How Much Green Space Can We Afford During a Housing Crisis?

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If we were living in truly radical times, if the Socialist overthrow were really upon us, then someone might have come along to suggest bulldozing the Yulan magnolia and Chinese witch hazel and all the rest of Brooklyn Botanic Garden and using the space to erect apartment buildings for people desperate for somewhere to live.

The garden occupies 52 acres that abut two neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn, Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, where aggressive gentrification has propelled one of the most acute housing crises in the country. Rates of homelessness in Central Brooklyn are high, and stories of venal landlords who turn off the heat and hot water to push out low-income tenants and replace them with freshly minted graduates of better colleges are quite common.

No one has ever seriously proposed getting rid of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, of course; doing so would be comparable to announcing a killing spree to get rid of every last Hawaiian monk seal. Since the beginnings of the City Beautiful movement in the late 19th century, which sought to counteract the chaos of tenement life with an aesthetics of peace and order meant to breed civic virtue, the primacy of urban green space has gone more or less unchallenged.

In the case of the garden, it appears to be enough of a sacrilege to imagine towers merely going up across the street. In the mid-1980s when the garden’s Steinhardt Conservatory was built with municipal funds, architects concerned with the prospect of high-rise development in Crown Heights successfully petitioned the city to limit development through zoning regulations, on surrounding blocks, in order to protect the conservatory’s access to sunlight.

Now that zoning has been challenged to accommodate a plan for two towers, on Franklin Avenue, each 39 stories high, which would contain close to 1,600 apartments, half of them mandated as affordable for middle- and working-class tenants. This is a significant number — most affordable housing initiatives often add only 100 or so units to the market, attracting thousands of applicants in the process.

The garden has hardly embraced this vision. Instead, it is leading the fight to keep the existing zoning laws in place, to prevent the housing from being constructed on the premise that it would cast shadows damaging to plant life.

At a hearing regarding the issue this past week, Scot Medbury, the president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, argued that its conservatories, greenhouses and outdoor nursery facilities all sit in the direct path of the proposed towers and would be cut off from morning light during the spring, summer and fall. The entire garden depends on these facilities he said, which contain “plant collections of international importance.”

When I spoke with him later he emphasized that the Brooklyn Botanic Garden “was not just some sort of generic urban green space,” which is absolutely true. He also said that “we shouldn’t pit open space against affordable housing.”

That second line ignores both the severity of the housing shortage and the feasibility of available land in a place that is not Montana. It remains the mantra as well of those protesting the development of a seven-story apartment complex that would go up on the site of the Elizabeth Street Garden in SoHo.

Built in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, it is intended not for 26-year-olds with pet-food delivery start-ups but specifically for low-income older people at a moment when the number of adults in Manhattan over 65 and living in poverty is known to have increased by 16 percent during the past decade. Residents of the building will have their own library, computer lab and roof garden.

Beyond that, about a third of the existing garden, which totals about 20,000 square feet, would remain, if absent the eerie romantic beauty that distinguishes it now. The lot was designated for Section 8 housing years ago, but the housing never materialized. Eventually, an outsider artist named Allan Reiver filled it with sculptures from his collection, leasing the land from the city and opening it to the public. It is this notion of the garden as an important cultural asset in a neighborhood whose character has slowly eroded that will be mourned.

But what are the alternatives? Those who would like to keep the garden intact suggest that the building conceived go up across town on an empty lot on Hudson Street. Community activists who oppose development, almost always self-proclaimed progressives in New York, will consistently lead by telling you how committed they are to affordable housing, how important it is to mitigating social inequality and so on. It just so happens that in nearly every case, they have in mind a more suitable location for whatever the city is proposing than the place where they themselves happen to live.

Given that 63,000 New Yorkers are homeless, the city should be building affordable housing on all of its vacant lots, or at least most of them. Lovers of community gardens would resist this idea. They might say that climate change has given the need for more green space a moral urgency, and they would be right. But the city has added more than 3,300 acres of parkland over the past 25 years, and nearly 800 acres just in the past decade.

New York has lost more than 735 units of housing during the past five years because of breakdowns of the community review process. The modern Nimbyist, unlike the 20th-century model, refuses to see himself as a Nimbyist. He is working for the common good. But that common good will never be achieved with the commitment to absolutism that he too often deploys — the blanket rejection of anything new that supplants the old.

Instead, activists could push for buildings that are slightly shorter in the instance of the botanic garden project, for example, or for innovative uses of green space when certain lots are threatened — vertical gardens and living walls, with plant life climbing up buildings, of the kind popularized in other parts of the world. That would look a whole lot more like altruism.

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Ginia Bellafante on Twitter: @GiniaNYT

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