Bklyn Botanic reps skip hearing on development that could block sun from garden

Bklyn Botanic reps skip hearing on development that could block sun from garden
Fernando Canteli de Castro

A crowd of nature lovers stormed a recent City Planning Commission meeting to pan a developer’s request to rezone Crown Heights land near the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, claiming the 20-story towers the builder wants to erect would cast harmful shadows over the green space.

But the group of professors, anti-gentrification advocates, and Botanic Garden members who spoke out against the project did not include anyone from the beloved horticultural museum — an absence that did not go unnoticed by the 12-person panel conducting the crucial hearing as part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

“A lot has been made of impact on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, do we know if they’re here today?” asked commission member Larisa Ortiz.

Developer Cornell Realty Management this spring resubmitted its proposal to rezone two lots on Carroll and Crown streets near Franklin Avenue — where current restrictions limit buildings’ height to seven stories, largely to protect flora at the nearby garden — in order to erect the pair of high-rises, roughly one year after the firm withdrew an identical request amid fierce opposition from critics as faraway as England who condemned the scheme.

In June, two private architectural firms tapped by local activist organization Movement to Protect the People released a study that showed Cornell’s towers would darken parts of the Botanic Garden for hours on some days — contradicting a similar report the builder conducted in 2017 that showed its structures posed no danger to the green space.

But the latest study did little to change the minds of garden bigwigs, who didn’t show up to the Sept. 26 city-planning hearing to oppose the rezoning request because they previously adopted a neutral stance on Cornell’s planned towers after its first shadow report convinced them the high-rises will not hurt their plants, according to a spokeswoman.

“The Garden publicly stated earlier this month that it would not take a position on the [Cornell project], because it is farther away and its early-morning summer shadows will have little impact on the Garden,” said Elizabeth Reina-Longoria.

Still, one member of the horticultural museum who testified at the hearing wondered if a pro-development mayor forced garden leaders to keep mum on the project by threatening to withhold funding for the green space — whose operation is paid for in part with cash from the Department of Cultural Affairs.

“Could it have impact on city funding, has the city frightened them into not speaking out?” asked Julia Bryant. “The garden appears to be unable to speak up for itself.”

Botanic Garden brass have not kept completely silent about developments proposed for its immediate neighborhood, however — bigwigs emphatically opposed a second, larger project that builder Continuum Company proposed at the site of a nearby Franklin Avenue spice factory, where it wants to erect a six-structure complex as tall as 40 stories.

“Buildings of this scale in such close proximity have raised serious concerns about shadow impacts on the Garden and its priceless plant collections and public programs,” chief green thumb Scot Medbury wrote in a May e-mail to the garden’s roughly 18,000 members. “BBG is strongly advocating to maintain the site’s current zoning.”

But some opponents worried that if officials grant Cornell a rezoning, they will set a precedent that will pave the way for Continuum’s hulking development and others to rise.

“We feel once it’s built the new zoning, people will start proposing bigger buildings to the south and the accumulation of shadowing will really build up,” Pratt School of Architecture adjunct professor Brent Porter said before the commission.

The City Planning Commission has until mid November to deliver its verdict on Cornell’s up-zoning proposal — which Community Board 9 and Borough President Adams have already recommended against — and Council is expected to vote on the request either later this year, or early next, according to ulurp protocol.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.
Could be next: Continuum Company wants to tear down this old Franklin Avenue spice factory to erect a six-building complex as high as 40 stories, and some garden lovers are worried a green-light for Cornell's smaller project would open the door for the larger development.
Photo by Taylor Balkom