Crown Heights

Brooklyn Botanic launches protest exhibit about proposed high-rise development

July 30, 2019 Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Botanic Garden has opened an exhibit about the threat to its conservatories posed by the Spice Factory development. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Brooklyn Botanic Garden is deploying a new tool to muster public opposition to Crown Heights’ high-rise Spice Factory development: education.

It’s an exhibit called “Fight for Sunlight,” which details the harm that would be done to rare and endangered plants in the garden’s greenhouse and conservatory complex by shadows that two planned 39-story towers would cast for up to 4 1/2 hours per day. The Spice Factory site, where the towers would stand, is just 150 feet away from the garden.

Ian Bruce Eichner’s Continuum Co. and co-developer Lincoln Equities are seeking rezoning for the site at 960 Franklin Ave. in order to build a 1.37 million-square-foot residential and retail project with 1,578 apartments.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden President and CEO Scot Medbury takes reporters on a tour. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Brooklyn Botanic Garden President and CEO Scot Medbury takes reporters on a tour. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Half of them would be affordable units for people with four different income levels. The lowest-income individual tenants could make up to $36,550 per year, and the highest-income residents could earn as much as $125,160 annually for a family of four.

“It’s a false proposition to pit so-called ‘affordable’ housing against open space,” BBG President and CEO Scot Medbury told reporters during a tour of the greenhouses and conservatories on Tuesday, the day the exhibit opened.

The garden’s top officials think the project plan is “inappropriate” and hope the developers withdraw it, Medbury said.

Zoning in the area near the famous 52-acre garden was changed in 1991 to protect its access to sunlight. The zoning capped new-building heights at seven stories.

If Continuum and Lincoln Equities are going to develop the Spice Factory site, they should stick with the current zoning, said Medbury, who is stepping down from his post as the garden’s president and CEO in January.

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The greenhouse and conservatory complex has 31 separate chambers, or growing spaces, with tens of thousands of different plants with specific light and temperature requirements.

Shadows that would blot out sunlight for 4 1/2 hours per day will cause some plants to succumb to fungal diseases, Medbury said. Some plants may not flower; others won’t grow at all.

In one of the conservatories, a semi-transparent exhibit scrim shows an outline of the Spice Factory’s proposed 464-foot towers looming over 54-foot conservatory buildings.

The tiger orchid shown here won’t bloom again if the Spice Factory towers are built, BBG curator Dave Horak says. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
The tiger orchid shown here won’t bloom again if the Spice Factory towers are built, BBG curator Dave Horak says. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

In a nearby room in the Aquatic House, a sign that’s part of the “Fight for Sunlight” exhibit stands beside a huge hanging contraption that holds a tiger orchid Medbury said is as big as a Volkswagen.

Thanks to the Aquatic House’s sunshine and warmth, “BBG has been lucky enough to successfully bloom this species three times since 1997,” says the message on the sign, which is from curator Dave Horak.

“It remains one of the rarest events in a botanic garden in this country. Reducing natural sunlight would make it a virtual certainty that these plants would not bloom again at BBG,” Horak’s message concludes.

Curators will be posting messages about Spice Factory shadows beside other plants in the weeks to come. The exhibit will be in place through the end of the year.

Another element of the “Fight for Sunlight” exhibit is a video comparing what shadows at the garden currently look like on the longest day of the year to longer-lasting shadows that would be cast by the Spice Factory towers.

“With reduced sunlight, many plants would get sick, weaken and die,” the video warns.

The Spice Factory towers would cast shadows on the Desert Pavilion for four and a half hours per day. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
The Spice Factory towers would cast shadows on the Desert Pavilion for four and a half hours per day. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

It’s playing on a wall outside the Desert Pavilion — which would be hit especially hard by shadows from the towers.

BBG’s collection of 400 bonsai trees is threatened by the shadows that Spice Factory towers would cast. Some of the miniature trees are several hundred years old.

Medbury took reporters to an outdoor nursery that’s not open to the public, where the bonsai spend their summers soaking up the sun.

The Spice Factory developers have suggested artificial light could be used in the greenhouses when shadows fall over them. Medbury said that wouldn’t help.

During his walk with reporters, Medbury said Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s youth education programs, which were first established a century ago, make extensive use of its greenhouses and conservatories.

This is the Spice Factory, where 39-story towers are planned. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
This is the Spice Factory, where 39-story towers are planned. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden draws 825,000 to 1 million visitors per year, depending on how wet the spring weather is. “We know New Yorkers care about us,” Medbury said. “This is a very special place.”

Brooklyn Botanic Garden is also running a petition campaign against the Spice Factory’s proposed rezoning. A spokesperson for the developers did not immediately respond to request for comment about the new exhibit.

Medbury and numerous BBG employees testified in March at a public scoping meeting about the harm that would be caused by shadows from the towers. The meeting was a prelude to a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, which is required when zoning changes are sought.

Here’s a look at the high-rise towers proposed for the Spice Factory site. Rendering via the City Planning Department
Here’s a look at the high-rise towers proposed for the Spice Factory site. Rendering via the City Planning Department

At that meeting, numerous Crown Heights residents expressed their opposition to the proposed Spice Factory high-rises, including members of Movement to Protect the People, an organization founded by activist Alicia Boyd. Numerous members of construction unions, on the other hand, expressed their support for the developments.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

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  1. crawford57

    Why is the Botanical Garden wasting money and promoting fake science, in trying to block desperately-needed housing from being built? I thought they were a cultural treasure, not a den of selfish NIMBYs. Tall buildings are built next to parkland all the time, all over the world, and there is no negative impact on plant life. Maybe some of the garden leadership will have their views blocked or something?

    Guess I won’t be supporting the garden anymore.