The stakes of the 960 Franklin Avenue Proposal on Crown Heights

March 2, 2021 Editorial Staff
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By Emily Nadal

The 960 Franklin Avenue development proposal only made it past the first step of the city’s uniform land use review process (ULURP) before it tried to change course. Heeding calls from the community, project developers attempted to scale back their original 34-story, 1.4 million square foot massive structure which threatened not only the neighborhood’s affordability but it’s natural sunlight as well. 

“This represents an existential threat to the garden,” says Ethan Lustig-Elgrably, Director of Government and Community Affairs at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. 

The Brooklyn cultural institution is at the forefront of the opposition. Armed with the tagline “Fight for Sunlight and a petition that has already garnered over 50,000 signatures and initiatives to mobilize the community, the garden has launched an intense call to action for locals and beyond, hoping to stop the city from allowing the structure to be built. 

“We really did take an unprecedented step in terms of getting involved in an issue like this in the way we have” says Lustig-Elgrably. “Typically speaking, large cultural institutions, particularly those on city land, tend to stay out of these sorts of things. We just didn’t have a choice.” 

One of the main concerns with the structure is the shadow it would cast upon the garden. Reducing sunlight by up to 4.5 hours, Lustig-Elgrably says this would be detrimental to the garden’s ecosystem, and the way they operate in general. New York City’s climate isn’t properly suited for many of the garden’s thousands of species of plants. Growing them in controlled environments, like their conservatory, allows the garden to effectively care for the greenery.

When I visited Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the greenhouses had already been closed to keep people from standing close to one another. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle

Decades of perfecting the technique will be thrown out of whack if the sun’s rays are blocked for hours each day. 

Other neighbors will suffer too. Across the street from 960 Franklin Avenue is Jackie Robinson Playground. The recent recipient of a $900,000 makeover, the playground is a popular spot for families and children alike. While a little shade is nice on hot summer days, it can also make the playground less appealing on cooler days, interrupting the natural movement of the sun. The playground is also home to several Linden trees, planted with the sun in mind. They, too, will languish from reduced light. 

Another Crown Heights resident, Medgar Evers College, will also see an eclipse because of the adjacent 960 Franklin Avenue building. A signature of the college’s academic building is its large glass wall which thrives off of the sun’s beam’s to light it up. That glass wall would become almost moot if the structure prevails. –>

While sunlight is the driving motivation for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, other neighbors have voiced their opposition to the development for an array of different reasons. Aesthetically, the structure just doesn’t fit into its surroundings. Renderings of the project show the building will be out of context for the area, quite literally towering over its surroundings. 

More than what is pleasing to the eye, current residents are questioning who the new tenants will be. The original 960 Franklin Avenue plan was to have a 50/50 split of the apartments: half of them would be affordable units and the other half would be market-rate prices. But there are lingering concerns over what defines affordable.

Selling the idea of middle class inclusive housing, Principal for Continuum Company William Wallace IV argued that the city leaves out middle income earners in affordable housing plans at a Wednesday evening community board meeting . The 960 Franklin Avenue development, he said, would change that. 

Along with defending the original blueprint, in an unexpected turn of events, Wallace and other members of the development team presented an alternative plan to consider: a shorter building with less affordable housing. 

Offering up the idea for a structure with half the number of stories, the new 17-level building plan would change the number of market rate apartments to 75% of the total and affordable units to only 25% of the total. A stark difference from the original building layout. Wallace also noted that of that 25%, or 292 apartments, there would be no middle class bracket for qualifications. 

Comparing the revised plan to other new mixed-income apartment buildings in New York City, Wallace said that this new model would “lead to increased gentrification.” 

Wallace staunchly defends both plans, but considers the 34-foot structure more valuable for the community, arguing that the city’s natural weather habits already affect the garden, so the building’s shadow cast shouldn’t be the deal breaker. 

960 Franklin Avenue currently sits in an R6A zoning district. In these zones, buildings stay relatively uniform and low in height. Lustig-Elgrably notes that these restrictions were put in place during the 1990s specifically to protect the garden. Continuum Company, the force behind the 960 Franklin Avenue project, is seeking to rezone the area to a more obscure, R9D-C24 zone. One of the most important qualities of this zone are the building height restrictions: there are none. 

If the rezoning of the area passes, residents not only fear the impact of 960 Franklin Avenue, but what could come next. 960 Franklin Avenue poses its own issues for the community, but in the long-term, rezoning opens the floodgates to a whole host of other projects that could drastically change the dynamic of Crown Heights. 

Two years into the process, the proposal has only gone through the first stage of the ULURP timeline which begins at the Department of City Planning, where it was approved on February 1st, 2021. Next up comes the official community board presentation and vote, set to take place in March. After that, the proposal will go through the office of the borough president, the city planning commission, city council and ending with the mayor, who has voiced his disapproval of the proposal.

While some residents are adamant about scrapping Continuum’s ideas all together, Wallace is hopeful that a resolution can be found which will be beneficial to everyone involved. But, Wallace mentioned, there has been little communication between the two biggest players in the game: Continuum Company and Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Adrian Benepe, President of Brooklyn Botanic Garden, was present at the community board presentation meeting but did not offer up a comment on the matter.

In the meantime, the garden continues to engage with the community and loyal enthusiasts about their fight for sunlight. 

“The process is going to play out now,” says Lustig Elgraby. “People will have the ability to make their voice heard and the garden will be out in the front.”

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