Locals blast proposed Crown Heights development at City Planning hearing

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens
A rendering of the proposed developments at 960 Franklin Avenue.
Continuum Company

At a public hearing Thursday afternoon in front of the City Planning Commission, local residents, advocates and politicians testified in fervent opposition to a planned controversial development in southern Crown Heights.

“The community has spoken, again and again. They have spoken, and have been loud and clear,” Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest said during an emotional and spirited comment period of the hearing. Approval of this project, she added, would be “the premeditated murder of Crown Heights.”

The proposal that was up for debate calls for a pair of 34-story towers (shortened from the originally suggested 39 stories). But at the beginning of the hearing, there was some confusion: Earlier in the week, the development team had submitted a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for an alternative proposal (first suggested earlier this year) for a pair of 17-story towers with 75 percent market-rate apartments and 25 percent affordable (as opposed to the current plan, which calls for 50 percent market rate and 50 percent affordable).

At the beginning of the meeting, which combined speakers both in-person and virtually, members of the development team, Continuum, said they hoped the hearing would contain a discussion of the alternative proposal, which they view as a compromise. But without adequate time to review the new documents, the commissioners balked at the idea and said that all comments would be in relation to the original proposal.

It’s worth noting that in February, City Planning Chair Marisa Lago called the project “grossly out of scale with the surrounding context,” while Mayor de Blasio said the developer needs to “go back to the drawing board.” On June 24, Brooklyn Community Board 9 voted against the proposal. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, meanwhile, launched the “Fight for Sunlight” campaign in relation to the damaging effects the development would have on the garden.

So it was not surprising that testimony, which lasted for nearly three hours, was overwhelmingly against the proposal—45 people spoke at the hearing, with only one person, a representative of 32BJ labor union, in favor—and featured a range of emotions, from anger to sadness, at the possibility of the project being approved.

The 34-story tower.Rendering by Hill West Architects

“If these towers go up, people’s spirits will be let down,” said area resident Edwin Hurdle. “I will tell future generations a story about how greedy and cold-hearted these developers are, caring more about money than nature.”

William Olmsted Antozzi, an architect and descendent of Frederick Law Olmsted, was one among many to note that the current zoning at the site, set in 1991, was instituted specifically in regards to the damage taller buildings would cause the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (a claim that members of the development team denied). “The work done 30 years ago was for this moment,” he told the commission. “This is not about one building—it’s about the precedent you set for the next 40 buildings.”

Originally the Consumers Park Brewing Company and more recently a spice factory, the site has a rich history, architectural significance, and was important to the history and development of this part of Brooklyn, as Brownstoner columnist Suzanne Spellen has written.

Socially distanced locals in the hearing room.

The one speaker who testified in favor read a prepared statement on behalf of his union noting the project will bring well-paying building-service jobs and permanent rent-stabilized units.

Much of the animus toward the developers centered around the idea that they were refusing to be truthful with residents. After reading a section from the developer’s DEIS documents that claimed the Botanic Garden “is not integrated into the urban fabric of the neighborhood” because it is fenced off and charges admission, Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin felt the need to correct the record.

“I believe the testimony we’re hearing today demonstrates that that statement is absolutely wrong, and calls into question much of the other information in the EIS,” she said.

“The developer’s promises so far have been dishonest,” said Sarah Lazar, a member of the Crown Heights Tenants Union. “If you approve this application, you are denying this community any future in the place that they’ve made most valuable.”