Protestors outside the Sunset Park branch.
As the contentious sale of the Cadman Heights library branch to a private developer labors on in Brooklyn Heights, a quieter battle is beginning to take rise in Sunset Park over a sale that some activists say fall along the same lines.
If similar in logistics, the Sunset Park project presents a murkier debate. Both projects call for the sale of the public branches to developers, who will raze and rebuild the libraries in the bottom floors of new housing.
In Brooklyn Heights that project, long a point of heated debate within the community, is being headed by a private developer, who plans on erecting a 36-story tower of luxury housing atop the new library.
However in Sunset Park, the branch will be sold to make room for affordable housing, with non-profit developer Fifth Avenue Committee planning to demolish and rebuild the branch in the bottom floors of a 100-percent affordable, 49-unit development. The library will also be expanded by about 8,000 feet.
Some are championing the project as a win-win, with the New York Times an early supporter of the sale in an editorial last year, and politicians like Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and Councilman Carlos Menchaca throwing support behind the project.
However some in the community are growing vocal about what they say is a poorly planned project mired in transparency issues, and which they say could lead to a host of negative neighborhood impacts.
If it appears a lot more palatable than most, some say they fear the Sunset Park Library redevelopment could still wreak the same negative consequence associated with the city’s more large-sale, controversial development, including that ultimate Brooklyn evil: gentrification.
“The same thing that happened in Park Slope is happening here,” said Ramon Acevedo, head of community organization Village of Sunset Park. “We like our neighborhood the way it is, we like that it’s a working-class neighborhood where people can still go home, and this plan called affordable is a guise of displacement.”
Dennis Flores of neighborhood organization El Grito de Sunset Park, said the developers’ lack of community participation had added to fears of gentrification. While the sale had been abstractly discussed for years, he said very little input had been sought before a fleshed-out plan was introduced at a community meeting in November of last year.
In a statement, the BPL said they had made efforts to engage with the community and would continue doing so moving forward.
“BPL and our local nonprofit partner, the Fifth Avenue Committee, have engaged the neighborhood by presenting at community board meetings and hosting a public meeting on the project,” they said. “As we go through the public ULURP process, we will also host community meetings and other engagement opportunities so that residents of Sunset Park can share what they would like in a new branch. Public input is very important to us and will help guide the design of the new Sunset Park Library.”
However former state Assemblyman Javier Nieves said the project was so insulated he believed few in the community actually knew about the sale.
“They tried to ram this through in the eleventh hour,” said Flores. “And it really did stink like gentrification.”
Sunset Park has long been a marked holdout to the gentrification that has overtaken much of the borough. However, upcoming projects such as a $100 million revamp of the Brooklyn Army Terminal by the city have some fearing this historically industrial and still largely working-class neighborhood could soon go the way of Williamsburg or Coble Hill.
Acevedo and other opponents at a rally outside the branch on Saturday, said fears primarily stemmed from the development’s rents, which they said were still high enough to invite gentrification. Demonstrators flooded a press conference at the branch held by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman concerning the affordable units earlier this month, chanting “Affordable for who?”
Apartments will go from roughly $525 for a studio for the building’s lowest-earning tenants, and cap out at $1,600 for a three-bedroom for the highest earning. The majority of apartments, 17, will go to residents making 60 percent of the area median income, with nine units each set aside for residents at the lowest end, making 30 and 40 percent AMI, and nine at the top making 120 percent AMI.
In a Facebook post last year, Menchaca contested fears the new development would spur gentrification, arguing it would instead assuage it.
“I see this project as an important step in addressing the need for genuinely affordable housing,” he wrote, adding, “we must also look at affordable housing preservation as an important neighborhood stabilization tool.”
And while some opponents on Saturday said they supported building affordable units in the community, they questioned the decision to do so at the proposed location.
One of the system’s most visited branches, community members said many in the heavily Hispanic community relied on the library for language classes and other programming, and that it had evolved into an extension of local schools.
Protestors on Saturday questioned if an interim library could sufficiently handle the library’s traffic during the estimated two-year construction, with some questioning if an interim library would be provided at all.
In a statement, the BPL assured an interim library would be provided, and said they hoped to have a location identified soon.
Looking ahead, Flores said he feared a sale would also mean the library could never undergo future expansion.
“Whatever could exist there in the future is now a no-go,” he said. “We can’t allow it to be negotiated away at the terms of the developers.”
However Flores conceded he was somewhat heartened by the developers’ alterations to the initial plans after community members had voiced opposition.
The affordable housing has been cut to 49 units from 54, and the developers have added about 4,000 more square feet of library space.
“Because we jam-packed that meeting, their plans have been changing a little,” he said. “Maybe we just need to have more press conferences.”