City makes part of L.E.S. children’s garden permanent

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At the Community Board 3 meeting on Tuesday night where the board called on the city to “spearhead negotiations to acquire the privately owned middle lot.” Photos courtesy Children’s Magical Garden

BY SARAH FERGUSON  |  The Children’s Magical Garden won a major victory Wednesday when the city agreed to transfer two of the three lots that make up this green haven to the Parks Department for preservation under the city’s GreenThumb program.

“After a thorough assessment of all available options, we will be initiating the process of transferring the two city-owned lots to the Parks Department so they can be maintained as community gardening space,” Eric Bederman, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, told The Villager.

The unexpected announcement came just a day after Community Board 3 passed a unanimous resolution calling on the city to seek ways to preserve all of the garden at its present location on the corner of Norfolk and Stanton Sts.

“The decision [by H.P.D.] was based on the overwhelming desire of the community to keep these two city-owned lots as gardening space; a position voiced and strongly supported by residents, Community Board 3 and the area’s elected officials,” Bederman wrote in an e-mail to The Villager.

H.P.D. had been reserving its two lots for future affordable housing. Its decision to transfer them to Parks means that a good portion of this children’s haven will be preserved for future generations of the Lower East Side.

But H.P.D. declined to step into the turf battle over the remaining lot owned by developer Serge Hoyda, who last month erected a fence around his parcel, claiming liability concerns. Hoyda’s fence currently bisects the garden, rendering much of the children’s herb and vegetable beds, as well as their nectarine and fig trees and meditation area, inaccessible.

In the resolution passed Tuesday night, C.B. 3 called on the city to “spearhead negotiations to acquire the privately owned middle lot,” so that it too could be preserved as green space under the Parks Department’s GreenThumb program.

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Students from L.E.S. Prep High School in the Children’s Magical Garden, which is also used by students from three other neighboring schools.

Indeed, gardeners and supporters, including Councilmember Margaret Chin, had been pitching the idea of the city offering Hoyda some kind of land swap whereby he could exchange his small interior lot for another city-owned parcel, or comparable development rights, elsewhere. But H.P.D. says it has never engaged in a swap of city-owned land for private land, and it’s not in the business of buying out private developers.

“H.P.D. will not be negotiating with the private owner to purchase his lot,” Bederman told The Villager. “Our funding is programmed to finance the creation and preservation of affordable housing. We do not have the budget, nor do we have the budget authority to purchase private property for use as gardening space.”

Whether City Hall would consider buying out Hoyda remains to be seen. The battle over this small children’s haven — now utilized as a teaching space by four neighboring public schools — could prove to be a real test of Bloomberg’s green agenda.

But by agreeing to preserve its two lots as green space, the city has at least for the moment stymied the development plans of Hoyda, who had been hoping to partner with H.P.D. to build a mix of market-rate and affordable housing on all three lots.

Hoyda and representatives of Norfolk Development LLC, the owner listed on the deed of the lot at 157 Norfolk St., did not respond to requests for comment.

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It’s not a reach to say that local youth really love the Children’s Magical Garden.

Councilmember Chin, who had been lobbying H.P.D. for weeks, was ecstatic when told the news.

“This is a major victory,” Chin told The Villager. “After over 30 years of uncertainty, we know this community treasure is here to stay.

“Gardens teach us the value of hard work and perseverance,” she said, “and it is in this spirit that we have together rallied, marched and made our voices heard fighting to protect this invaluable green space.”

C.M.G. board president Kate Temple-West, who has been tending plants and mentoring children at C.M.G. for the past 19 years, was also taken aback.

“It’s an amazing step,” she said. “It shows that the city understands what an important treasure our garden is to the whole neighborhood.

“Hopefully, the voices of the children can convince the city to do what it has the power to do, which is to find a creative way to make the entire garden permanent.”