After a decade of planning and waiting, bookworms and locals gathered on Wednesday to cut the ribbon on the new Sunset Park Library and dozens of new affordable apartments on the floors above it.
At 20,000 square feet, the new library is twice the size of the old, one-story Sunset Park branch, which was built in 1972. In addition to rows and rows of bookshelves, the space includes a recording studio, teen room, meeting and event spaces, a tutoring room, and staff offices.
The six upper floors of the new eight-story building contain 49 units of genuinely affordable housing — the lottery for which saw 60,000 applicants back in 2021. Some 4,000 Sunset Park locals were among the applicants for the apartments at 372 51st St., the first new affordable housing project for families in the neighborhood in over 20 years. The $17 million project was funded in part with revenue from the sale of the old Brooklyn Heights Library.
Advocates for the new build say this housing model is the way forward in addressing the city’s affordable housing crisis.
Julio Peña III, chair of Community Board 7, said the number of applicants for the affordable units “reiterates the urgency of the moment” and the need to be work creatively to solve challenges in the community.
“I was incredibly excited to support this project for many years, as the community has been disinvested and not really prioritized,” Peña said. “And in order for us to change that we have to be bold and creative in our solutions and this is one of them.”
The Fifth Avenue Committee partnered with Brooklyn Public Library on the project, something the neighborhood has patiently waited for since the idea was first pitched in 2014.
“The journey to New York City’s first project to combine 100% affordable housing with a 21st century modern library began as an idea that the 5th Avenue Committee had more than fifteen years ago,” said Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, at Wednesday’s ribbon cutting ceremony. “And the vision really was to take underutilized city owned sites and try to solve two crises — the crisis of affordable housing and the crisis of the capital needs that exist in public libraries. The affordable housing crisis we are in has solutions, and it comes down to political will and investment, and that is absolutely something that we can do when we come together.”
Half of the apartments are studios and one-bedrooms, and the other half are two- and three-bedroom units, owing to the need for more affordable housing for families. Eight units will receive Section 8 vouchers, and nine are reserved for formerly-homeless New Yorkers.
The building also features a second-floor roof deck to provide outdoor space for the residents and library programming.
“I feel deeply that libraries need to be more than warm in the winter and cool in the summer, they need to inspire us to do the very best work that we can,” said BPL CEO Linda Johnson. “To provide spaces that allow our minds to wander, to dream and to plan on the future or just to curl up with a good book. These spaces do exactly those things.”
Johnson said she hopes the new library, with its free-to-use computers and tech, will help help the many members of the Sunset Park community who are still on “the wrong side of the digital divide.” It is estimated that over one-third of Black, Hispanic, low-income, and senior households in New York do not have a broadband subscription at home.
Wednesday’s ribbon cutting was an emotional affair for Assembly Member Marcela Mitaynes, a life-long Sunset Park resident.
“As someone who grew up in the neigborhood since the age of five, the library allowed me to imagine what was passed and beyond those four walls. At a time when I was unemployed and did not have a computer, I came early and there would be a line of people waiting to use the computer just to get online to look for a job or print out a resumé,” Mitaynes said. “I had the pleasure to come and take a tour of the library a couple of weeks ago, and I was floored. Floored because as a longtime member of Sunset Park we often feel like we’re neglected, that we’re left behind and that nobody’s really paying attention to the struggles that we go through every day. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish as a community.”