City to rule on developer’s and gardeners’ turf war


By Sara Levin

Amidst the busy traffic on the street and a towering new building across the way, a 3-foot-wide strip of dirt on Houston St. might not seem very important to most passersby. But caretakers of the Liz Christy Garden are anxious about one that lies within their grounds. They should know by today, when the Department of Housing Preservation and Development is expected to announce what will happen to the land within the garden that hugs a new commercial construction site.

H.P.D., developers AvalonBay Communities, the Parks Department and local gardeners have labored in months of negotiations on how to develop a residential complex while preserving the blossoms next door.

“The main thing we’re worried about at this point is that the developer wants to excavate 3 feet into the garden, and that will destroy half the trees,” said Elizabeth DeGaetano, a volunteer and member of the Liz Christy Garden Committee. The garden, which stretches over a 6,000-foot area along the north side of Houston St., has been a staple of the neighborhood since 1973, she and other members argue.

“We have school groups come in,” DeGaetano said. “We even have international groups come to admire it,” she added, mentioning a group from Tokyo that had recently visited because they were planning a similar urban project.

Fred Harris, AvalonBay senior vice president for development, said that in order to build a secure basement wall, a second temporary wall must be installed underground to keep the surrounding land from caving in. Angry that such a wall will uproot at least 16 trees, garden members called on AvalonBay to shrink the size of its planned parking-garage basement and erect a wall further away from the garden’s edge.

Volunteer planters like Penny Jones have worked with developers and construction workers to ensure that Liz Christy remains as untouched as possible during demolition of the adjacent former Church of All Nations building. No small task, Jones spent hours with subcontractors from Breeze Demolition to guide them around trees as the neighboring building came down.

“They did an incredible job of saving everything,” Jones said. “I think one branch and one vine got hurt.”

Gardeners were able to regularly monitor the progress of construction until two and a half weeks ago when padlocks were put on the garden’s gates and no one without a hardhat and signed release could enter. Still, they checked to make sure the garden was undisturbed after they had been promised it would be completely preserved. To water the plants, Jones missed several days of work to be admitted when construction workers were on site.

“I was in the garden working with the Breeze people and the site engineer marched in in the middle of the afternoon, demanded that I leave, said that it was a construction site and put locks on the gates,” Jones said. “He said they had been awarded the excavation a week before. We called Parks and H.P.D. and they said that wasn’t true.”

With the gardeners worried they would be unable to water the plants, the Parks Department sent a watering truck Thursday evening and volunteers helped water over and through the fence. Friday, gardeners were allowed back into the area after a temporary fence was put up to separate the trees from the construction site.

The Parks Department owns the garden. According to Jones, H.P.D.’s contract with AvalonBay allows them to use conventional techniques to erect their building. What is being decided now is whether the 3-foot intrusion can be categorized as a conventional technique.

“If we were a vacant lot, perhaps it would be [a conventional building technique], but if it were a building, they wouldn’t be able to build into the building,” Jones said. “And since we’re a public park, they shouldn’t be allowed to build into us.”

H.P.D. maintains that its decision will be based on balancing the interests of each party.

“We are trying to satisfy the garden, as well as people who are looking for housing,” said Carol Abrams, an H.P.D. spokesperson. “As the city’s population continues to grow, there’s an enormous demand for housing.” Abrams said the decision on the garden would be made on Wed. July 27.

Liz Christy gardeners are most avid about saving one tree in particular, the blue Atlas cedar, which is in the 3-foot strip and, they say, irreplaceable. Other prized trees that are not in danger include the 23-year-old weeping white birch that hangs over the sidewalk and a dawn redwood tree that one veteran volunteer said was brought to the garden by a soldier from China.

“What [the garden] does is create an opportunity for the community to have a relationship with nature,” said Desiree Rodriguez, a 17-year volunteer. Jones added that the public garden will be a unique draw for tenants who are looking to buy in the new building.

More than 20 volunteers currently maintain the garden, which was the first community garden created in Manhattan. Among individual plots, close to 1,000 different plants exist, and neighbors have planted a variety of vegetation over the years from tomatoes to apricots to cotton. Though many plants have been removed pending construction, and the pond has been drained, volunteers will be able to continue tending to the plants as long as AvalonBay keeps the gates open.