SpaceWorks is a non-profit that uses “under-utilized” space to create affordable studios for artists around the city and would be in charge of the new studio. BPL executive vice president for External Affairs David Woloch explained at the meeting that a partnership with SpaceWorks would be necessary to keep services at the library running.
“The underlying challenge for our library and all libraries over the past few years is that the demands for our services have expanded dramatically,” Woloch said.
At the same time, he explained, funding from the capital budget does not nearly cover the costs needed to run all of the services the library now provides — from job training to cultural programming and community meeting spaces.
He said it costs about $300 million to run the 60 branches of the BPL, and this year they received about $18 million in capital funding from the city.
“So how do we do more with less money?” he asked. “We have to start thinking creatively.”
The creative solution, as it relates to the Red Hook branch, is to sell off one-third of the 7,500-square-foot library to SpaceWorks, which will then convert that space into two dance studio rehearsal spaces.
A local dance company, Cora Dance Company, will then rent the affordable space just as it would any other studio space.
One difference would be that the dance company would have to provide 100 hours of free programming for the community in its first year. The studio space would also be available for library use for ten hours a week. The rest of the 214 hours that the studio would be open would be for artists’ use.
In return, SpaceWorks would invest a little over $500,000 into the renovations required to build the studios. BPL would provide the remaining $1.185 million for the $1.835 million project.
The library itself would get 12 new computers, a new children’s space, new lighting and air conditioning and new shelving, among other things.
But the renovations did not impress local residents, who questioned the benefits of selling off one-third of the already-tiny library space.
“Where are the books in this?” asked one resident, who said that money should be invested in buying more reading material for all of the children who visit the library after school.
One CB6 and Land Use Committee member agreed, saying that the renovations being proposed were something that library users should see anyway.
“The renovation project sounds great,” he said. “The computers, the new designated children’s space, reading area, those are things the library should have. It should not have to give up one-third of its space to get them.”
Michael White, founder of Citizens Defending Libraries (CDL), pointed out that Red Hook is not the first branch to experience the “selling and shrinking” of library space.
Numerous libraries have been put on the chopping block or are being looked at, he said, including the Pacific Branch Library, Brooklyn Heights Library and branches in Williamsburg, Sunset Park, Clinton Hill and Midwood.
“[BPL administrators] don’t want to tell you about specific libraries until they are ready to move on them, so basically everything is potentially fair game,” White said.
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery attended the hearing at the Red Hook branch and expressed her concern over the future of all of the libraries in Brooklyn.
“I am very concerned about what is happening to the libraries in our city, especially in our borough,” Montgomery said. “These libraries are part of communities in a very special way, because whether you know it or not, libraries have served as very important after-school safe havens for young people in our city, especially in neighborhoods like this in Red Hook.
“We do not need to be losing libraries because the city claims it doesn’t have money,” she added. “We make choices as to where our resources are invested, and so the fact that we are saying that we don’t have resources for libraries troubles me greatly.”
She also said that the library system “has an obligation to be transparent, to be more responsive and to be more accountable to the citizens in our city,” which many residents agreed with, furious over the fact that BPL said it had been working with SpaceWorks for two years on the proposed project.
“If this was discussed for two years, where was the discussion with the community?” one resident asked. “How could this have gone on for two years without community dialogue?”
CB6 member Jerry Armer agreed, saying that the presentation from BPL and SpaceWorks lacked much of the contract agreement and floor plan information that the board needed to give approval for the project.
“How can we make a decision when at least 75 percent of the information that the committee and the community needs is not here? It may be somewhere, but it’s not in this room right now,” Armer said. “You’ve been doing this plan for two years, so you have a lot of it worked out. I can’t believe that SpaceWorks and the Brooklyn Public Library have not signed an agreement. What does that agreement say?”
In the end, the Land Use Committee voted not to take a position on the proposal until after further discussions with BPL and SpaceWorks. However, if BPL decided to go ahead with the project anyway without further consultation, the board would then go on the record as disapproving the sale and renovation of the library.
“I think what we witnessed was a very healthy dialogue where clearly the interested parties in Red Hook are not in the same place,” CB6 District Manager Craig Hammerman said. “It’s our hope that by encouraging them to continue to talk to one another and allowing ourselves to be used in some kind of a facilitative capacity that we can get everyone on the same page.”
For its part, the BPL released a statement saying it would continue to seek the community board’s approval before moving forward with the project.
“Brooklyn Public Library is looking forward to continuing a dialogue with Red Hook community stakeholders and elected officials,” a BPL representative said.