Board 2 calls it right on garden and housing

Differing from most community gardens, the Elizabeth St. Garden is chock full of large-scale ornaments. Photo by Don Mathisen

Housing and open space are essential commodities. In New York City, especially, both can be extremely hard to come by — especially affordable housing.

What’s going on right now in Community Board 2 is very encouraging on both fronts. In January, the board bucked both City Councilmember Margaret Chin and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development by voting to recommend that the Elizabeth St. Garden, between Spring and Prince Sts., be preserved permanently as open space. Chin and H.P.D. would like to see the 20,000-square-foot through-lot developed with up to 70 units of affordable housing as an add-on to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area project.

But where the garden is located — whether you call it Nolita or good, old Little Italy — is one of the most open-space-starved spots in a sorely open-space-starved community board district.

Yes, the garden couldn’t really be called public in the past; it was rented on a monthly basis by Allan Reiver of the Elizabeth Street Gallery. He cleaned it up, planted it with foliage, and has used it to display his artifacts and monuments, as well as host private, paid events.

But realizing they had a precious resource at risk of being lost, neighbors rallied together and are creating a nonprofit to operate the space as a garden permanently. Reiver would no longer be involved.

In backing the housing project for the site, some local advocates — and a couple of board members — said there is nowhere else in C.B. 2 to create affordable housing.

Yet, what’s transpiring in Hudson Square puts the lie to that argument.

In short, the rezoning’s inclusionary-housing component — which offers increased development square footage in return for including affordable housing in a project — is, as C.B. 2 predicted, panning out, and even quicker than anticipated.

The first residential project — a 22-story building planned at 68 Charlton St. — would include 25 affordable units out of 116 total apartments. C.B. 2 approved this project last week. The unanimous vote was accompanied by members’ applause, acknowledging the significance of their vote. Indeed, it’s been a long time since genuine affordable housing was created in Board 2.

And now we hear the board has received an application by The Related Companies for the second new residential project slated for Hudson Square, which calls for 41 affordable units. Clearly, it’s a trend; developers want the extra square footage — not to mention the tax breaks they are eligible for under the pre-existing 421a program — for adding affordable units.

So, just a month after C.B. 2 — in its resolution recommending preserving the garden — said it would focus on locating sites for affordable housing elsewhere in the district, there are already plans for 66 new affordable units on the table. That already equals what H.P.D. and Chin envision at the Elizabeth St. Garden.

And plenty more is likely coming down the pike. According to the draft environmental impact statement for the Hudson Square rezoning, up to 3,330 residential units could be created in the district, of which up to roughly 700 would be affordable. Admittedly, the inclusionary-housing program is voluntary, but, again, developers seem to really like it.

As for the garden, Chin has indicated it could be developed partially with housing, and with part of it left as open space. But, according to C.B. 2, H.P.D. says a “viable” affordable housing project would need the entire site.

The board is also going to work on preventing the loss of existing affordable units. And, if the St. John’s Center building, across from Pier 40, is eventually developed, hopes are it would include affordable housing, too.

As for linkage between SPURA and the Elizabeth St. Garden, frankly, they are nearly 20 blocks away from each other. Plus, let’s get real: Fifty percent affordable housing at SPURA was a great achievement. One hundred percent affordable housing was never going to gain consensus.

Open space and housing aren’t just some boxes on a Monopoly board, but are, again, precious commodities. It’s time for Chin and H.P.D. to back off from the garden.