BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Thurs., Oct. 6, 2 p.m.: Two weeks after 300 Little Italy-area residents rallied to save the Elizabeth St. Garden — urging that an affordable housing project slated for it be switched to an alternative West Side site — the de Blasio administration has announced plans to develop the second lot as a park, throwing a wrench into the community’s hoped-for alternative. There’s a possibility some affordable housing could be built on the West Side site, too.
Meanwhile, supporters of the Elizabeth St. Garden just want to keep it simple — and keep their garden: They are asking to put the new housing on Hudson St. and keep the already established garden on Elizabeth St. Seems simple. But the de Blasio administration and Councilmember Margaret Chin, the housing project’s main booster, are not relenting. The new announcement seems a clear effort to head off the fight to save the garden.
On Thursday, Chin’s communications director, Paul Leonard, tweeted out a post, “The Facts About the Elizabeth-Mott Street Site,” arguing why the Little Italy garden must be used for affordable housing, and why the West Side lot “can be a potential additional site” for even more.
Two days earlier, a City Hall spokesperson told The Villager that three parks would be developed in the Community Board 2 area on sites currently owned by the Department of Environmental Protection. Each site is currently a vacant lot where water shafts were constructed down to the new City Water Tunnel No. 3.
The lots include Hudson St. between Clarkson and W. Houston Sts. (the alternative site proposed by Community Board 2 for the senior affordable housing planned for the Elizabeth St. Garden), as well as Grand and Lafayette Sts., and E. Fourth St. and the Bowery, adjacent to the Merchant’s House Museum.
The city is committing a total of $3 million to help build the new parks — $1 million for each one.
Melissa Grace, the mayor’s deputy press secretary, issued an exclusive statement to The Villager about the news.
“As we continue to work to find new and creative ways to keep New York affordable and livable, this administration is committed to increasing public open space,” Grace said. “Today, and following through on a decades-old promise, we are delighted to announce we will be building three new public parks in Community Board 2.”
As previously planned, supporters of the Elizabeth St. Garden rallied on the morning of Thurs., Oct. 6, outside the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s 100 Gold St. offices. Inside, potential developers interested in submitting proposals to build housing on the Elizabeth St. Garden were meeting for a “pre-submission conference.” Joining the 100-person-strong protest were Assemblymember Deborah Glick, state Senator Brad Hoylman and Yuh-Line Niou, the Democratic nominee for the 65th Assembly District, as well as, notably, Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Though it’s perhaps rare for a citywide elected official to weigh in on a very local issue like this, Stringer — a potential serious challenger to de Blasio in next year’s mayoral election — has come out strongly for saving the garden. (Watch a video of part of the rally, featuring an impassioned speech by the garden’s Emily Hellstrom, with Stringer standing with her in support of the garden.)
Jeannine Kiely, the founder of Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden, said “nothing has changed” with the mayor’s announcement.
“I am thrilled that the city has reaffirmed its commitment to transfer the water tunnel sites to the city Parks Department, particularly in a community with one of the lowest open space ratios in the city,” she said. “But nothing has changed. The Hudson and Clarkson site can still provide five times more affordable housing than can be built on Elizabeth St. Garden, located in the highly restrictive Special Little Italy District. Moreover, the garden can be transferred to the city’s Parks Department without significant capital cost to New York City.”
The city must maintain access to the new underground D.E.P. infrastructure and water shafts, in case of emergency. So, the new parks would not be able to have heavy structures — like a baseball backstop or playground equipment — that might need to be moved in the future. As a result, these open spaces would be earmarked for passive-use recreation only.
D.E.P. would work with the Parks Department, the community and the local councilmembers (Corey Johnson for Hudson St.; Margaret Chin for Grand St.; and Rosie Mendez for E. Fourth St.) on the design of the open spaces, and the designs would go through a community review process. The Public Design Commission would also be involved in the process for the Hudson and Grand St. sites, while the Landmarks Preservation Commission would be involved in the E. Fourth St. project, since it is adjacent to the historic Merchant’s House Museum, New York City’s first individually designated landmark.
For each new park, D.E.P. and Parks would enter into a licensing agreement regarding the use and maintenance of the aboveground space.
Specifically, at Hudson and W. Houston Sts., the public open space would be 11,250 square feet in size. The full site, however, contains about 25,000 square feet. According to Grace’s e-mail, “The remaining portion of the site may be suitable for affordable housing and is being considered for development.”
The site at Grand and Lafayette Sts. is 12,500 square feet, and the one at E. Fourth St. and Bowery is 9,750 square feet.
Two of the new parks — at Grand St. and E. Fourth St. — will no doubt be welcome.
But the park now slated for Hudson St. flies in the face of the community’s call for the de Blasio administration to preserve the Elizabeth St. Garden — an already existing green open space — and instead use the West Side lot for housing.
Three weeks ago, H.P.D. issued a request for proposals, or R.F.P., for developers for the senior affordable housing project on the Elizabeth St. Garden, which is about a 20,000-square-foot site. Bowing slightly to the community’s demands, the R.F.P. states that applicants’ plans must include 5,000 square feet of publicly accessible open space in the project.
Community Board 2 is on record calling on de Blasio to shift this planned housing project to the currently vacant lot at Hudson St. However, in the past, C.B. 2 actually did support using this Hudson St. site for a park once the D.E.P. water-shaft project was completed. More recently, as the fight over the Elizabeth St. Garden escalated, D.E.P. reportedly had said the Hudson St. site no longer would be a park. But now de Blasio and D.E.P. are saying it will be one.
Yet, the Lower West Side open-space landscape has changed over the years since the original agreement on the Hudson St. lot was hashed out with the city. With the Hudson River Park now built and its Pier 40 having become a thriving youth sports mecca, the area is no longer so desperately starved for open space. Instead, advocates for the Elizabeth St. Garden say, it’s Little Italy that so sorely needs open green space.
Tobi Bergman, the current chairperson of C.B. 2, years ago — as a youth sports activist — worked to secure the agreement with D.E.P. for a park at the Hudson St. lot once the water-shaft work was finished. But, in recent years, as saving the Elizabeth St. Garden has become a huge neighborhood cause, Bergman hit upon the idea of using the vacant Hudson St. lot for the housing project, so as to save the treasured Little Italy garden.
Plus, much more affordable housing simply could be built on Hudson St. compared to Elizabeth St., Bergman stressed — 300 units versus 60 — since the West Side lot could be rezoned, unlike the Elizabeth St. lot, which is constrained by the seven-story height cap of the Little Italy Special District. Regardless of which site the housing would be built on, 50 percent of the units would be allotted to local C.B. 2 residents in an H.P.D. lottery. The other 50 percent of the apartments would be awarded to applicants drawn from the whole city. So, in other words, wherever the housing is built within the C.B. 2 district, it would not change who would qualify to live there.
In addition, Bergman noted, Elizabeth St. was initially designated as a housing site by Chin — without any notification to the community — because she wanted to add another 100 affordable units to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, development project, which is actually in C.B. 3. However, since the Elizabeth St. site is in C.B. 2, applicants from C.B. 3 would be given no priority for apartments in a future housing project there, Bergman noted.
Bergman said the issues are complex, so he wanted to submit his statement to The Villager in writing.
In his detailed statement, he said: “I started working on getting open space on the D.E.P. sites 21 years ago, so I am obviously happy to hear that D.E.P. has again reversed itself in the right direction, and now again plans to keep the promise to build public open space on the shaft sites.
“The site on E. Fourth St. will be a great benefit to the Merchant’s House and its neighbors and visitors, and the Grand and Lafayette corner site is in an area that will greatly benefit from a new park.
“But it is just not true that the plan to offer only 11,250 square feet at the site on Hudson St. ‘follows through on promises made’ because, in fact, the full 25,000-square-foot site was originally promised as a park. Community Board 2 offered to support use of most of this site for affordable housing, but only if the administration agrees to create a new park at at the cherished Elizabeth St. Garden, and Councilmember Corey Johnson [in whose site the Hudson St. lot is located] has promised to support the board’s decision.
“The Hudson St. site can include 300,000 square feet, enough for five times as much senior housing as can be built at Elizabeth St. Half of these units would be offered on a priority basis to C.B. 2 residents. That compares to only 30 units that C.B. 2 residents would have priority for at Elizabeth St. Simply put, that means the Chin / H.P.D. plan, created without community consultation and against the will of local residents and businesses, will deprive 120 senior families in C.B. 2 of new affordable housing that they would have under the C.B. 2 plan, all because of a disingenuous promise made to residents of the Lower East Side when SPURA was approved. As for the residents outside C.B. 2 to whom Chin promised housing at Elizabeth St., they would only have a chance for housing there if the required open lottery could be illegally sidestepped.
“We appreciate this decision and it is a step in the right direction,” Bergman said. “But Elizabeth St. Garden is already a beautiful park, the most popular small park in C.B. 2. We urge Mayor de Blasio to visit the garden, so he can see for himself the beautiful place his administration plans to destroy while at the same time squandering an opportunity to build 300 units for seniors in the Village.”