Brooklyn’s economy may still be relatively hospitable to independent bookstores (as compared to Manhattan, anyway), but it’s no secret that our public libraries have been struggling for quite some time now. There’s the rampant theft, for starters, chronic under-funding, and widespread issues with air conditioning systems that’ve forced frequent summertime closures in spite of their status as city-designated “cooling centers” during dangerous heat waves. All told, the system’s 60 branches reportedly need around $300 million worth of repairs, and are considering a quintessentially Bloomberg-ian solution to the problem: put a condo on it.
Yesterday, members of Citizens Defending Libraries protested outside the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in hopes of shutting down development plans for a Brooklyn Heights Branch, and one told Brooklyn Paper, “Libraries are at the core of the democratic process. I’m incensed. I’m furious. It gets my blood boiling.”
The problem is this: while seemingly all libraries are at least in some debt and disrepair, the Brooklyn Heights Branch at 280 Cadman Plaza has become a particularly bad quagmire, with about $9 million worth of repairs needed, including $4 million for the air conditioning alone.
Per some leftover Bloomberg-era policy that formerly included the historic Carnegie library at 4th Ave and Pacific, the Brooklyn Heights Library is reviewing private development proposals to replace the current branch with a condo tower, featuring “between 99 and 167 mostly market-rate housing units along with a library space that is partly underground” (you can see some glossy renderings of potential options over at Curbed). A library spokesperson explained, “Brooklyn Public Library is facing a deferred maintenance crisis that is impacting every neighborhood in the borough. At Brooklyn Heights, one of the highest-need branches, we are simply unable in the current branch to deliver the level of service the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood deserves.”
Library advocates are pushing for the city to come up with the $300 million in lieu of libraries turning to developers, and an open letter from Citizens Defending Libraries read, “Selling, shrinking libraries, putting their resources out of reach, leads to a vicious cycle of decreased democracy and opportunity.”
And they may have an advocate in the new mayor: back when he was campaigning last summer, de Blasio joined protests for plans that at the time included renovations for the Central Library in Manhattan, and released his own open letter calling for an audit of planned renovations and adding:
“The Brooklyn Public Library needs money, and a reasonable and sensitive plan involving the retention of community library space and partial redevelopment might be worth consideration. But a much more thorough review is needed. We need to ensure we are driving the hardest bargain possible with the developers and maximizing the public’s return on the land.”
Via Brooklyn Heights Blog, you can even watch a video of de Blasio leading a “Save Our Libraries!” chant below. The plans for the condo-slash-library space do represent at least some sort of compromise, but then, it’s a real slippery slope to go down, turning to developers as protectors of our most important public institutions. Now that plans are rolling out under de Blasio’s watch, it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the issue. Our borough’s literacy may depend on it.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.