Featherstone: New urgency for Brooklyn library project
In the middle of a late-September City Council hearing on the fate of the Cadman Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, Councilwoman Letitia James, now positioned to be the next public advocate, dropped a bombshell.
Though it is not widely known, the air rights for the building have since 1986 belonged to Forest City Ratner, the infamous developer behind the massive corporate welfare project, the Atlantic Yards-Barclays Center.
Air rights sound like something stoned college kids would dream up -- who owns the air? -- but they represent real money to the real estate industry, as they are essentially development rights to a site.
It's been clear from the Brooklyn Public Library leadership's request for proposals for the site that it's likely to sell off the Cadman Plaza building to a luxury condo developer, putting the branch library on the ground level of the new building. If the plan materializes, it could leave the neighborhood with a library with less square footage than the current one, and leave Brooklyn Heights residents without a library during a renovation expected to take years.
Brooklynites and library advocates have been raising these issues, and the revelation about Forest City Ratner's air rights coupled with the request for development proposals adds a new urgency. The Atlantic Yards project has yet to produce the public benefits promised, including jobs and affordable housing. Advocates must ensure the Brooklyn Heights branch doesn't become an unsightly dormitory for the 1 percent.
The library's leaders say they need to develop the site to raise capital, and indeed, it is true that the libraries in New York City have no stable source of funding. That makes other solutions -- like issuing bonds -- difficult. But there's a better way to address that problem, as I've written here before: legislation guaranteeing public money for the libraries. With a new mayor and City Council, that could happen soon. The Brooklyn Public Library should put the development plans on hold and see what possibilties a new administration brings.
By funding the libraries, our new elected officials could help preserve their buildings as public resources rather than cash cows for real esate moguls.
Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.