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Shady Towers: 34-Story Crown Heights Build Bad for the Neighborhood, Deadly for the Garden, Locals Say

Opponents of the towers say the development will cause plants to die in the Botanical Garden, and will welcome more high-rises to Crown Heights.
Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.

"We gotta fight for the sunlight."

That was the uniting call for more than 100 people of all ages who turned out Wednesday morning to rally against a new development that threatens the number of sunlight hours at Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG).

The rally — held a day before a "crucial" City Planning hearing — brought together activists, leaders, gardeners and residents who are demanding the city deny zoning exceptions that would allow developers to build two 34-story towers at 960 Franklin Ave, near the garden.

Among the main concerns is the impact the proposed towers would have on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The long shadows that would be cast over the garden, as well as the Jackie Robinson Playground, would have a disastrous effect on plant life, gardeners say.

Opponents also claim the size of the proposed building would not fit in with the neighborhood, and potential rezoning raised fears the floodgates would open for more developers to build high-rises in the area.

Goliath-sized towers

Right now, zoning for the area is capped at 75 feet — or about seven stories. That limit was set in 1991 in order to prevent shadows from being thrown on BBG's conservatory, the garden says.

Wednesday's rally was held at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Conservatory, and opened by local jazz band Control the Sound, who led the call to "fight for the sunlight."

BBG has been fighting the proposal for years, as modeling shows the buildings would put the garden's conservatories, greenhouses and nurseries in shadow for as much as four more hours per day, potentially causing plants to die off.

BBG President Adrian Benepe said the garden was facing an existential crisis to the extent that, "if you don't win this battle, you don't exist anymore."

A petition against the towers had got about 60,000 signatures, he said, more signatures than had ever been collected on a petition against a development in New York City.

Benepe also struck out at developer Continuum Company who he said created a "false dichotomy" by saying it was providing affordable housing, then trying to pit affordable housing against the need for light in the garden.

Municipal Art Society of New York President Elizabeth Goldstein said the "so-called affordable housing" the developer was offering was out of reach for most Crown Heights residents.

In response to opposition to its plans, Continuum in March laid out two alternative plans for the towers. But nothing that breached the current zoning was going to be OK, Goldstein said.

"This is not something that can be tweaked in the margins to be made palatable."

A warning from Brownsville

Meanwhile, Brownsville community garden leader Barbara Adamson — whose gardens feed hundreds of seniors — came with a word of warning for the crowd.

After a tall development went up next to community food farm Green Valley Garden at 93 New Lots Avenue, the new shade has turned the soil to sludge.

"Now we don't get sunlight until noon," she said. "The plants are dying."

Over at BBG, organizers say the potential loss of sunlight from the proposed development threatens to harm many of BBG's plants, including rare plants, endangered orchids and hundreds-year-old bonsais.

BBG Assistant Gardener Rhonda Patillo said it would be sad to lose plants in the conservatory that have been in the garden's collection for a long time, some of which are very rare.

"With no sunlight, the plants won't grow. They need sunlight to survive."

Margarita Poulson worked at the Conservatory for seven years, and said the construction would affect the types of plants they could grow at the garden, and they'd lose many they've had there for years.

"Plants become like your babies, they become like your family, you're caring for them on a daily basis, you worry about them when you go home."

Slippery slope

Meanwhile, nearby residents saw the development as the first step on a slippery slope of high-rise development around the park.

"This is a sign of a wider destruction coming," Ralph, who lives a block from the park, said.

"If this development gets put up right here, would you call me crazy if I told you, by 2030 we're going to have the Prospect Park Luxury Towers, 100-storys, apartments 500 million bucks and up? And little by little we'll look like Central Park South."

The City Planning Commission is set to have a public hearing on the developer's rezoning proposal Thursday morning.

The Planning Commission has the authority to end the process with its own vote, or to send the application to City Council, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden says.

The public was still waiting on Borough President Eric Adams' recommendation on the matter Wednesday.

Mayor Bill De Blasio, City Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo and speaker Corey Johnson have all come out against the project in its current design. 

Speaking ahead of the public hearing, Benepe said those in opposition to the development were "not expecting anything, but we're hoping."

Continuum has been reached for comment.

Jessy Edwards

About the Author: Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is an award-winning news and feature reporter whose work can be seen in such publications as NBC New York, Rolling Stone, the BBC, CNBC and more.
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