Crown Heights

Botanic Garden shows off the plants threatened by planned high-rises

January 13, 2020 Lore Croghan
Plants hang from the rafters in this Brooklyn Botanic Garden greenhouse. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle
Share this:

About 300 concerned New Yorkers showed up to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden over the weekend to push back on high-rise development planned just 150 feet away.

The development in question is a pair of 39-story towers at 960 Franklin Ave. in Crown Heights. The towers’ shadows would harm thousands of plants in the garden’s greenhouses and conservatories, Botanic Garden President Scot Medbury told the crowd that gathered on Sunday. The meeting marked the launch of the famous 52-acre garden’s Fight for Sunlight 2020 campaign, which opposes the rezoning efforts by the developers behind the towers.

Medbury told participants at the kickoff that 21 garden facilities are at risk from the potential shadows. These include plant-propagation spaces that visitors never see, greenhouses used for the garden’s extensive education programs and pavilions with displays that are open to the public.

There are more than 7,000 species in the plant collections in these facilities — and more than 150 of them are endangered species. More than 25,000 plants per year that are grown in these facilities are planted throughout the garden.

About 300 people attended Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Fight For Sunlight 2020 Kickoff. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle
About 300 people attended Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Fight For Sunlight 2020 Kickoff. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle

In the early 1990s, the area near the garden was rezoned to limit the heights of new buildings to seven stories. The purpose of the zoning was to protect the plants in Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Now, Ian Bruce Eichner’s Continuum Co. and Lincoln Equities hope to build a 1.37 million-square-foot development at 960 Franklin Ave, known as the Spice Factory site. That plan would require a change to the existing zoning.

Medbury said the effects of the towers’ shadows, which would block sunlight from the garden’s greenhouses and conservatories for 3 1/2 to four hours per day, would vary from species to species.

Damage from reduced sunlight would occur in the form of weakened, distorted growth for some types of plants. The botanists’ word for this is “etiolation.” Some plants would be more prone to pests, diseases and rot. Some would bear fruit less often. Growth cycles would be disrupted. Also, the glass facades of the proposed apartment towers could cause glare that scorches the garden’s plants.

A spokesperson for the Spice Factory developers declined to comment about Sunday’s Fight for Sunlight rally.

Since the garden’s founding a century ago, it has been deeply involved in youth environmental education. “Brooklyn Botanic Garden has a footprint in education that is just a model for urban gardens around the world,” Medbury said. “It’s incumbent upon us to stand up and defend [ourselves from] anything that would harm the garden.”

Cacti flourish in a growing room at Brooklyn Botanic Garden that’s off limits to the public. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle
Cacti flourish in a growing room at Brooklyn Botanic Garden that’s off limits to the public. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle

Municipal Art Society President Elizabeth Goldstein, who also spoke at Sunday’s event, said the Spice Factory high-rises would be the tallest residential buildings for miles if they’re constructed as currently designed.

“The towers at 960 Franklin are an affront to zoning protections that the city promised this neighborhood and this institution [Brooklyn Botanic Garden], and they are a symptom of the citywide devaluation of a very important natural resource that the zoning code was designed to safeguard. We believe that New Yorkers deserve better.”

Development projects that amount to “the de facto privatization of sunlight” should not be allowed to proliferate in New York City, Goldstein said.

Half the 1,578 apartments in the proposed Spice Factory development would be affordable units for tenants at varying income levels as high as 120 percent of area median income, which is $89,640 per year for individuals. The developers of the Spice Factory site bought part of the property for $33 million and have the rest under contract, city Finance Department records indicate.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden stands on city-owned land. The garden’s greenhouses and buildings belong to the city, and over the years, the city has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the garden, which hosts up to 1 million visitors per year.

A delicate orchid blooms in a Brooklyn Botanic Garden greenhouse. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle
A delicate orchid blooms in a Brooklyn Botanic Garden greenhouse. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle

After remarks by Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment Principal Gail Lambert and Coney Island Beautification Project President Pamela Pettyjohn, Fight for Sunlight participants toured the greenhouses.

Reporters got their own tour with Medbury through climate-controlled growing rooms that are usually closed to the public. They were populated with eye-catching cacti and orchids with lush foliage.

A corpse flower plant (named for its repulsive, rotting-flesh-like smell) is kept in one of the growing rooms. This plant, native to tropical forests in Sumatra, needs bright light to grow, Medbury said. When a corpse flower bloomed at Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 2006, it drew 40,000 visitors, he said.

A Fight for Sunlight exhibit that Brooklyn Botanic Garden launched last summer is currently on display. The exhibit highlights specific plants in the greenhouses that could be harmed by shadows from the proposed 39-story towers. For instance, the osa pulchra plant from Costa Rica and Panama, which has huge trumpet-shaped flowers, needs proper growing conditions to survive. Only about 30 of these plants exist in the wild.

At a public scoping meeting in March about the Spice Factory development plans, numerous neighborhood residents spoke out against the project. Reps from labor unions spoke in favor of it.

That meeting was a prelude to a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure — or ULURP — process that is required when rezoning is sought.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment


  1. Although the fight for sunlight is a worthwhile cause, there have been many meetings and court sessions in this regard where no representative from BBG attended early on and even more recently. Also, if the gardens would only make an attempt to clean the filthy and dirt and mold encrusted windows of the conservatories and greenhouses, they would gain a significant amount of light entering. There is no valid excuse for this lack of maintenance, but this has become the norm at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.

  2. Dawn Dew

    This reporter should be in the court room covering the gritty details playing out in court as well this protest. The courtroom display shows the city is siding with the developers and trying every angle to “legalize” this theft.

  3. Our next court date in this fight is April 14 2020 and it is always important to attend these. This is not only a fight for sunlight but includes an argument for community respect and rights to maintain some affordability from the powers that seek personal gain.