Long-shot land use process begins for controversial Garden-adjacent towers

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

City planning bigwigs formally kicked off the lengthy rezoning process of 960 Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights on Monday, starting the clock on a developer’s long-shot bid to erect a massive residential tower just 150 feet from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — but the proposal was quickly met with fierce opposition from local stakeholders, City Hall, and the City Planning Commission.

“Simply put, the project applicant is seeking way too much density for this site,” said City Planning Commission Chair Marisa Lago during a Feb. 1 meeting of the commission. “Leading to an overbearing envelope with no precedent and a development that is grossly out of scale with the surrounding context.”

While the rezoning proposal was certified during the virtual hearing, allowing the six-to-eight month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure to begin, the commissioners made clear that they did not support the plan — and they would use their advisory position to recommend that the proposal not go forward.

Commissioners cited data from the proposal’s Environmental Impact Statement that shows that the 421-foot towers, which the rezoning would allow construction of, would cloak parts of the nearby Botanic Garden in shadow for several hours each day year-round —  potentially devastating the flower emporium’s plant life. 

“I have never seen an environmental impact statement with such a stark, scary description of the open-space impacts here,” said Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin.

Monday’s certification sets off the city’s lengthy ULURP, with the proposal now subject to numerous public meetings involving local Community Board 9, Borough President Eric Adams, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the City Council.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which sits a stones-throw from the project site, has rallied against the mega-project since details of the towers first emerged, and launched its “Fight for Sunlight” awareness campaign in 2019.

Garden leadership condemned the plan’s certification on Monday, calling the plan “ill-conceived” and a “slap in the face.”

“The entire ill-conceived, vastly out of scale project is an existential threat to Brooklyn Botanic Garden and its century-old living museum of plants,” said Brooklyn Botanic Garden President Adrian Benepe in a statement. “The project itself, and the developer’s insistence on pressing forward despite widespread opposition at all levels, is a slap in the face to the people of Brooklyn and New York City.” 

Shadow study data was displayed during the City Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 1.Screenshot

The mayor, whose rubber stamp is essential for land-use changes to pass, came out in opposition to the multi-tower project in December, telling Gothamist he felt the project was “grossly out of scale with the neighborhood” — a move that came months after internal Parks Department documents showed that the city was aware of the potential damage to the adjacent garden.

The proposal has only been slightly modified since then, knocking the height of the tallest towers down from 39 stories to 34 stories. 

Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, who holds significant power over the rezoning as the area’s representative, along with Council Speaker Corey Johnson, released a joint statement condemning the plan, and blasted Continuum for their attempts to push the rezoning through despite communal opposition. 

“The Council is disappointed that Continuum continues to advance this proposal despite widespread opposition in the community, as well as the clear danger posed to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s conservatory greenhouses by the shadows that would be cast by these huge towers,” they said. “The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a priceless public asset that must be preserved for generations to come and we will not support any proposal that will harm the Garden. We share the concerns raised by the City Planning Commission today and urge Continuum to drop this proposal and instead work towards a viable project that addresses Crown Heights’ needs for affordable housing and community services while respecting neighborhood character and our beloved institutions like the Botanic Garden.”

The site, a former spice factory on Franklin Avenue near Montgomery Street, is within blocks of the 341-foot-tall Tivoli Towers and the 25-story Ebbet’s Field Apartments. The proposal certified Monday would allow Continuum to build towers that dwarf both of those buildings. 

Members of the City Planning Commission said the mountain of evidence that shows the towers would be devastating to the Botanic Garden were enough to disqualify the project, but that they would formally start the Uniform Land Use Review Process to allow the public to weigh in.

“This should just be a non-starter, but the point of the ULURP process is to let the public tell us what we think before we say what we think, so this is going to be a robust public process,” said Levin.