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Brooklyn Botanic Garden Tower Neighbor — and Its Shadows — Nixed By City Planning Board

A rendering from a presentation to Community Board 9 on a proposed new development in Crown Heights.
A rendering from a presentation to Community Board 9 on a proposed new development in Crown Heights.
Rendering/Community Board 9 Brooklyn/Facebook

A key city board has rejected a controversial plan to construct an apartment tower that would have cast shadows on part of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, including its greenhouses and nursery.

On Wednesday, the City Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny Continuum Company’s rezoning application for 960 Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, where the developer was planning to build a residential development as high as 34 stories.

“We’re elated by the decision,” Adrian Benepe, president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, told THE CITY. “It represents a real exclamation point on the community at large, speaking in many tongues but one voice saying, ‘This is wrong.’”

The rare decision to outright reject a project comes a week after Continuum sued the City Planning Commission in state Supreme Court, alleging that its proposal for a 17-story alternative did not receive proper review.

At an August meeting, then-chair of the commission, Marisa Lago, informed the developers that their proposal for a shorter alternative was submitted too late for review and would require a new application. In the lawsuit, Continuum claimed that its paperwork for the alternative met the deadline.

The commission’s binding decision ends the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a process that started in 2019 when Continuum applied for the rezoning. Along the way, two lawsuits at odds with the project temporarily halted the process.

In the last year, several elected officials publicly opposed the rezoning, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor. Brooklyn Community Board 9 also opposed the project, as did some 60,000 people who signed the garden’s “fight for sunlight” petition against it.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden leaders held a rally against a proposed development they say will block vital sunlight for several greenhouses, July 28, 2021.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden leaders held a rally against a proposed development they say will block vital sunlight for several greenhouses, July 28, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Benepe, who served as Parks commissioner under the Bloomberg administration, said while the garden’s fight is not with developers generally, they should know that zoning rules are established to serve an “overwhelming public good.”

The zoning around the garden “was specifically put in place by the City of New York to protect the sunlight in this very important, publicly owned oasis of plants and education,” he said.

‘Ill-Conceived’

According to the developer’s website, the 34-story project would have consisted of 1,578 units, with half of them designated as affordable housing. The 17-story alternative would have 279 affordable rental apartments, which would amount to 25% of the 1,170 units. The city’s zoning code requires affordable housing in most apartment projects that win zoning approvals.

Continuum has in the past indicated that it intends to build regardless of its proposals’ outcome, using existing permissions for the site. That “as of right” version would consist of 518 condominiums, none of them affordable.

Continuum did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

In addition to casting morning shadows on portions of the garden along Washington Avenue, the proposed 34-story development would have also blocked sun for Medgar Evers College, Jackie Robinson Playground and trees in the surrounding community, according to Continuum’s own analysis.

The president of the Municipal Art Society, a nonprofit focused on city planning and landmark preservation, called the decision a “victory for everyone who calls Crown Heights home.”

“From the get-go, it seemed like an ill-conceived proposal,” Elizabeth Goldstein told THE CITY.

Goldstein, whose organization was established in 1893, noted light and air were major elements of the origin story of the city’s zoning code, which was the first in the country.

“The first zoning resolution was around concerns for protecting light and air from big buildings, actually,” she said. “And so, you know, the fact that this planning commission has taken that so seriously is very encouraging.”

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