Controversial Crown Heights development faces shadow impact concerns: City Planning report

The Spice Factory was recently demolished.
Photo by Susan De Vries

A planned 14-story building on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, next door to the former Spice Factory and tucked between Jackie Robinson Playground and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, would have “significant adverse effects” on both the garden and playground in its creation of shadows, blocking sunlight to the garden’s sensitive plants and denying park goers natural light, the Department of City Planning said in a recent report.

If this situation sounds familiar, it’s because it is. In 2021, the City Planning Commission rejected another rezoning application filed by the same landowner for the same location (but with a different address) that would have allowed 34-story towers to be built on the site. The commission’s chair at the time blasted the plans as being “grossly out of scale” and “inappropriate for this location.”

And, just like last time, the local city council rep is already opposing the plan, with a spokesperson for Council Member Crystal Hudson telling Brownstoner “as proposed, the project neither addresses the specific concerns of local institutions and assets –– like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden or Jackie Robinson Playground –– nor has it succeeded in providing sufficient opportunity for community input. Our office cannot presently support such a development.”

The empty lot at 962-972 Franklin Avenue where an upzoning and a 14-story building is proposed (pictured in September 2023).Photo by Susan De Vries
The proposed massing in the Environmental Assessment Statement.Image via Department of City Planning

Fast forward three years from the initial rezoning rejection, DCP has released the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) as part of the second (albeit smaller) rezoning attempt with an address of 962-972 Franklin Avenue, a longtime vacant site that once held an ice making and distribution company and also includes a garage attached to the former Spice Factory.

Continuum Company, which owns the site at 962-972 Franklin Avenue (it lost the actual Spice Factory site at 960 Franklin Avenue to the original owner after the first rezoning fell through) has applied to have the property upzoned so it can build a 14-story residential building with 475 apartments. Of those, 119 of which would be income targeted and rent stabilized due to Mandatory Inclusionary Housing triggered by a rezoning. No renderings are included in the rezoning application, but a massing illustration gives some idea of how the 145-foot-tall (excluding mechanical equipment) building would look.

While Continuum no longer owns the site of the recently demolished Spice Factory, the area is included in the rezoning application. Meanwhile, new owner Yitzchok Schwartz recently filed permits to build an as-of-right seven-story condo building with 300 units there.

However, it seems Continuum Company is already running up against the same issues the developer had last time round, with the DCP rebuking the plans in the draft environmental impact study, saying the building “would result in significant adverse impacts to open space (direct shadow effects), shadows (on sunlight-sensitive open space), natural resources (direct shadows effects), and construction noise.”

The vacant lot at 962-972 Franklin Avenue, with an under-construction building at 46 Crown St. visible in the background.Photo by Susan De Vries

The assessment comes as no surprise to locals who have followed the rezoning attempts, with Alicia Boyd of Movement to Protect the People saying it was determined back in 1991 that anything taller than what current zoning allows would harm both the garden and the playground. “The sun and BBG’s conservatories have not moved since 1991,” she told Brownstoner.

The report says the shadows created by the new building on BBG and Jackie Robinson Playground “may affect the public’s use or enjoyment of these resources, and…would constitute direct significant adverse open space impacts.”

That’s on top of the fact shadows would stop sunlight entering greenhouses in BBG, which the report says “are used to propagate plants for desert, tropical, and warm temperate climates that require full, year-round sun including sunlight during the winter months.”

The shadows would “significantly reduce or completely eliminate direct sunlight exposure on sunlight sensitive features; and would potentially significantly alter the public’s use or enjoyment of the garden, or threaten the viability of vegetation or other elements located within the garden,” the report states. At Jackie Robinson Playground, the study found, shadows from the proposed building would cover the seating area, as well as the playground and basketball court.

The shadows that would be cast by the new development.Image via Department of City Planning
Image via Department of City Planning

To mitigate the issues, DCP looked at alternative approaches to development, including upzoning at a lower density, requiring changes to the proposed development, and not allowing the rezoning to go through at all. DCP, along with the developer and NYC Parks Department, also looked into relocating the greenhouses within Brooklyn Botanic Garden, as well as other “sunlight sensitive resources,” and installing artificial lighting in Jackie Robinson Playground. “Both measures were deemed to be logistically and financially infeasible,” the report found.

The agency found that allowing an upzoning, even at a lower density, “would still result in significant adverse open space, shadows, and natural resources impacts.” By allowing the rezoning to go ahead, but requiring the project to be modified to mitigate the impacts of shadows and construction noise, the agency found it “would have to be modified to a point where the principal goals and objectives would not be realized.”

In the final scenario investigated, where the rezoning would be denied and development would only be allowed as-of-right, the agency found there would be “no significant adverse impacts related to shadows, open space, natural resources, or construction (noise).” With the current zoning, a seven-story, approximately 168-unit apartment building with 84 off-street parking spaces could be built, the report states.

Jackie Robinson Playground pictured Wednesday.Photo by Susan De Vries

In that situation all the apartments could be market rate, given there would be no rezoning to trigger Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, which results in 20 to 35 percent of units being set aside for households earning 40 to 115 percent of Area Median Income. Alternatively, the developer could choose to use the new 485x tax break for rental apartments, which mandate 25 percent of units would be earmarked for households earning 80 percent or less of AMI.

Boyd said the best case scenario for the community is for the developer to withdraw the rezoning application and build “as of right.” She said the community is fine with market rate housing on the site, “because anything else would cause too much damage to BBG and the playground.”

Her biggest concern, she said, is that Council Member Hudson might change her stance on the development, like her predecessor Laurie Cumbo did in regards to a similar 2019 rezoning filed by Cornell Realty for 40 Crown St. and 931 Carroll St. “We hope that Hudson does not follow in Cumbo’s footsteps and agrees to this development at the last minute based upon some so-called change in the plans or community benefit.”

She added that her group isn’t optimistic about the City Planning Commission voting no on the rezoning given many commissioners are appointed by the mayor, who she said is overly supportive of the real estate industry.

The Spice Factory in September 2023.Photo by Susan De Vries
The same view yesterday.

As part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process, there will now be a public hearing scheduled on the draft environmental impact statement before a final one is prepared. If the developer opts to continue with the application, the proposal will go through community review and a number of public hearings before making its way back to City Planning for a vote. If approved by City Planning, it would then go to the City Council for a vote.

Department of Buildings records show Continuum filed an application for a new-building permit at the property for what would be an as-of-right six-story building with 168 apartments in January 2022, and was issued permits for foundation work in the same year to qualify for the 421-a tax break. While the new-building permit hasn’t been approved or issued, the developers intend to move ahead with a seven-story building with approximately 168 units if the rezoning application is denied, according to their rezoning application.

Continuum Company for comment did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

This story first appeared on Brooklyn Paper’s sister site Brownstoner