Prospect Heights

‘A wild place:’ Brooklyn Botanic president looks back on 14 years at the helm

Scot Medbury is stepping down and heading west.

June 18, 2019 Alex Williamson
Scot Medbury is stepping down as director of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Eagle file photo by Andy Katz

From urban oasis to just… oasis. 

Scot Medbury, who has served as the president and CEO of Brooklyn Botanic Garden since 2005, announced Thursday his planned departure from Brooklyn — and the east coast altogether. His next step: executive director at Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Sonoma County, California.

Medbury says he’ll remain in his post through January 2020 to complete a number of projects at BBG before packing up and moving west to oversee the 25-acre west coast botanical garden, which specializes in wild-sourced Asian plants.

In Medbury’s time at the BBG, he’s executed a number of major projects, including a water conservation system to reduce the garden’s freshwater consumption and stormwater runoff by millions of gallons each per year, and a new $28 million visitor center, often recognized for its sustainable design.

Diane Steinberg, Shelby White and Scot Medbury cut the ribbon for the Water Conservation Project. Photo by Julienne Schaer, courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden
From left: Diane Steinberg, Shelby White and Scot Medbury cut the ribbon for the Water Conservation Project. Photo by Julienne Schaer, courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Medbury says the visitor center is what he’s most proud of.  

“I’m a plant guy mainly, but I think [the center] feels so special because it exceeded our expectations. We set the bar for something extraordinary and it was better than that, and that is just really rare in professional life,” Medbury said.

Following these projects and others, including a redesigned Discovery Garden, a new Water Garden and an expanded Native Flora Garden, attendance at BBG grew from 625,000 visitors annually to a peak of nearly 1 million during Medbury’s tenure.

A botanical history

Medbury grew up in Hawaii, where tropical native plants sparked an early interest in horticulture. He worked for the National Tropical Botanical Garden on the island of Kauai and at the Honolulu Botanical Garden on Oahu.

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He also did a stint at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle, where he went for college and then a master’s degree in Urban Horticulture.

Medbury later moved to San Francisco, where he served as director of the San Francisco Botanical Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. He helped to refurbish the conservatory’s iconic Victorian-era greenhouse in 1995 after it was nearly destroyed by a storm.

“We took that building apart and down to the ground and filled it with fabulous additions. I think probably that amazing project is what made me eligible for this big project in New York,” Medbury said.

Loose ends

Before he departs in January, Medbury says he’ll advance the “fight for the sunlight,” a move to fight an application for zoning changes which would permit the construction of two 39-story towers along the garden’s eastern edge. The towers would cast shadows over the greenhouses and nurseries at BBG for several hours each day.  

The developers’ proposal for the site at 960 Franklin Ave. is currently undergoing the mandatory uniform land use review procedure. Medbury hopes to stoke public opposition to the zoning changes ahead of the City Council’s final decision.

Members of The Movement to Protect the People say shadows from planned developments would harm plants in Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s greenhouses. Eagle file photo by Lore Croghan
Residents say shadows from planned developments would harm plants in Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s greenhouses. Eagle file photo by Lore Croghan

“This kind of political campaign is really sort of unusual for a cultural institution,” said Medbury. “We’re about plants and kids and making New York a greener place, we’re not about zoning or housing.

“But we’re looking at a loss of as much as four and a half hours of sunlight on some of the indoor conservatory spaces, and this is a really significant impact.”

Medbury says before departing he’ll complete the Robert W. Wilson Overlook, an accessibility project with views of the Cherry Esplanade designed by the same couple who designed the visitor center, Weiss/Manfredi. The overlook is on track for a soft opening in late summer.

He also plans to complete the Elizabeth Scholtz Woodland Garden, a garden named for Medbury’s predecessor Elizabeth Scholtz, who led the garden during the economic downturn of the 1970s when funding was scarce. Scholtz is now 98 and living in Brooklyn Heights.

Turning a new leaf

The search is on for a new leader at BBG. Board Chairperson Diane Steinberg has moved quickly to appoint a search committee.

“I think I can be proudly handing the baton,” said Medbury. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, so I feel pretty good. We’re in a pretty good place financially and that sort of thing.”

Medbury says he’ll miss Brooklyn, especially spending time in the Native Flora Garden — his favorite.

“It’s the place that convinced me I could become a New Yorker,” Medbury said. “You felt like you were in a wild place.”

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