Gar-done! Developer nixes plan to build towers near Brooklyn Botanic Garden (for now)

Gar-done! Developer nixes plan to build towers near Brooklyn Botanic Garden (for now)
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Developers seeking to build two controversial towers a stone’s throw from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden pulled their application for a zoning variance hours before Community Board 9’s Land Use Committee was expected to decide on the matter.

Cornell Realty gave no reason for its decision to cut and run in a letter informing the Department of City Planning of its change of plans, but area activists believe an online petition condemning the development that gained 4,000 signatures in a matter of days had something to do with it.

“I think the petition did a wonderful job,” said Alicia Boyd, who heads the group Movement to Protect the People, an “anti-gentrification” group that feared the towers would cast dangerous shadows over the park. “We got over 4,000 signatures in less than seven days. It was very impressive.”

Cornell was seeking a zoning variance through Mayor DeBlasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program that would allow the developer to erect two 175-foot-tall towers at 40 Crown St. and 931 Carroll St. near Franklin Avenue in exchange for providing 152 of its 518 units at a below-market rate.

Current laws restrict building heights around Brooklyn Botanic Garden — where the shadows cast by skyscrapers can deprive plants of sunlight, potentially hurting them.

Cornell Realty conducted several city mandated shadow studies it claims proved the buildings would not harm the garden’s leafy attractions, according to garden spokeswoman Elizabeth Reina-Longoria.

But that study only accounted for the 175-feet of development rights Cornell sought through its zoning request, and failed to account for any bulkheads, which shelter rooftop mechanical equipment and can add an additional 40 feet to the top of a building, and opponents fear shadows cast by those would leave the gardens in darkness for far longer than the few minutes the developer’s analysis predicted.

“They wouldn’t have been shadows for minutes,” said area resident Lorraine Thomas, “they would have been shadows for hours.”

Welcome to the neighborhood: Tivoli Tower, as seen from Brooklyn Botanic Garden, may soon be joined by additional massive towers on Franklin Avenue.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

That’s the argument that drew Brooklyn Botanic Garden lovers the world over to sign the change.org petition created in opposition to the development, which included signatures of plant fans from distant locales including Manchester, England; Sun City, Ariz.; and even Brooklyn, Ark. — population 1,642 — where one man wrote “Enough is enough!”

Boyd figures the petition would have made it next to impossible for Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo (D–Crown Heights), who has a big say on zoning change requests in her district, to support the plan.

Cumbo’s already considering redevelopment of the historic Bedford-Union Armory building in Crown Heights, and would have been hard pressed to support another controversial development with an election just around the corner, Boyd said.

“She already has her hands full with the Armory and didn’t want to engage in another large fight,” Boyd said.

The news of Cornell’s sudden change of heart is a cause for celebration, according to Thomas, but her relief is likely to be temporary — the developer’s letter to the city noted it would resubmit its zoning application “after additional outreach to community stakeholders and elected officials” was conducted.

But when that happens, the developers will find the same group of plant lovers ready and waiting, said Thomas.

“When they come back, we’ll fight them again,” she said.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.
Seeing orange: An urban planner with the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network created these renderings based on development rights sought by Cornell Realty to show the potential impact of two new properties planned for Franklin Avenue. The renderings are not based on actual designs submitted by the developer.
Photo by Fernando Canteli de Castro