Brooklyn Public Library opens its new Gensler-designed Brooklyn Heights branch location

Sweet Reliefs

Brooklyn Public Library opens its new Gensler-designed Brooklyn Heights branch location

Created via a development deal that helped to fund renovations at other branches and affordable housing, the new Brooklyn Heights Library anchors a new condo tower facing Cadman Plaza. (Gregg Richards/Courtesy BPL)

Nearly five years after its previous early-1960s-era location was demolished, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL)’s catalytic and controversy-stirring new Brooklyn Heights branch at Cadman Plaza West and Clinton Street has opened its doors to the public at the same site. The library’s debut arrives a year late due to pandemic-related slowdowns. At more than 26,000 square feet, the bright and unfussy new library, designed by Gensler with Marvel serving as architect of record, is the largest of the BPL’s 60 branch locations and the second largest overall behind the recently revamped Central Library at Grand Army Plaza.

Features of the facility include a sunlit reading room, a programming-perfect communal Reading Circle adjacent to the main hall, dedicated areas for both children and teens, a sizable community event space, and ample “bright, airy spaces to browse, read, write, create, watch, and think,” as the BPL put it in a press release. There are also plenty areas for patrons to plug-in and connect as part of the organization’s ongoing efforts to bridge the digital divide.

“The library is designed to support how people interact with books, technology, storytelling, and most importantly, each other,” said Taryn Christoff, design director at Gensler, in a statement.

overhead view of the stacks in a modern library
The new library is the second largest in the BPL system. (Gregg Richards/Courtesy BPL)

Notably, Brooklyn Heights Library doesn’t occupy a new standalone structure.

Instead, it anchors the base of One Clinton, a sleek, Flatiron-esque luxury condo tower designed by Marvel and developed by the Hudson Companies. It’s this arrangement—the new branch’s location within a larger mixed-use residential development at the site of the old library—that enabled the BPL to finance a slew of much-need renovations and modernization projects at seven branch locations in largely underserved neighborhoods and also create two entirely new outposts: a WORKac-designed branch in condo-stuffed DUMBO and the ultra-sustainable Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center in northern Brooklyn.

These improvement-earmarked funds, $40 million in total, came from the contentious redevelopment of the old library site at 280 Cadman Plaza West (somewhat confusingly, the new location has a different address of 286 Cadman Plaza West). Spearheaded by the BPL with the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the deal with Hudson Companies won final approval from the Brooklyn Borough Board in early 2016. Of the $52 million in revenue generated by the land sale of the site to Hudson Companies, the remaining $12 million was earmarked for the fitting-out of the new Brooklyn Heights Library.

Additional funds from the public-private development scheme have paid for the core and shell of the library and the creation of a 9,000-square-foot STEAM lab operated by the Department of Education. Rent expenses for the branch’s Leven Betts–designed interim location within the parish hall of Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral on nearby Remsen Street were also covered. Finally, the development also generated 114 affordable apartment units within Community Board 2, located in buildings at 909 Atlantic Avenue and 1043 Fulton Street.

Upstairs in the 38-story One Clinton, prices for currently available homes range from $2.5 million to 9.5 million.

a teen reading room at a library with fun seating
The mezzanine-level teen reading room (Gregg Richards/Courtesy BPL)

As Linda Johnson, president and CEO of Brooklyn Public library, explained to AN during a tour of the just-unveiled space, the Brooklyn Heights Library location within a mixed-use development was also the reason for its delayed completion. As other branch overhauls across the BPL system largely proceeded full-steam ahead during the early months of the pandemic due to their classification as “essential” public projects, work at 286 Cadman Plaza West—ironically, the project helping to fund everything else—was put on temporary hold.

As for the soaring, natural light-flooded design of the new Brooklyn Heights Library, it’s a far cry from its hulking, low-slung former home completed in 1962. Johnson described the building as a “faux-Etruscan library-slash-bunker” and it quite literally was—true to the era in which it was built, the library, designed by Francis Keally, housed a large federal fallout shelter in its basement. As Johnson noted, the aging building was saddled with a $10 million deferred maintenance backlog but the “piece of land was extremely valuable—and it just kept increasing. So we sold it.”

(Ehblake / Wikimedia Commons)
The exterior of the old Brooklyn Heights Library with its (preserved) bas-reliefs depicting industry and businesses, crafts, sciences, knowledge, literature, and art. Ehblake/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0)

While local opinions were split on the demolition and redevelopment of the library, more widely beloved was a series of six bas-reliefs by Italian sculptor Clemente Spampinato that flanked the main entrance of the building. As promised, they were carefully extracted during demolition and have found new homes following a period of uncertainty over their fate. four of the bas-reliefs will be installed at a new garden at the historic Walt Whitman branch in Fort Greene. (That library, located in close proximity to multiple large public housing projects, is among the beneficiaries of the development deal and has received $6.5 million in funding for forthcoming modernization efforts and infrastructural upgrades.) The remaining two bas-reliefs have stayed closer to home and now grace the walls of two public meeting rooms on the mezzanine level of the new Brooklyn Heights Library.

In a statement, Jonathan Marvel, founding principal at Marvel, noted that the design team “… found a way to integrate the beloved limestone bas reliefs from the former library into the new design so they can continue to be enjoyed by all.”

view of a double-height library hall
View of the main hall (Gregg Richards/Courtesy BPL)

Understandably, the design team opted not to recreate a nuclear fallout shelter on the lower level of the new library. Instead, the space is populated by a resource that topped the list of must-haves during community engagement sessions held in the early design phase: a large multipurpose event hall with room for more than 200 people that’s equipped with a stage, catering kitchen, and green room. Also on the lower level is a flexible craft room/makerspace and a spacious children’s library outfitted with soft, colorful furnishings and cork-lined walls (for soundproofing) and flooring (to minimize cuts and scrapes). A dedicated strolling parking zone emblazoned with a cheeky giant “P” on the wall is tucked beneath the main staircase linking the lower level with the ground floor.

The lower level children’s library is clad in natural cork to absorb noise.(Gregg Richards/Courtesy BPL)

One thing missing from the children’s area is an adjacent teen zone. This, as Johnson explained to AN, was very much intentional as these two areas are frequently lumped together, much to the chagrin of teens.  “It’s something we’re trying to do everywhere now,” Johnson said. “And we get that they [teens] don’t want to be next to their younger siblings. So just tacking them on to the children’s library really doesn’t work.”

Located on the mezzanine level overlooking the double-height main hall, the teen area—outfitted with a game room and plenty of spots for both quiet study and convivial congregation—puts adolescent users at a full remove from their younger counterparts while also positioning them in the center of action, elevated to a nest-like space where they can observe the hustle-bustle below. It really is the ideal: a zone that gives teenagers the separation they crave and demand without relegating them to an out-of-the-way nook or, even worse, the dreaded “kid’s room.”

a reading/study area in a modern library with tables
Quiet reading areas were among the top requests from the community.  (Gregg Richards/Courtesy BPL)

There’s somewhat of a dearth of public art at the Brooklyn Heights Library for now, save for a colorful mural on the lower-level surrounding the stroller parking area and, of course, the two limestone holdovers from the old location reinstalled in the meeting rooms. Brooklyn-based artist Jean Shin, however, has been commissioned to create Something Borrowed, Something New, an upside down tree-shaped installation that “acknowledges the library’s roots in the community and Brooklynites’ generations of shared history with the library and literature,” according to the BPL. It will be installed later this summer.

The Brooklyn Heights Library at 286 Cadman Plaza West is open Monday–Saturday with varying operating hours; beginning July 10, the library will open on Sundays.