“Get it before it’s gone.” The sign in front of the Wendy’s on Flatbush Avenue and Empire Boulevard was pressuring passerby not to miss the chance for ¢50 Frosties.
Across the street, protesters of all ages, from toddlers to grandparents, wearing flowers in their hair, gathered outside the Flatbush Avenue entrance to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on an unseasonably cold and rainy Mother’s Day to protest something more precious than milkshakes. They were fighting planned 22- and 42-story luxury developments that may not only cast shadows and reflect excessive sun glare onto the garden’s many valuable plant species, but also potentially displace residents who’ve lived in the neighborhood for decades and can’t afford luxury real estate.
Armed with flyers, petitions, and a green banner with white letters demanding “Protect the Garden, protect the people, no high rise towers,” participants chanted: “Save our neighborhood, save our Garden!” The protesters chatted with passing residents and visitors on their way into the Garden.
“We’re trying to reach out to the members of the Garden to let them know that this issue is pending,” explained Alicia Boyd, an organizer with Flower Lovers Against Corruption, Movement to Protect the People, and the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network. Developers, Boyd said, want proximity to the Garden, and they’re choosing the Empire Boulevard and Flatbush Avenue area, because of “the fact that it’s a community of color, and communities of color tend to not have as strong political power in the city as more upper middle class white communities,” referring to neighborhoods like Park Slope on the other side of Prospect Park.
So far, the garden’s president “is ignoring our requests for a meeting,” Boyd said. “We hope that he would feel like it’s important enough to meet with the community around this issue. This is a public garden, and we need to remind them of that.”
Imani Henry, the founder and lead organizer of Equality for Flatbush and a member of the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, echoed Boyd’s concerns about both raising awareness and a lack of communication from the Garden’s board.
“We just want, first and foremost, to let people know that this is about to happen, and that there’s still time to stop it,” Henry said. He believes it’s up to the most concerned neighborhood residents to share information about the developments mainly because, as he sees it, no one else in power will. “I think it’s really important that people know that not only is it ridiculously harmful to the environment, that the Garden is at risk, but also what it means to have any kind of construction go up on Empire Boulevard, in a neighborhood that’s mainly low- to middle-income people of color.”
According to both Boyd and Henry, among local politicians there is an apparent “denial that there is even a major construction project that’s about to happen,” as Henry put it.
“Our local elected officials act like it’s not even existing,” Boyd said. “We’ve talked to several of them and they say, ‘What project? I don’t know anything about that project. You’ll have to give us information about it.’ That was BBG’s position as well. ‘We don’t know anything about that kind of development happening.'” She added: “Everybody has been quiet about it except for us.”
Passerby on Sunday enthusiastically took flyers and even stopped to sign the petition urging local elected officials and the Department of City Planning not to green-light the developers’ plans. “The whole point of the Garden is to visualize and see it,” said Nancy, a garden visitor from Queens who stopped to join the protest. “With the high rises, you’re going to be looking at the high rises and not the Garden.”
Hannah and Alan, a couple who declined to share their last names, had originally been visiting Brooklyn for another event from Vermont, and even changed their plans so they could show their support. “These are beautiful landmarks, and people come from all over the world to see these places,” Alan said. “These landmarks need to be protected.”
As the protesters headed inside the Garden, there were two brief confrontations with BBG security staff. The first occurred on the way in, when guards asked to examine several of the entrants’ membership cards; the second came near the Steinhardt Conservatory, where guards briefly locked the doors, preventing one protester in a wheelchair from using the bathroom. Police were called, but no arrests were made; and unlike the guards, garden visitors were largely supportive of the protest.
“Thank you so much for doing this,” a woman pushing a stroller called out to the protesters. Aviva, a Prospect Heights resident, told Hyperallergic that she’s not against her neighborhood having more amenities, “but not at the expense of cultural and historical institutions like the Garden.” When she moved to her block five years ago, “I thought I was the big change as a white person, but that was only the beginning.”
Tom Knight, a member of Equality for Flatbush, said that while discussions have stalled with the Garden and elected officials, outreach to neighborhood residents has “been going really well. Nobody says, ‘no, we should have these tall high rises.’ I’ve yet to meet anybody who wants giant, 40-plus story buildings or even 20-plus story buildings near the Garden.”
Update, 5/15/2018, 7pm: A spokesperson for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden provided the following statement to Hyperallergic regarding Sunday’s rally and the proposed developments near the Garden:
Brooklyn Botanic Garden takes very seriously any developments that may adversely impact the Garden’s priceless living collections, and we are deeply committed to protecting the integrity and the beauty of BBG, a source of learning and inspiration for our community and beyond.
The proposal from Continuum Company for a complex of four large buildings on the site of the former Spice Factory on Franklin Avenue and Montgomery Street is still in the pre-application phase with City Planning, but early press briefings by the developer indicate building towers reaching up to nearly 40 stories high. Buildings of this scale have raised serious concerns about significant shadow impacts on the Garden. We are strongly advocating to maintain the current zoning, which now caps building heights at 6–7 stories, and which was put in place, in part, to protect the Garden’s conservatories from building shadows. We have been keeping the City of New York — owner of the land upon which Brooklyn Botanic Garden is located — apprised of the potentially negative shadow impact on their property, BBG’s plant collections, and our public and educational programs.