Elizabeth Gardeners hope alternative sites grow on Chin and de Blasio

Public Advocate Letitia James, second from left, joined Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden members, from left, Jeannine Kiely, Emily Hellstrom and Aaron Booher, at the garden's Winter Solstice Celebration last weekend. “Count me in!” James said of the effort to save the green spot in open-space-starved Little Italy. She’s now the second citwide elected official, along with Comptroller Scott Stringer, to stand with residents and Community Board 2 in their effort to save the treasured garden from the wrecking ball.
Public Advocate Letitia James, second from left, joined Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden members, from left, Jeannine Kiely, Emily Hellstrom and Aaron Booher, at the garden’s Winter Solstice Celebration last weekend. “Count me in!” James said of the effort to save the green spot in open-space-starved Little Italy. She’s now the second citwide elected official, along with Comptroller Scott Stringer, to stand with residents and Community Board 2 in their effort to save the treasured garden from the wrecking ball.

BY DENNIS LYNCH | Community members trying to convince the city to drop its plan to develop senior housing at the Elizabeth St. Garden have a new ally in Public Advocate Letitia James, who toured the garden and pledged her support for their effort on Sat., Dec. 17.

Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, state Senators Brad Hoylman and Daniel Squadron, Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Assemblymember-elect Yuh-Line Niou and Comptroller Scott Stringer all support maintaining the space as a garden. There are more than a dozen parks and community organizations that support the garden, as well.

Advocates have identified a handful of sites they believe the city has either failed to utilize for housing or that would make suitable alternatives for the affordable senior housing planned for the Elizabeth St. Garden. Alternatives include a city-owned building at 137 Centre St., at White St., and a city-owned gravel-covered lot at 388 Hudson St., at Clarkson St.

The first of these two sites is currently office space for the Department of Sanitation and for the Police Department. The Economic Development Corporation released a request for proposals, or R.F.P., last year to revitalize the “underutilized City property,” with an emphasis on incorporating neighborhood amenities, such as universal pre-kindergarten space.

The Centre St. project is not yet approved and E.D.C. was still in conversations with local officials and residents to find a suitable proposal, an agency spokesperson said. E.D.C. wants a use that will meet the R.F.P.’s goals, “including generating revenue to support Downtown Community Television Center’s programming and endowment, providing necessary neighborhood amenities, and ensuring a financially feasible development.” (D.C.T.C. is located just to the east on the same block as 137 Centre St.)

The city currently envisions a  mixed-income high-rise tower for the site, which it notes has a development potential of more than 125,000 square feet. But Tribeca preservationists and the gardeners want the city to readapt the existing building — which previously was almost included in a Tribeca historic district — for affordable housing.

This handsome, contextually appropriate building at 137 Centre St. nearly made the cut for a Tribeca historic district. Now Tribeca preservationists and the Elizabeth St. Garden members are urging the city to consider readapting it for affordable housing, so that yet another grossly oversized skyscraper can be avoided and the garden can be saved. Photo by Dennis Lynch

Meanwhile, the Hudson St. site covers a water shaft that connects to the newly built City Water Tunnel No. 3 and is administered by the Department of Environmental Protection. At the urging of Community Board 2, in 1999 the city agreed to build a park at the Hudson St. site once the water shaft construction was completed. Meanwhile, C.B. 2 — which supports saving the Elizabeth St. Garden — last year changed its position on the lot, saying it should now be used for the affordable housing currently slated for the garden. By comparison, the Hudson St. site could accommodate five times as much affordable housing, according to Tobi Bergman, who chaired the board the past two years and who first identified the Hudson lot as an alternative site.

But, despite the community board’s change of course, this October D.E.P. abruptly announced that it planned to honor its prior commitment to C.B. 2 to provide new “public open space” at the Hudson St. lot, plus at two other water tunnel sites, also in the Downtown area, at E. Fourth and Grand Sts.

The president of the Friends of the Elizabeth St. Garden said she was “baffled” as to why the city wouldn’t consider the other sites for housing.

“The Elizabeth St. Garden is already a beautiful garden,” Jeannine Kiely said. “It has a huge base of support from the community, and there are better alternative sites. So I don’t understand why the city isn’t exploring alternatives.

“You can build more at 388 Hudson, so seniors would be better off with that site, and there’s already a building at Centre St. Then you have a garden that wants to become a city park,” she said, referring to the Elizabeth St. Garden.

However, Councilmember Margaret Chin supports the senior housing project for the Little Italy site. The city identified the location in 2012 following negotiations over affordable housing at the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, project that evolved into the current Essex Crossing. At the time, the garden was still a private space leased by neighboring gallery owner Allan Reiver.

Volunteers come in all shapes, sizes and colors at the Elizabeth St. Garden.

In late September, 300 people — including garden volunteers, local politicians and citywide garden advocates — filled the Little green oasis in a show of solidarity. The next week, locals and politicians demonstrated against the housing plan outside the headquarters of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the lead agency on the project. After the H.P.D. rally, Chin’s chief of staff, Paul Leonard, relayed the councilmember’s position on the project in a tweet titled the “The Facts about the Elizabeth-Mott Street Site.” The Hudson St. site should be considered an additional — not an alternative — site, Leonard’s tweet stressed, adding that affordable housing could also possibly be built on a portion of the West Side site.

Chin chairs the City Council’s Committee on Aging.

“As the number of seniors grows, so does the demand for affordable housing units tailored to the needs of elderly New Yorkers living in every neighborhood in our city,” Chin said. “In 2012, the city designated this site for the development of affordable housing for seniors who desperately need it. These New Yorkers deserve to have that promise kept.”

According to the R.F.P. for the Elizabeth St. Garden, which was drafted and released by H.P.D., any design must include 5,000 square feet of street-level open space — or roughly one-fourth of the lot — accessible to the public in order to be considered for the contract, or roughly a quarter of the lot. However, the Little Italy Special District basically already requires the same thing, garden supporters note.

An H.P.D. spokesperson called the R.F.P. “dual-purpose” and said that a choice cannot be made in favor of either gardens or seniors, but for both. The spokesperson added that the city committed to using the site for affordable housing years before it was opened and used by the community. H.P.D. Commissioner Vicki Been said the R.F.P. “seeks to provide desperately needed affordable homes for our seniors while also establishing permanent open space at the heart of this historic neighborhood.”

“The challenges we face in Soho and Little Italy, and across this city, demand that we make thoughtful choices and find creative solutions,” Been said. “This R.F.P. asks respondents to offer designs that artfully balance two very important concerns — the needs of our seniors and the need the community as a whole has for green space.”

The Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which manages, buys and leases city properties, currently owns the 20,000-square-foot lot. The property cuts through the middle of the block from Elizabeth St. to Mott St., between Prince and Spring Sts. The city has owned it since around 1850 as part of a larger lot, according to DCAS. A public school formerly occupied that entire lot.

In 1981, the Little Italy Restoration Apartments, or LIRA, an affordable housing building, was constructed on the southern portion of the lot. The northern remainder of the lot sat largely vacant until 10 years later, when neighbor Allan Reiver leased it from the city for $4,000 a month. He created a garden, filling it with sculptures and monuments acquired in his real estate business, sometimes renting the space out for weddings and other functions. The sculptures were for sale, but Reiver said the main reason why he created the garden was simply to beautify the derelict lot — which his apartment window directly overlooked.

The SPURA development site lies entirely in Community Board 3’s district, but the Elizabeth St. Garden is in Community Board 2’s district. However, the SPURA plan wasn’t reviewed by C.B. 2, only C.B. 3. As a result, C.B. 2 and Little Italy residents say they were blindsided by the plan to build housing on the Elizabeth St. Garden and were never given a chance, until after the fact, to voice their opposition to it. After the SPURA project’s approval, locals discovered the garden was, in fact, a city-owned site and reached out to Reiver to open it to the public. Volunteers and some paid workers now maintain the garden and it has an active slate of year-round programming. The garden has a mailing list of thousands of supporters.

H.P.D. closed its R.F.P. for the housing project on Dec. 15 and should now take about three months to evaluate the proposals and announce a winner. The conversion of the Elizabeth St. Garden site would have to go through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, which requires public review at the C.B. 2 and City Council level before it can move forward. Chin said she looks forward to the discussion with the community.

But gardeners have not given up fighting. They have recently invited Mayor de Blasio to visit the garden several times — making the invitations face to face at various events where they have known he would shown up. De Blasio hasn’t said no and told Brian Lehrer he would “happily, happily” visit the garden.

“The mayor said that he would visit this park,” said Friends President Kiely, “and we are calling on him to see for himself how important this space is to the community. We will fight the destruction of this park in every way possible.”

The gardeners had also identified two other potential sites for the housing — Rivington House, at Forsyth and Rivington Sts., and an underutilized parking lot at 2 Howard St. However, the chances of the community regaining the former Lower East Side AIDS hospice — which was sold for market-rate housing in a  scandal that shocked the city — may be fading, while the parking lot is federally owned, which makes it more problematic to obtain it for housing.