Those are just a few of the cutting questions that emerged at a full-capacity City Council subcommittee hearing Wednesday to get the facts on the controversial sale of the current Brooklyn Heights library site to private developer Hudson Companies.
“This is the most controversial issue I’ve seen in my district since my election in 2009,” said Council Member Steve Levin in his opening remarks. “Passions are running high. Here, we need to look at the objective facts.”
Brownstoner doesn’t often attend City Council meetings, but we had a feeling this debate would be gripping. We were right.
The hearing was in preparation for the official City Council vote on whether to approve the sale and development of the Heights library site, which must take place before the end of the year, but could be as early as Tuesday, November 24.
Despite some vocal community opposition, the proposal has already cleared several hurdles, passing Community Board 2 in July, only to be “disapproved” by Borough President Eric Adams in September, then unanimously approved by the City Planning Commission earlier this month.
The library plan entails selling the city-owned site at 280 Cadman Plaza West for $52,000,000 to Hudson, who will in turn build a 36-story condo tower with 139 luxury units, a new 25,500-square-foot library and two retail spaces on the ground floor. Hudson also committed to building 114 units of affordable housing at two sites in Clinton Hill — 1041-1047 Fulton Street and 911-917 Atlantic Avenue — in exchange for 145,000 extra square feet.
A few of the key players in yesterday’s meeting
Many supporters view the plan as a win-win for both the public and the developer — $40,000,000 from the sale will go to fix other run-down libraries. But the opposition sees the sale of the site as the irretrievable loss of valuable public property for a quick, unsustainable financial fix.
After a presentation by the core project team — Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson, Hudson Companies Principal David Kramer, Architect Jonathan Marvel, and Jeff Nelson from the city’s Economic Development Coalition — Levin immediately kicked off the questions.
Over the next three hours, a number of consistent concerns emerged among the Council:
1. Is $52,000,000 a fair price?
Union coalition Build Up NYC issued a report Wednesday morning claiming that the $52,000,000 sale would fleece the public of up to 32 percent of the land’s actual value, between $68,000,000 and $78,000,000, the New York Daily News reported.
And rest assured, the City Council was very interested to discuss these findings.
Steve Levin, Brad Lander and others grilled the proposal team on the economic terms of the deal, how the land was valued, and how much money Hudson expected to make.
When David Kramer said that they anticipated getting $1,500 per square foot for the condos, Council Member Elizabeth Crowley called him out, saying that Kramer was already getting close to $2,000 per square foot at a development in Long Island City. “And I know that units in Brooklyn Heights sell for more than in Long Island City,” she said dryly.
Kramer countered, saying that there aren’t more than a handful of comparable units getting more than $2,000 per square foot in Brooklyn Heights. But Crowley was unconvinced. She believes the units will sell for upwards of $2,500 per square foot and that the sale price of the site should take that into account.
“You can’t blame people for asking these questions,” said Brand Lander. “Because the values for Downtown Brooklyn are obscene… values that have hit the stratosphere of obscene. That’s just what it is. That’s how real estate works. On the other hand, I’d ask you to respond to the Daily News article.”
“Look,” said Kramer. “The best way for the city to get a bang for the buck is to A) have a spirited, competitive bid, B) have an appraisal, and C) have a reappraisal before closing to make sure you have the checks and balances to make sure we’re not getting away with a lower than market bid. We stretched and really went so agressively to try and make this fit by going much higher than the city appraiser thought.”
Though there were other bids that offered more than $52,000,000 for the site, the project team continually said that Hudson’s proposal was the best all-around when considering the price, building, affordable units, and other aspects of the deal.
The bid of the other finalist in the process was within 2 percent of Hudson’s $52,000,000 bid.
Rendering of the interior of the proposed new branch library at the base of the tower
2. Is the planned library big enough?
While the BPL’s Linda Johnson said multiple times that the new library would be larger than the current one, Council Member Steve Levin called her out for not counting the business library that’s also in the current space.
“When I walk into the library, I see one library. I don’t see two,” Levin said, also saying that the one item consistently called for by all parties was an even larger library space. The Council member even went so far as to challenge the planned community space on the lower floor — asking the developer and architect to explore expanding the library into the 18,000 square foot area that was originally slated as a $10,000,000 auditorium for St. Anne’s School — until the school pulled out.
Johnson countered saying that the more space they add, the more it will cost the library to outfit and maintain.
Clockwise from top left: the core team behind the proposal, predominantly pro-union attendees in the mezzanine, members of the City Council, blue-shirted library supporters in the main gallery.
3. Would the library get more money if there wasn’t affordable housing?
Land Use Committee Chair David Greenfield said that he calculated the affordable housing component was costing somewhere between $20,000,000 and $30,000,000. But that Hudson didn’t need to build 114 units in order to qualify for the extra square feet.
“You could have easily added more cash to the deal instead of building more non-required affordable housing,” said Greenfield.
“Ultimately, it comes back to where we were at the time Hudson was selected,” replied Jeff Nelson of the EDC. “We had comparable proposals in terms of the purchase price offer and Hudson took an extra step with delivering the additional affordable units and that’s what put them forward.”
For the record, Greenfield “remained skeptical.”
While $40,000,000 of the sale money is supposed to be put toward fixing other branch libraries, Borough President Eric Adams has called for an explicit guarantee that the money won’t be put in general city coffers, and that the BPL will create a more sustainable funding model to address its backlog of repairs, estimated at $300,000,000.
Rendering of the planned affordable building at 911-917 Atlantic Avenue
4. Is the affordable housing the right kind of affordable housing?
The Council Members took issue with the affordable housing component’s look, location, and AMI calculations.
“The design of these buildings is inferior to that of Brooklyn Heights,” intoned Public Advocate Letitia James. “This is primarily bricks and mortar and I think we can do better than that,” she continued, before silencing the boisterous outburst of cheers and applause following her comment.
James also cited the fact that most of the units in the buildings will be studios and one bedrooms, when some of the greatest need for housing in Brooklyn is for two and three bedrooms.
“I abhor all offsite affordable housing,” James said, likening it to government-sanctioned segregation. Council Member Elizabeth Crowley said that putting the affordable units in Clinton Hill was the same as building a “poor door.”
But the criticisms didn’t stop there. Steve Levin took issue with the “affordable” label itself, saying “For me, 165 percent of AMI is not affordable to your average New Yorker.”
New York’s Area Median Income (AMI) is $86,300 for a family of four. The affordable units are distributed with 23 apartments for those making 60 percent of AMI, 38 apartments for residents making 80 percent of AMI, 29 units at 100 percent AMI and Currently, and 24 apartments for those making 165 percent of AMI — $142,395 for a family of four.
5. What’s to prevent a repeat of the Donnell Library fiasco?
Manhattan’s Donnell Library branch was similarly sold to a developer in exchange for cash and a new branch building. Seven years and one recession-racked developer later, there’s a gorgeous new hotel on the site but still no library branch.
“What happens if something goes wrong?” asked Council Member Levin. “One thing I heard about a lot for the past couple of years is what happened at the Donnell Library… what has the EDC, Brooklyn Public Library, developers learned from that?”
Linda Johnson replied that they’d learned three key things from the Donnell catastrophe: 1) to not shut down an operating branch until demolition is ready to begin, 2) to have a convenient interim library nearby, and 3) to include clauses in the deal giving the land back to the city if anything goes wrong.
Multiple times, developer David Kramer was asked about the details the arrangement. And in all cases — if Hudson doesn’t deliver, if Hudson goes bankrupt, if Hudson’s lenders want to cash out — the process would get completed another way or the property goes back to the city. And BPL gets to keep its $52,000,000.
Wednesday’s City Council hearing is just a small step in the standard Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) requiring multiple government and community bodies to approve the sale of a public asset like 280 Cadman. Soon, they’ll vote on the plan — to approve it, disapprove it, or approve it with conditions. At that time, Mayor Bill de Blasio will have five days to review — and possibly veto — the proposal.
[Renderings: Hudson Companies | Photos: Barbara Eldredge]
City Planning Unanimously Approves Brooklyn Heights Library Sale and Tower
Borough President Eric Adams “Disapproves” Controversial Plan to Develop Heights Library
Clinton Hill Affordable Housing From Brooklyn Heights Library Developer Revealed!