Internal memo shows city knew of dangers development poses to Brooklyn Botanic Garden for months

No grow: Botanic Garden bigwigs double down on opposition to proposed Franklin Ave megadevelopment
The mayor threw his hat into the “Fight for Sunlight” controversy for the first time on Feb. 7.
Continuum Company

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s claim that shadows cast by a massive 39-story development would not harm plant life at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden are bogus — according to his own administration!

Internal memos reviewed by the Brooklyn Paper show that experts at the NYC Parks Department believe that the proposed 960 Franklin Ave. mega-development poses a serious threat to the borough’s world-class horticultural museum located just a block away, with experts stating that shadows cast by the towering residential complex could very easily starve the garden’s most sensitive areas of needed sunlight. 

“The proposed project would potentially lead to a significant adverse impact to natural resources, specifically to natural resources found in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, due to project-generated shadows,” wrote David Cuff, director of environmental review at the Parks Department, in a memo sent to officials at the Department of City Planning on Dec. 20. 

Cuff’s memorandum featured his critiques of an environmental impact statement concerning the rezoning application that Continuum Company needs approved to build its 39-story mixed-use development, with a special focus on the “Natural Resources Chapter” and “Arborist Report” contained within the study. 

Basing his report on information contained within that report, Cuff found ample evidence to suggest the development would result in “significant adverse impacts” to Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s greenhouse facilities, which are home to some 18,500 plants, along with the propagation facilities necessary to breed new plants.

Cuff’s findings stand in stark contrast to comments that de Blasio made during his Feb. 7 appearance on the Brian Lehrer Show, when he stated his support for the development — which would bring nearly 800 units of affordable housing to the neighborhood — along with his belief that the project would not harm the garden. 

“I don’t think it ruins the garden forever,” said de Blasio. “I just don’t!” 

In fact, Cuff’s memo goes into detail regarding how shadows cast by the 39-story towers would affect different exhibits within the garden, with effects ranging from mild to severe depending on the climate and location of the gardens various greenhouses. Some of the more dramatic effects would be felt by: 

  • Warm Temperate, Tropical, and Desert Pavilions located in Greenhouses D, E, and F, which would suffer some “long-term cumulative” effect as a result of “even very limited winter shading.” All three greenhouses would receive up to 1.25 hours of additional shading in the wintertime. Additionally, the memo state’s that the Desert Pavilion would lose up to 3.25 hours of sun between March to October (although not explicitly stated, it’s assumed this is meant on a daily basis), likely leading to the declining health of cacti and other specimens within the exhibit.
  • Tropical and sub-tropical species located in the Aquatic and Orchid House, which would lose up to 3.75 hours of sunlight between March and October, and 1.75 hours of sunlight during the “critical winter months.” The memo goes on to state that, as a result of the loss of sunlight, some orchids would likely no longer flower.
  • Growing areas for the Desert, Tropical, and Warm Temperate pavilions, and the orchid collection, which have “high sunlight requirements.” These facilities would lose up to 3.75 hours of sunlight between March and October, and up to two hours of sunlight in during the winter. 

In his memo, Cuff uses information provided within the environmental impact statement to challenge some of the conclusions within that very report, including the statement that, while the effect of shadows from the development would be permanent, their “magnitude is relatively small effects on the productivity of well-established plants.” Instead, Cuff writes that the report ignores how the loss of sunlight would affect plants that are not well-established, such as those in the garden’s propagation facilities, where Brooklyn Botanic produces plants hailing from various warm-weather climates, which may require year-round sunlight. 

Cuff’s conclusions largely mirror those of green thumbs at the garden itself, who have stated that the loss of sunlight upon Brooklyn Botanic’s production facilities could result in a cascading effect that could devastate the garden within a matter of years

“Should we lose propagation growing facilities, more than half of our collection will be gone in a decade,” Rowan Blaik, director of living collections at the garden, testified at a March 2019 City Planning Commission hearing. “There are simply no commercial alternatives to on-site propagation facilities for botanic gardens. 

Multiple messages left seeking comment from City Hall were not returned. 

Update: According to the New York Post, de Blasio admitted to confusing 960 Franklin with another nearby project, and has maintained that he has no position on the 960 Franklin project. The mayor claims to not have been briefed on the memo prior to his appearance.