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Make-or-Break Vote Looms for Brooklyn Botanic Garden Shadow-Casting Towers

Brooklyn Botanic Garden President Adrian Benepe speaks about a proposed development he says would block vital sunlight for plants, July 28, 2021.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden President Adrian Benepe with a rendering of projected shadows that would be cast by a proposed real estate project.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When the City Planning Commission hears a proposal Thursday for residential towers in Crown Heights that could cast shadows on part of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, it will have powers that earlier reviewers lacked: to reject or alter the developer’s plan.

Continuum Company is asking for approvals to build residential development as high as 34 stories at the site within about 150 feet from the garden on Franklin Avenue, and needs the commission’s approval to move forward at full scale — as high as 34 stories.

“It is an existential crisis,” Adrian Benepe, president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, told a crowd at a rally Wednesday under the slogan “Fight for Sunlight.”

“The stakes could not be higher. The proposed luxury development — with towers raising up to 400 feet tall right there — would permanently damage the garden and the surrounding neighborhood,” Benepe declared.

A former parks commissioner under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Benepe asserted that the shadows would blanket local trees, a plaza at Medgars Ever College and nearby Jackie Robinson Playground, where “it’ll be cold in the spring and fall if you want to play basketball there.”

A schematic plan of the proposal under review by Community Board 9, with half of the apartments affordable.
A schematic plan of the proposal under review.
Rendering/Community Board 9 Brooklyn/ Facebook

Those shadows are documented in the developer’s own environmental impact filings with the city, projected to affect those areas at certain times of day and year.

If given the green light for the project as proposed under the city’s land use review procedure — the City Council and mayor will also have a say — Continuum intends to construct 1,578 apartments, half of them affordable. Of the affordable units, 40% would be reserved for households earning less than half the area median income, equivalent to $53,700 for a family of three.

A 17-story alternative would have 1,170 units, with 25% of them affordable. If not granted expanded development rights, Continuum has indicated, it is free to build 518 condominiums.

‘A Ginormous Building’

At the rally, Benepe said the developer is trying to pit affordable housing against open space.

“That is what they call a false dichotomy,” he said. “Yet it is propagated by the developer of luxury housing to justify building a ginormous building in a low-rise neighborhood.”

The development has already faced significant pushback — including from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who declared it “grossly out of scale with the neighborhood.”

The BBG said it’s collected nearly 60,000 signatures on a petition in opposition to the project. Key City Council members have come out against it. Locals have filed lawsuits, delaying the process.

Continuum did not respond to a request for comment.

A key member of the City Planning Commission appointed by de Blasio has also signaled discomfort with the proposal, in unusually strong early opposition.

Chair Marisa Lago, who also serves as commissioner of the Department of City Planning, voiced “deep concerns” in February, when the department certified the developer’s rezoning application — the first step in the city’s seven-month uniform land use review procedure, known as ULURP.

“Let me be clear, the Department does not support this private application,” she said.

On June 24, Brooklyn Community Board 9 voted to oppose the proposal. Borough President Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor, conducted a hearing on June 29. Adams’ recommendation is expected to be made public this week.

A site on Franklin Ave. in Crown Heights, slated for controversial new towers.
A site on Franklin Ave. in Crown Heights, slated for controversial new towers.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Both the community board and borough president positions will be taken into consideration by the commission but are not binding.

The 13-member commission’s decision will be the first binding action in the review process. The commission could, by majority vote, modify the proposal — or outright end the developer’s bid.

If approved, the application would go before the City Council for a vote. Then the mayor, with the power to veto an application, would have the final say.

Demands to Intervene

Seven of the commissioners are appointed by the mayor, giving de Blasio majority control, with the rest appointed by the borough presidents and public advocate. The commission has a reputation for rubber-stamping developers’ applications, say those who follow its actions closely.

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the Municipal Art Society, a nonprofit focused on city planning and landmark preservation, told the rally crowd on Wednesday that “this is not a proposal that can be tweaked on the margins and made palatable.”

“We do not believe that any modifications to this project are big enough to actually alter the consequences,” Goldstein told THE CITY.

Ronald Shiffman, a former commission member, said that the role of the body is to protect the environment and ensure what’s being proposed benefits the city.

He said harmful environmental impacts should be seriously scrutinized, as should potentially detrimental effects on the economy given that the garden is a tourist attraction.

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 rally attendees.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“If I were still on the commission, I would reject it and have them go back and affirmatively prove that what they’re doing will not have an adverse impact,” said Shiffman, who is a professor at Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture in Brooklyn.

Benepe told the rally crowd that in the early 1990s the commission put in place zoning restrictions around the garden, protecting it from such oversized developments.

He said he hopes commissioners will respect their predecessors’ decision.

“We’re hoping that they’ll stand on that tradition and respect tradition, and turn this down and turn it down without any conditions,” he told THE CITY.

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