business and career services less accessible, as many people could tell you, and it’s certainly not the time for “interesting projects” which turn public space over to private entities that won’t necessarily stay on schedule or even do what they said they were going to do in the first place.




Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.