On February 6th, Brooklyn Public Library broke ground on the renovation and expansion of its Sunset Park branch. The new 8-story building, designed by Mitchell Giurgola, will include more than 20,000 square feet for the library that will be outfitted and updated with the latest technology and resources, as well as 49 permanently affordable apartments above the library. This shared-use model is the first of its kind in New York City and will be a tremendous asset in Sunset Park’s largely immigrant – and one of Brooklyn’s most diverse – communities.
Libraries stand as one of the only democratic institutions available to everyone. They remain beacons that unite people across ethnic and cultural lines and provide critical cultural and educational programming for many low-income communities and communities of color. Increasingly, beyond the traditional book rental and reading rooms, these branches offer vital technology access, events and skills training to children, adult and elderly populations that may not otherwise have these resources available. But increasingly, library branches across the city have been unable to meet the growing needs of their patrons, constrained by aging infrastructure, limited funds and outdated resources.
The Sunset Park branch in particular is one of Brooklyn’s busiest, with attendance that ranks in the top 10 of Brooklyn Public Library’s 59 branches. Built in 1972, the former building was too small to meet the needs of one of the fast-growing neighborhoods and required more than $6 million in repairs. In recognition of the critical need to create a space that better serves local interests, Hester Street worked with Grain Collective in 2017 to engage the Sunset Park community in the design, programming and renovation of a new library. The community engagement process included interviews with local service providers, organizations, librarians, and elected officials; a patron survey; two large public workshops; four focus groups with populations not well represented at large workshops, and a community report to ensure that local priorities for programs and services would be well considered.
Hester Street worked to understand the neighborhood context, stakeholders’ opinions about the development project, and the relationships between the library and local organizations, service providers, and local elected officials. We engaged well over 350 stakeholders through interviews, surveys, focus groups and workshops in a targeted and inclusive approach. The process shaped BPL’s commitment to community engagement in all future capital improvements to library branches, and Hester Street is currently working with BPL on similar activities for the renovation or construction of BPL’s Central, New Lots and DUMBO branches.
Using an innovative financing strategy, Sunset Park will soon be home to both a modern public library grounded in community-identified needs and a new crop of deeply affordable housing units. Expected be completed in December 2020, this milestone project serves as a clear demonstration of the importance of community engagement and control over local assets and the need to preserve inclusive cultural spaces and institutions for everyone.