300 rally to save garden; 'City pits park vs. housing'
September 29, 2016
By Lincoln Anderson
As the sun shone down on a beautiful late-summer afternoon, the garden supporters gathered together, standing on lush green grass — so rare in this corner of Manhattan. Small white butterflies flitted around the garden’s moss-covered statues and monuments. Above, in the shade-giving trees, birds happily chirped.
But this feeling of tranquility — again, so hard to come by in an open space-starved city — was marred by concern over this place’s fate.
Three hundred people rallied at the Elizabeth St. Garden last Wednesday, one week after the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development issued a request for proposals to build senior affordable housing on the endangered urban green oasis.
Some say the garden is in Nolita, others in Soho or Little Italy. But one thing is certain, City Councilmember Margaret Chin and the de Blasio administration are pushing all out for the request for proposals, or R.F.P., for the 20,265-square-foot lot, which spans clear through from Mott St. to Elizabeth St. midblock between Prince and Spring Sts.
Developers’ responses to the R.F.P. are due by Dec. 14.
The housing would be slated for people 62 years of age and older. According to the R.F.P., the project would also include ground-floor retail and / or community facility uses and — in a token nod to the beloved Elizabeth St. Garden — at least 5,000 square feet of “high-quality, publicly accessible space open space.” However, that would only amount to one-fifth of the garden’s current space.
Per the R.F.P., the lot would be conveyed to the chosen developer for just $1. The units would have to remain affordable for at least 30 years.
At the rally, Assemblymember Deborah Glick blasted Bill de Blasio for betraying his pledge to be a community-minded mayor.
“We thought this was going to be a new administration that was committed to community empowerment and community engagement,” she said, “and now we find out we’re not part of that vision.
“You can come to the Harvest Festival and see this garden teeming with all sorts of people from the neighborhood,” Glick noted of the upcoming annual event on Sat., Oct 22. “We want to keep this space. It is desperately needed.”
Glick invited de Blasio to come back to the table and reconsider his anti-community position.
“The garden’s gates are open. The doors are open,” Glick said. “Come back and work with us.”
Other local politicians and officials who back saving the garden include state Senators Daniel Squadron and Brad Hoylman, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, new State Committeeman Lee Berman and Adrian Benepe, the city’s former Parks Department commissioner.
Yuh-Line Niou, who won the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, and so is a shoo-in to be the new 65th District assemblymember, also supports the garden — in fact, she has carrots and basil growing there.
Also speaking in support of the Elizabeth St. Garden was Peter Kostmayer, a former Pennsylvania congressmember and now C.E.O. of Citizens Committee for New York City.
“We basically have almost everyone,” Tobi Bergman, Community Board 2 chairperson, said of the garden’s political support.
The garden lot was stealthily slipped in as a development site in 2012 as an “add-on” to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, plan on the Lower East Side, which is in Community Board 3. Because Chin had only been able to negotiate 50 percent affordable housing for the SPURA mega-project, but wanted more, she quietly worked with the administration to designate the Elizabeth St. lot, which is in C.B. 2, as an additional development site. However, C.B. 2 was never included in the discussions, and was only notified after the fact.
Last year, Bergman, who passionately backs saving the garden, came up with an alternative idea — to shift the affordable housing to a barren city-owned open lot of roughly the same size at Hudson and Clarkson Sts. The Hudson lot was used to drill a shaft down to the new City Water Tunnel No. 3, but now sits empty. This alternative site could be rezoned to allow five times as many affordable units to be built than on Elizabeth St., according to Bergman. Plus, a treasured community garden would not have to be destroyed.
“They’re offering 5,000 square feet,” Bergman said of the sliver of open space in the Elizabeth St. R.F.P. “That’s the size of a basketball court. How do you get all the things that happen in this garden in a space of that size?”
“It’s just another real estate lie!” someone in the crowd shouted out.
In her remarks, Tupper Thomas, executive director for New Yorkers for Parks and the former administrator for Prospect Park, said it was her first time in the Elizabeth St. Garden, and she was awed by it.
“It is fabulous,” she enthused. “It’s one of the most beautiful spaces I’ve ever seen. It’s got shade, it’s got nature, and it’s got art — it’s a complete park. It’s sad that in this day and age we are pitting parks against seniors. City government should be smart enough and creative enough to do both.”
Aziz Dehkan, executive director of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, stressed that the garden is public land.
“This is your land!” he exhorted the crowd. “Don’t let them fool you. H.P.D. keeps saying, ‘We’re going to listen to the community.’ Look at how many people are here in the middle of a weekday — this garden is full. If they were listening to the community, we wouldn’t have to be here. … This is your land.
Dehkan urged de Blasio, “Make this garden stay green. Stop making it a wedge issue.”
Calling her “the star of the show,” Bergman introduced Jeannine Kiely, the initial organizer of the Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden.
Kiely noted her group has collected 4,500 letters in support of saving the Elizabeth St. Garden. Their goal is to make it permanent parkland.
“This is the only green park from Bowery to the Hudson River between Canal and Houston Sts.,” she stressed.
The area has a tiny amount of open space per capita — the equivalent of “one subway seat” per person, she noted.
“According to one city agency, we’re underserved in terms of open space, but another agency wants to build here,” she said, incredulously.
Kiely mentioned the hot-button issue of Rivington House, where the de Blasio administration quietly lifted a deed restriction, allowing the longtime Lower East Side community AIDS hospice to be sold off for luxury residential use, again, with no notification to the community. Similarly, the administration’s effort to develop on the Elizabeth St. Garden would rob the neighborhood of yet another valued community resource.
“Instead of representing this garden, Councilmember Chin is failing to represent this community,” Kiely said accusingly. “The de Blasio administration is once again letting politicians determine policy.”
Also advocating for the garden was Jack Russo, a science teacher at nearby P.S. 1. Thanks to this open green space, he said, his students have “learned about composting, planting seeds, germinating bulbs. …”
In a letter, one student wrote, “It’s just like a farm — but it’s in the city, the biggest city in America. Let’s keep it here.”
Renee Green, 84, who lives across the street, said she has arthritis and so can’t walk all the way to the YMCA, but loves coming to the garden and enjoying its many activities.
“I saw kids engaging in a ladybug release,” she said. “What a delight it was seeing 400 people on movie night enjoying films about Little Italy — a number of people in the audience actually were in the films.”
Christopher Marte, who just ran for State Committee and is an up-and-coming Dominican-American activist, has been involved with the garden. He even recently helped start a garden at L.E.S. Infill 1 Housing, a low-rise public-housing complex on the site of Adam Purple’s former Garden of Eden.
“I think this is what community looks like, right?” he said of the crowd of passionate gardeners. He noted that the Elizabeth St. Garden had recently shown Chinese films, drawing a crowd of Chinese-Americans from the surrounding neighborhood.
“This is our community. This is our foundation,” Marte declared. “We can’t let our community be destroyed. We can’t let our heart be destroyed.”
Sergeant Yip from the Fifth Precinct frequently works with the garden. He recently started a run from the garden and also held a domestic-violence awareness event there.
“This garden is actually very useful to work with for us,” Yip said, adding he hopes to plan more events there.
Actor Vinny Vella starred in the movie “Hey Vinny,” which recently screened at the garden’s well-attended “This Is Little Italy” film night.
“I lived in this neighborhood my whole life,” Vella said. “We had so much construction in this neighborhood — I don’t think we need any more. Look how big this is,” he said of the garden lot, “it’s going to be a disaster.”
Vella’s no fan of H.P.D., saying the agency took eight years to renovate his building in a job that was supposed to take one year.
“Don’t believe H.P.D. — they’re no good,” he said.
“It’s the only park that we have left around here,” he said of Elizabeth St. Garden. “And the only way we’re going to keep it is to fight. Stay together.”
Plucking out from inside his shirt collar a gold six-shooter pendant hanging on a chain, Vella — who often portrays wiseguys — quipped, “I wish sometimes this was real. I’d show H.P.D. what to do.”
Kiely reminded everyone to show up outside a “pre-submission conference” for potential developers for the proposed project on Thurs., Oct. 6, at 10 a.m. at H.P.D., at 100 Gold St.
“We will be rallying outside,” she said, “and let everyone who thinks they want to build on this to spend their time on something else.”
The lot was strewn with garbage until 1991, when Allan Reiver started leasing it from the city and beautifying it to create the garden.
Reiver, a former developer, had collected valuable monuments and pieces from historic estates for use in his projects. He had the idea of displaying them in the open-air lot.
“The lease originally called for it to just be storage, but I decided to make it a garden,” he told The Villager last October. “Everything in there, I planted. I built the garden.”
In the summer of 2012, neighborhood activists discovered the lot was city-owned land and mobilized to save it. Revier worked to ensure that the community had full access to the space — something he said he could not do before because there had been no one to oversee it and make sure it was operated safely. Now, though, there was an army of new volunteers.
Also at the Sept. 21 rally was Stan Patz, father of Etan Patz, whose disappearance in 1979 while walking to school in Soho at age 6 raised national awareness of missing children.
Patz later told The Villager, “Developers frame the question as ‘green space’ versus ‘affordable housing.’ As one of the large posters at the rally showed, and as at least one speaker mentioned, there is an empty city-owned lot on Hudson St. between W. Houston and Clarkson Sts. This lot has been empty for over 30 years, since when I had little kids playing ball at J.J. Walker Field, and, maybe, much longer. Unlike the Elizabeth St. Garden, this barren lot has no aesthetic value and no neighborhood constituency. Why can it not be developed instead of the garden?”
However, Councilmember Chin — so far, at least — has not expressed interest in shifting the project across town to the vacant Hudson Square site.
“With the issuance of this request for proposals,” Chin said, “we are taking an important stewp as a community to create affordable housing for our seniors, as well as establishing a permanent garden space at this location. With thousands of seniors on waitlists for affordable, safe and age-appropriate housing, the need for these senior housing units in the heart of Little Italy is overwhelming. … As this process continues, I look forward to working with the community board and the gardeners to recreate an open space that everyone can be assured will be available and open to the public for decades to come.”