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Book binding! Activists say Hook library art-space deal squeezes the public

Space case: A rendering shows the plan for the renovated Red Hook library branch, with the new, Spaceworks-operated dance studio in the back.
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A plan to rent out a big chunk of the Red Hook library branch that would close the prose palace for at least eight months is an unnecessary privatization of public reading space, say bookworms who plan to pack public hearings next week and voice their opposition.

The space-sharing arrangement will have the arts group Spaceworks take over three or four tenths of the library for dance and performance space that Spaceworks will rent at supposedly affordable prices. The plan has been in the works since early last year, but the library system and the organization are now seeking approval from Community Board 6 for the renovations that would shutter the branch, and activists are gearing up for a fight over what they say is a handout at the expense of taxpayers that threatens the very notion of a library for the people.

“I don’t know why it’s necessary to add another layer in order to allow people to use public space,” said Eric Richmond, proprietor of the embattled Gowanus cultural space Brooklyn Lyceum. “A library is a public commons.”

The community board’s land use and landmarks committee approved the plan on June 26, but on July 7, the panel’s executive committee decided there had not been enough time for public comment and kicked the discussion back to the land-use body, which has one more meeting scheduled this summer on July 31.

The renovations are supposed to create two performance studios in the building and fix up other parts of the facility that are in disrepair . A library spokesman estimated costs for the job at $1.8 million, of which Spaceworks is supposed to provide $650,000 to cover the price of the studios. The library is then supposed to get rent from Spaceworks for as long as the organization uses the space.

Neither Spaceworks nor the library would say how much the group will pay or how often.

Representatives of the library dismissed criticism of the studio plan, saying the new digs for dancers and actors will take the place of under-used space and not, as Richmond alleges, bookshelves.

“We don’t feel like we’re giving up space,” said Josh Nachowitz, vice president of government and community relations for the Brooklyn Public Library. “This project will really enhance our ability to serve the community.”

Nachowitz said that, though Spaceworks will be renting out the studio spaces, they will be available to the public for blocks of time throughout the week.

The eight-month closure plan is an increase from the four-to-six months the library presented to the board in June. Nachowitz said the time-frame is too short to open an alternate space, and that inconveniencing library patrons is unavoidable.

Another library spokesman emphasized that the new tenant is not the main reason for the closure.

“It’s important to note that we would be closing anyway to complete the other renovations,” said David Wolloch, executive vice president of the Brooklyn Public Library. “We would rather get in there with a planned closure than letting the building fall apart.”

Artists interested in using the studios will need to become Spaceworks members and rent the spaces on an hourly basis, according to the a spokeswoman for the organization.

“People will be able to check availability either online or at a kiosk at the library,” said Colleen Ross, director of communications for Spaceworks. “It will be a lot like Zipcar.”

Ross couldn’t give an exact date for the beginning of construction, but she said Spaceworks and the library hope to get started within six months.

Spaceworks currently operates a studio in Queens and one in Gowanus on President Street between Fourth and Third Avenues. The Gowanus studio, like the one in progress at the Williamsburg library, is more geared toward visual artists.

Reach reporter Noah Hurowitz at nhurowitz@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505. Follow him on Twitter @noahhurowitz
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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