July 20, 2015

Community board approves controversial redevelopment plans for the Brooklyn Heights branch


Brooklyn_Heights_LibraryLast month, plans were unveiled for a new mixed-use building that would include condos, retail space, and a ground-level library. This design—which looked a lot like the Flatiron Building—would be built where the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is currently located.

In recent weeks, the New York Times has covered the growing controversy about the plans, fueling speculation about whether the would be approved at Wednesday night’s meeting. In a column last week titled “Brooklyn Libraries, Development and Misdirected Fear” by Gina Bellafonte,  the group Citizens Defending Libraries is described as leading the opposition to the plans.

A two-year-old group called Citizens Defending Libraries, founded by Michael D. D. White, a longtime resident of Brooklyn Heights, and his wife, Carolyn McIntyre, has led the opposition to the proposal on the broad ground that privatizing public space is an unequivocally terrible idea, and with the more specific complaint that the library will be shrunk. (The Brooklyn Public Library counters that in fact the new branch will have more accessible space and simply less dead space.)

The group also objects to a plan to move the library’s business collection to the system’s Central Library in Prospect Heights, where administrators claim it will be more readily used. Adding to the group’s frustration is the sense among members that the library inflates the cost of its repairs to justify getting involved with developers (as if every library administrator secretly wished she were a builder).

Meanwhile, the group Urban Librarians Unite is described advocating for libraries by trying to raise funding, recognizing that selling library buildings is a necessary part of being able to meet budgets.

“We are not crazy about the Brooklyn plan,” the group’s executive director, Christian Zabriskie, told me. “But we have done a lot of analysis on this through the lens of library science, and we see it as a viable solution. We would obviously prefer it if buildings weren’t sold off. But it’s the real world. I’d rather ride a unicorn to work, but I can’t.”

At the community board meeting on Wednesday night, members of Citizens Defending Libraries made their voices heard—they “booed and shouted at board members seemingly in favor of the plan” while also “holding up paper signs reading ‘Don’t sell our libraries!’ throughout the discussion of the plan.” The article quotes a protestor named Jeffrey Smith as calling the Brooklyn Public Library board guilty of “letting the library building purposefully deteriorate” and doing “the classic slumlord act.”

By the end of the night, the community board had voted to approve the plan, with the agreement that at least two million dollars be budgeted to maintain the library and that there be as much space in the library as in the current building.


Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.