The Brooklyn Botanic Garden Renovates, and Faces an Existential Threat

Van Valkenburgh’s new Woodland Garden at the BBG. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Even on a frigid morning, when the last scarlet leaves clung to an oak tree and fallen gingko leaves blurred the pathways, a woman sat cross-legged on a stone bench in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, wrapped and rapt. I have no idea who she was or how long she’d been sitting there, but in the days since I spotted her, she has lingered in my mind as an image of serenity stolen from the screeching tumult of urban life.

Nature doesn’t grow on trees, you know. Setting the stage for her contemplative break took more than a century of planning, hundreds of millions of dollars, countless hours of labor, and the persistent support of politicians. The garden is a public artwork, as meticulously fashioned and obsessively maintained as any museum masterwork. Today, it may be lovelier (and it is certainly larger) than at any point in its history. After a decade of expensive interventions, it now has a light-filled visitor center neatly burrowed beneath a strip of rolling meadow, a new children’s garden, and a 1.5-acre patch of wetlands with a hidden system for conserving water. A gracious pathway loops gently down from a new overlook. And, in an area that was once an untamed tangle beneath old trees, the landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh & Associates has inserted a new Woodland Garden, a magical spot in the shade. (It opens to the public December 1.) The whole 52-acre park is the botanical equivalent of a dense downtown, with species from all over the world organized into adjacent communities and packed into a single ecosystem.

Like most cities, the garden has evolved piecemeal, plot by plot, so that a century’s worth of design aesthetics jostle and overlap. Swaths of Olmstedian wilderness nuzzle remnants of Beaux-Arts symmetry and strokes of sleek modernism. Off in the woods, Van Valkenburgh has swirled dark and light pathways through a deliberately crude colonnade of rough, dark concrete. It’s designed to confuse your sense of time. Now it looks like the Brutalist shell of an unfinished shed; soon it will seem like an ageless ruin.

The grounds were conceived to step down with symmetrical grace from the rear of the Brooklyn Museum, the public equivalent of a princely estate. In the museum’s original, unrealized plans from a century ago, it was to be many times larger than it is, and the south-facing terrace (now a parking lot) would have overlooked the formal cherry esplanade, meandering pathways, and beyond that, the wilds of Prospect Park. Only a stump of the museum was ever built, and instead of getting those stepped terraces, the garden was left with a mound of dirt at its northern border. The esplanade bumped up against a steep berm that cut off the palace from the grounds.

Now, Weiss Manfredi, one of the few firms at which architecture and landscape are equal partners, has fashioned a meandering processional, starting on the upper floor of the visitor center, which the firm also designed. Functionally, it’s a ramp that finally opens up the overlook to wheelchairs, but it’s also a tutorial in deploying minimal means and subtle design so that accessibility melts inconspicuously into the landscape. Instead of keeping the ramp just as short and tight as the law allows, fitting it out with railings, and tucking it off to one side, the architects turned it into a bucolic excursion. The pathway glides past a camera-ready vista of cherry trees and roses, along 600 feet of lazy switchbacks down the side of the berm. One hairpin turn widens into a pullout with a high-backed curving bench, the sort of place where warmth pools on a cold day and the view spreads out below, so the pause feels like a destination. Wedding photographers, have at it.

Atop Weiss Manfredi’s new visitor center at the BBG. Photo: Karen Woodruff

The architects, who also gave us the parks at Hunters Point South, know how to turn a path into a place. The precast concrete wall that ribbons across the slope has a silky precision, without pocks or chips or cracks. Now a conspicuous white, the concrete will age to a grayish green and fade into the vegetation that creeps across each slab. (The landscape architect Toby Wolf has covered the hill with low plantings that will make their big entrance next spring.) The architecture will politely cede the spotlight.

Like the larger metropolis it belongs to, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden exists in a complex and fragile equilibrium. Pick a spot in any of its bowers, and it feels like a world to itself, but in fact it occupies an arrowhead-shaped site that drives toward Flatbush, grazing the gentrifying neighborhood of Crown Heights. Much as the institution would love to retreat into its vegetal kingdom, it’s being drawn into the wars over scarce urban resources: housing, light, and air.

“We face an existential battle,” director Scot Medbury told the audience at the Municipal Art Society’s “Summit for New York City” last month. His nemesis is the proposal for a pair of 39-story apartment towers at 960 Franklin Avenue, a block from Eden’s gate — buildings that would obliterate hours of morning light from the BBG’s eastern edge. Over the years, the garden has stretched toward the sun. In the 1980s, Davis Brody Bond designed a complex of greenhouses on a light-washed strip along Washington Avenue, where horticulturalists nurture desert and tropical plants and prepare others to survive outdoors. The surrounding neighborhood was rezoned in 1991, keeping the skyline low specifically to protect the garden’s share of rays. Now, the developers want the city to undo those restrictions and, since half of the nearly 1,600 apartments in the planned towers would be affordable, they have the de Blasio administration’s ear.

This kind of conflict can appear morally lopsided: To some, the creation of decent, low-cost homes for those who desperately need them is being stymied by prissy plant-lovers. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a special case, a preserve of micro-manicured greenery that charges $15 admission, and it has confined its advocacy (laid out in its “Fight for Sunlight” exhibition) to the narrow and immediate threat. But the skyline’s gathering shadows extend to the city as a whole. The original 1916 zoning code was developed specifically to guarantee light and air to residents of an ever taller and more crowded metropolis; today, that promise needs to be renewed.

Medbury’s speech coincided with the release of a report, by the MAS and the advocacy organization New Yorkers for Parks, which argued that New York should bake the right to sunlight in public spaces into its laws, as other cities have done. Green spaces aren’t fungible or a frill. They’re what make the city livable; they are, quite literally, what keeps us sane. We’ve allowed towers to wave over Central Park, throw neighborhood playgrounds in darkness, loom over our necessary escapes, and sell views of the very places they oppress. Of course we need places for people to live. We also need somewhere for them to go when they walk out the door — somewhere where they can sit in the dwindling sun.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Renovates Amid Existential Threat