Court ruling gives second wind to lawsuit against Franklin Avenue developments
"Keep your towers off our flowers."
A lawsuit against Crown Heights high-rise developments that activists say would cast damaging shadows on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden can move forward, a Brooklyn judge ruled on Monday.
The case brought by neighborhood activist Alicia Boyd and Crown Heights residents LaShaun Ellis and Michael Hollingsworth has broad implications. It’s a test of whether citizens can successfully challenge already approved city zoning.
The December 2018 rezoning of two Franklin Avenue sites (931 Carroll St. and 40 Crown St.) will allow the construction of 175-foot-tall, 16-story towers. The trio contends these high-rises would cast harmful shadows on the famous 52-acre botanic garden for more than three hours per day.
Despite the case’s far-reaching implications, the issue Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Reginald Boddie addressed on Monday was narrow.
He held a “traverse hearing,” focusing specifically on whether the three petitioners had followed correct procedures in serving Cornell Realty Management with the suit.
If Boddie had decided in the real estate firm’s favor, he would have dismissed the case, but he ruled in favor of Boyd, Ellis and Hollingsworth, and thus allowed their fight to continue.
Oksana Wright, an attorney who represented Cornell Realty at the time, accepted service of the lawsuit in April. The legal question was whether she was the correct person to do so.
Wright had said she would appear as a witness at Monday’s hearing. When she didn’t show up, the judge sent Cornell Realty’s current lawyer, Abrams Fensterman partner Melanie Wiener, out of the courtroom to call her.
After Wiener returned and told the judge she couldn’t get Wright on the phone, Boddie called a 20-minute recess to give Wiener more time to produce the witness. She did not.
The judge ruled the suit had been properly served — and also decided to keep in place a temporary restraining order barring construction, including the pouring of concrete, at 931 Carroll St. and 40 Crown St.
There will be another hearing on Oct. 7.
In addition to Cornell Realty, the lawsuit names City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, the Department of City Planning and its Director Marisa Lago, DCP’s Brooklyn Director Winston Von Engel and the city Buildings Department. (When people sue government entities and officials, the proceeding is referred to as an Article 78 case.)
The sites whose zoning the case challenged are separate and distinct from the nearby Spice Factory site at 960 Franklin Ave. There, Ian Bruce Eichner’s Continuum Company and co-developer Lincoln Equities are seeking rezoning so they can build high-rise twin towers.
Boyd’s supporters wore flowered clothing on Monday and put flowers in their hair or on their lapels or hat bands. They filled all the seats in Boddie’s courtroom.
After the hearing, they stood on the steps of Brooklyn Supreme Court in Borough Hall Plaza and chanted “Flower power! Flower power!” and “Keep your towers off our flowers.”
Boyd told the crowd, “Justice was done today.”
Afterward, she told the Brooklyn Eagle she’s thankful for her supporters and a team of people who help her prepare for the suit. “We are doing the work of lawyers,” she said.
She, Ellis and Hollingsworth are handling the case pro se, meaning without a lawyer to represent them.
Crown Heights resident William Keefer, who attended the hearing wearing vines wrapped around his chest and a floral crown, told the Eagle he loves the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
“The city doesn’t do enough to protect green space,” he said.
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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