In a Manhattan neighborhood that lacks access to affordable housing and public green spaces, a yearslong struggle over a plot of land pits the two interests against each other.
Residents who live near the Elizabeth Street Garden in lower Manhattan have been fighting since 2013 to keep their beloved community green space as the city moves forward with a plan to build an affordable housing development for seniors on the same lot.
“Elizabeth Street Garden is the soul of this community,” said Emily Hellstrom, a board member for the nonprofit Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden, which was formed in an effort to save the space.
Nestled between Spring and Prince streets in NoLita, the Elizabeth Street Garden is known for its lush landscaping, year-round community programming and the art gallery sculptures that dot the property. The city-owned lot was first converted into a sculpture garden in 1991 by Elizabeth Street Gallery owner Allen Reiver, who received permission from Community Board 2 to rent the space on a month-to-month basis.
In 2012, the lot that the garden sits on, 21 Spring St., was floated by City Councilwoman Margaret Chin as a potential site for affordable housing during negotiations regarding the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) affordable housing project, now known as Essex Crossing. The city Department of Housing Preservation (HPD) and Housing Development Corporation (HDC) announced in 2017 that the site would be turned into an affordable housing development for seniors called Haven Green.
“It was done without any public review whatsoever,” Hellstrom said of the decision to turn the garden into affordable housing.
While the area is park-starved — Little Italy and SoHo make up 23 percent of Community Board 2’s district but only have 3 percent of its open space — Chin and the HPD say the need for affordable housing is even greater.
“Affordable housing continues to be the number one issue for New Yorkers,” an HPD spokeswoman said. “We have worked diligently to strike a balance between the need for low-cost housing for seniors with maintaining New York’s vibrant open spaces, which is why this site will keep some public space available to the community while also creating affordable housing for the seniors who need it most.”
Building Haven Green on the lot would open up 123 affordable housing units for seniors while still providing 6,700 square feet of public green space as well as ground-floor retail and new offices for Habitat for Humanity as well as SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Elders).
“Far from destroying any part of our neighborhood, Haven Green will create green space that will be open to the public on a consistent basis with access from Elizabeth and Mott streets,” Chin said. “It will also create more than 100 units of desperately needed housing for the over 200,000 seniors who are currently languishing on waitlists.”
Last week, the development application for Haven Green was certified by the Department of City Planning, which kicked off the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP). Next, the community board will hold a public hearing and issue a recommendation.
The borough president will then weigh in before the application goes to the City Planning Commission for a vote. If it passes, it will go to the City Council, which has historically voted in line with the preference of the council member in whose district the project resides.
Since Chin supports the Haven Green project, the council would likely vote in favor of approving it.
Fearing the loss of the garden, Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden and another group dedicated to preserving the space, the nonprofit Elizabeth Street Garden, Inc., are considering legal options to stop the Haven Green development.
“It says there’s a lot of community input but that’s a known sham — there’s nothing that changes because at the end it’s stamped by the council person,” Hellstrom said. “Once that ULURP process starts, the only thing that stops it is a lawsuit.”
Joseph Reiver, executive director of the nonprofit Elizabeth Street Garden, called the green space an "iconic New York City place."
"Affordable housing should not come at the expense of public green spaces, not when they define our communities, and not when there is a more viable alternative solution. Elizabeth Street Garden has retained Norman Siegel and intends to fight this legally and soon," he said. "The city is attempting to sweep this under the rug, with as little community input and attention as possible. We are not going to let that happen."
Supporters of the garden don’t deny that affordable housing is needed in the neighborhood but they feel the process in which the project came about was deceitful, Hellstrom added.
“The only thing they have said is that this is a housing crisis and we need every spot available. I understand that, but by that logic, you could build on Central Park,” Hellstrom said. “Children need nature and there isn’t any in our neighborhood.”
Both groups and Community Board 2 have proposed an alternative site for the Haven Green development, a vacant lot at 388 Hudson St., that they argue could serve even more seniors than the lot where the garden sits.
“This is a situation where we see the greater good of having both affordable housing and preserving a beloved open green space. We want both,” Hellstrom said.
HPD is also considering 388 Hudson St. as a site for affordable housing, but it would be in addition to — not in place of — the construction of Haven Green on the Elizabeth Street Garden lot.