The fight over the fate of the Sunset Park library took center stage as a local panel heard supporters and opponents joust over the controversial project during a contentious public hearing.
More than 100 Sunset Park residents, officials and Community Board 7 members met on Thursday, November 3 at the hearing held by the board’s Zoning and Land Use Committee to discuss plans to develop an eight-story, mixed-use building that would encompass the heavily-utilized Sunset Park library and place roughly 50 affordable housing units on top.
To proceed, the multi-pronged proposal, submitted to the board by the Department of Housing Preservation (HPD), the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) and the Brooklyn Public Library (DPL), needs approval not just for the project’s blueprint but also for disposition of city-owned land and for the acquisition of property by the city.
The project — which would also see a complete overhaul and renovation of the library, located at 5108 Fourth Avenue — is being led by the BPL and the Fifth Avenue Committee, a 38-year-old nonprofit that focuses on affordable housing and community development.
The hearing took place at the board office, 4201 Fourth Avenue, and featured both heavy opposition and significant support, with committee members eventually voting to recommend that the full board approve the project with stipulations, the first step in the lengthy review process that is required for the project to proceed.
Among the stipulations the committee voted to recommend is giving housing preference to Sunset Park residents. In addition, the committee stipulated that the board be kept in the loop as the project proceeds, “with significant participation and input to the design,” that the developers and city “ensure timely completion of the project,” and “confirm” to the board “that adequate funding is set aside for fitout and completion of both interim and new libraries,” as well as do outreach to nearby residents and businesses “to address their concerns, and to notify them of environmental, physical, and/or construction oriented changes well in advance of such changes occurring.”
The committee further stipulated that the project developers “participate in CB7’s Immigration Committee discussions regarding the development’s impact,” and that the Fifth Avenue Committee “dedicate its resources to assist undocumented immigrants and other disadvantaged residents within CB7 to attain eligibility status for units in the development.”
According to BPL, the Sunset Park library is one of the borough’s busiest, with attendance in the top 10 of its 60 branches. At 12,200 square feet — with only 7,500 of it accessible to the public — the branch is both “too small, and too badly outdated,” according to library officials such as the branch’s own head librarian, Roxanna Benevides.
“Of the many problems we are facing [at the Sunset Park Library], one of them is outdated infrastructure,” said Benevides, citing other concerns such as a lack of proper air conditioning, and a subsequent abundance of chillers which, in turn, lead to a lack of light and space within the library. “This community deserves better. It deserves a more adequate and more modern space that allows for all of the programming and all of the services that we can bring.”
Sunset Park Councilmember Carlos Menchaca agreed.
“I think there’s a lot of common ground about what we want here,” said the pol, stressing that both the Sunset Park Library and the need for affordable housing are important to the community. “This is one of the most heavily used libraries. We need to do something to alleviate that pressure which means that we need a new, bigger library.”
The remodel would see the creation of a new, two-story, nearly 21,000-square-foot library, with six floors of housing above (including 11 studio apartments, 13 one-bedrooms, 13 two-bedrooms, 12 three-bedrooms and one super’s suite) — an expansion that, officials say, would make the branch the third largest in the system, and cut back on rent for a number of neighborhood residents.
“We don’t have to tell you that almost half the residents here are rent-burdened. They’re paying over 50 or 30 percent of their income to rent,” said Jay Marcus, director of housing development for the Fifth Avenue Committee. “We think [this project] is long overdue, and we wish we could have started sooner.”
Still, the sale of the building — which would see the Fifth Avenue Committee purchasing the land from the city, with proceeds funding the construction of the modernized library at no cost to BPL, and the nonprofit ultimately returning the development to the city for just $1, with BPL expected then to pour an approximate $10 million into fitting out the expanded library — has some residents wondering if the deal is too good to be true.
“It sounds wonderful having more affordable housing in Sunset Park, and the library definitely could stand to be fixed but it seems unlikely that a developer would do this for the benevolence of just more affordable housing and a better library,” noted one resident. “The fact is that this feels like it’s a Trojan horse. This is about turning Sunset Park — and this part of Sunset Park — into what they’ve been doing all along Fourth Avenue in Park Slope.
“Why couldn’t the library be three or four stories, or one or two residential?” the resident added. “The idea is basically if we’re putting up eight stories, they’re going to want the rest of Fourth Avenue to be eight stories or more. The developers are going to look pretty nice when the rest of the avenue is going up to eight stories and they’re buying out peoples’ brownstones.”
Pending final approval from the city, construction on the project is expected to be completed by the end of 2019. Though, officials promised, work on the new library will not begin until already agreed-upon interim space within 4201 Fourth Avenue — the building the hearing was held in — is ready and occupied.
But first, in order to move forward, the project must go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure Application (ULURP) process. The Fifth Avenue Committee filed a ULURP application in September, giving CB 7 60 days to offer an opinion on the proposal.
Borough President Eric Adams will host a hearing on the proposal on Monday, November 14 at 6 p.m. at Brooklyn Borough Hall.