Judge demands public meeting centers for Botanic Garden-adjacent rezoning

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Community Board 9 on Feb. 24 heard updated plans for towers proposed to stand at 960 Franklin Ave.
Rendering by Hill West Architects

Citing the difficulties of accessing virtual community meetings for those without internet access, a Brooklyn judge upheld a temporary restraining order against the controversial 960 Franklin Avenue rezoning — saying the city needed to provide a platform for everyone to voice their opinions before she would allow the Botanic Garden-adjacent towers to move ahead. 

“I will not allow this thing to go forward until you get your act together and make sure that everyone who wants to speak, including Brooklyn Botanic Garden, members of the board, and everybody else can have their two-minute spiel,” said Kings County Supreme Court Justice Katherine Levine at a virtual hearing on March 18. “The TRO is going to be there until we find a way to proceed.”

Developer Continuum Company is looking to rezone across from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to build two buildings over 30 stories high, along with various other towers between 16 and 20 stories. The project has generated considerable controversy due to the potential threat it poses to the flower emporium, which has been vocal in its opposition to the project — including their
Fight For Sunlight” campaign. 

Levine granted the temporary restraining order against the rezoning on March 2 after neighborhood activists filed suit, arguing that virtual meetings — as part of the the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) — were disclusionary to those without access to high-speed internet, especially in the low to moderate income neighborhood of Crown Heights, which the mega-development would affect. 

“These are elderly people, they do not have computer savvy, they do not have computers,” said neighborhood activist Alicia Boyd on March 18. “They are on fixed incomes, they make $15,000 a year, they can’t even afford to have internet access.”

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The Spice Factory site at 960 Franklin Avenue.File photo by Susan de Vries

During the follow-up hearing on Thursday, Levine stuck to her guns — saying the city should provide a COVID-safe gathering space for people in the community to gather and tune into the virtual hearings.

“It seems to me that one way to deal with people who don’t have internet, is to provide a community space with social distancing and lots of hand sanitizer, so somebody can go onto the computer, and they can all hang out and look at it,” Levine said. 

Levine suggested setting up a number of computer stations at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, a large college campus near the Botanic Garden that has been used for previous community meetings, as well as a vaccine mega-site during the pandemic.

Lawyers for Bruce Eichner’s Continuum Company said the firm supports the idea, and is willing to help provide resources to set up a community space.

“They are willing to set up the community center that you suggested,” said Jennifer Recine. “We want — and I cannot convey this strongly enough — we want to provide a forum for people and the community to participate as robustly as possible.”

Attorneys for the developer argued that the land-use process should be resumed while they develop a plan to set up a community center — but were refuted by Levine, who said the temporary restraining order would remain until a concrete plan was hatched.

“I am not going to lift the TRO on holding the ULURP until we have a mechanism in place,” Levine said. 

Levine is also the judge in a similar argument over the neighborhood-wide Gowanus Rezoning — where opponents have similarly advocated for a halt of all rezonings until in-person meetings can resume. 

City lawyers most recently argued in the Gowanus case that an executive order signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, officially designating virtual hearings as legal, mandates that the anti-rezoning case, and ones like it, should be thrown out, but Levine said on March 18 that she would “not be dealing” with the executive order.

If approved, the Botanic Garden-adjacent tower project would bring 1,578 rental units, half of which would be designated “affordable.” An alternate proposed rezoning for the site would allow for towers topping out at 17 stories, with 1,170 total rental apartments, 292 of which would be designated “affordable.”

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