The Brooklyn Botanic Garden Needs Sunlight

9 Japanese Garden BBG.jpg

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden Needs Sunlight

My wife and I are members of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and go there regularly, and I have had other involvements with the institution. Last summer I took a group of interns there; Barbara Kurland, Director of Education, showed them a new garden planted by young people and arranged for them to use the library for some research. Also Nostrand Avenue Triangle is a registered garden with the BBG and as a result during giveaways managed by Maureen O'Brien, we get trees and other plants in the spring. So when I got an e-mail appeal to sign a petition directed at stopping the building of massive residential towers that would block sunlight coming into the garden in the morning, I immediately signed. I was aware that a fight was continuing, but did not delve into the details until I got a message from Sharon Hunt, whom I had met in Participatory Budgeting. She told me about a court appearance in the case of Boyd vs Cumbo in which Alicia Boyd of the Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP) was suing Councilwoman Cumbo, the Department of City Planning and Cornell Realty to reverse a rezoning passed by the City Council on December 20, 2018.

I went down to the courthouse at 360 Adams Street and filed into the courtroom of Judge Reginald Boddie along with something like a hundred other people, all wearing flowers, to fill all the seating in the room. We found out the defendants were trying to dismiss the suit on a technicality, claiming that the papers had not been served properly. MTOPP issued a fact sheet challenging their motion. Judge Boddie heard the claims and counter-claims and refused to dismiss the suit. Instead he scheduled a “traverse” to hear evidence from both sides. This will take place September 9th. Afterwards the supporters of Boyd gathered outside the court for a press conference and a photo.

From looking into the matter further, I discovered the following. There had been an agreement made in 1991 , in which the City agreed to zoning in the contested area that limited buildings to six to seven stories, and on the basis of this agreement the BBG built its conservatories and greenhouses where they grow the plants for the rest of the garden. Laurie Cumbo, Majority Leader of the City Council, had started out an as opponent of the project but entered into negotiations with the developers and a non-profit and claimed to have come up with a “miracle.” She got the developers to add 118 so-called affordable units to the roughly 140 they had started with. The additional units would be built by Asian Americans for Equality who would get a 1,000 square foot parcel. The towers would be 16 stories tall. In exchange Cumbo pushed through the rezoning in the City Council as part of the Universal Land Use Revision Procedure. This did get passed just as another proposal went forward to build two 39-story towers, much taller than the Tivoli Tower built in 1979. These towers would have 1,450 units half of which would be “affordable.” In neither of these efforts has anyone addressed the concerns of the BBG or the overall effect on the community. The BBG is vigorously fighting the second proposal but seems resigned to the first; however, MTOPP is fighting all such development.

This model of development is one that is already on view in downtown Brooklyn, where there are enormous towers, which drastically changed the city landscape. First, what the developers want is high end renters and condo owners. So the effect of their buildings is to further gentrification, moving in people more wealthy than those who live in the community. Thus, the market changes and rents in general go up. Second, the “affordable” units that are set aside are not very affordable. Their rents are calculated by the Average Median Income (AMI), which is now set at about $106,000/year for a family of four. Even at 60% of AMI, something over $60,000, this is not what most people in Crown Heights can afford. AMI in the area is about $40,000. So these projects will be filled by middle class and rich people, and soon will follow the stores to serve them. A further problem is once the buildings are built, what happens if the developers renege? Politicians come and go; buildings and their owners last, and

they can always give money to politicians, and they always have the resources for endless court battles. This model of development is really a boon to real estate developers; MTOPP charges that Cumbo has received about $220,000 from Jobs for New Yorkers, an organization entirely funded by the real estate industry. Cumbo denies this and says she never solicited or approved of this money and never got any. This issue needs sorting out.

As this kind of development goes on, the problem of homelessness grows, the process of using foreclosure to dispossess people of their property continues, and the shortage of true low-cost housing gets worse. Neighborhoods are “Manhattanized” with more wealthy people moving into large developments and the locals having to move out, further from the center of things, trying to find places to live, with more and more of them failing to do so. At the same time the New York City Housing Authority suffers scandal after scandal from under-funding, lack of repairs and deteriorating conditions.

There are two different kinds of neighborhoods. One has relatively small buildings anywhere from three to seven stories. In these neighborhoods people meet each other on the street where they share information and opinions. A community forms; when people notice a child walking by herself, they say, “Where's your mother, sweetheart.” They know the postman, the garbageman and the police. When they eat out they get to know the waiter, the same with the hairdresser, the checkout people at the supermarket, the clerk at the discount store. The other occurs when there are enormous buildings; the neighborhood is different; the eyes and ears are the doormen and the security guards. No one knows the workers from city services because they do their work perhaps ten stories away from the typical resident. The waiter at the restaurant introduces herself, “I am Pamela; I will be your server this evening.” There is no chance to schmooze with her and get know her. One mostly shops by computer or telephone, and there are packages and deliveries but there is no personal contact. Life goes from being part of a community to being at the center of a set of services. Even though the environment is statistically safe, one becomes very aware of people who don't belong, who are not like oneself – people who are young, people of color, people who don't dress and conform according to one's standards, people who spend time sitting on the street. Thus, one might notify the doorman, the security guard, or the police to see to it the offending person is sent elsewhere.

I say let the Brooklyn Botanic Garden have its sunlight, let's drop the process of enriching developers and destroying neighborhoods. Let's find ways of building low cost housing directly and seeing to it that it has all the resources needed to work well for its tenants, and let's find ways to turn these tenants into homeowners.

There is money and there is the power of people educated and politicized. The latter comes and goes. Money is always there. We need to use the current moment to put in place laws that minimize the power of money and programs that help people live in housing in real communities where they might come to have a stake, where they might even come to own homes.

– John DeWind

UpdatesRobbie Klein