Garden advocates hoping to nip housing plan in bud

Councilmember Margaret Chin recently spoke at Greenwich House’s senior day program on Washington Square North and mentioned the Elizabeth St. Garden issue.  Photo by Tequila Minsky
Councilmember Margaret Chin recently spoke at Greenwich House’s senior day program on Washington Square North and mentioned the Elizabeth St. Garden issue. Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  As the date looms for the hearing for the city’s application for $6 million in funds to build affordable housing on the Elizabeth St. Garden, members of the green oasis are furiously scrambling to try to head off the project that would destroy their beloved public open space in the heart of the Little Italy / Soho area.

Meanwhile, City Councilmember Margaret Chin is continuing to stand steadfastly by the plan as a rare opportunity that should not be lost to create affordable housing. But the garden’s supporters counter that the Little Italy and Soho district has only 3 square feet of open space per resident — or .07 acres per 1,000 locals versus the city goal of 2.5 acres — plus that most of this is paved.

The funding application was made by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The L.M.D.C. hearing will be held Thurs., Sept. 17, at Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Fiterman Hall, 245 Greenwich St., between Park Place and Barclay St. (a block north of the World Trade Center), at 4:30 p.m.

The money would come out of a pot of $50 million the L.M.D.C. received in a lawsuit settlement over the 2007 fire at the Deutsche Bank building that claimed the lives of two Greenwich Village firefighters.

On Sept. 1, Kent Barwick and Jeannine Kiely, chairperson and president, respectively, of Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden, wrote to Joseph Chan, the L.M.D.C. chairperson, urging him to abort the project at the site, whose official address is 21 Spring St.

“Because the overwhelming sentiment in our community favors creation of a city park at this location,” they wrote, “this proposal should not be funded because it cannot meet the first mandatory guideline for L.M.D.C. funding, that the proposal has a ‘high level of community interest and support.’

“Furthermore,” they added, “while supporting preservation of Elizabeth St. Garden, Community Board 2 has sought to work with H.P.D. to help preserve an affordable and diverse community, and has identified a site that can provide five times as much housing in a preferable location without destroying a cherished and needed amenity.”

They also penned a letter to Vicki Been, the commissioner of H.P.D.

“Our local community was not advised of this funding request by H.P.D., no proposal to use this site for housing has ever been publicly reviewed, nor has the specific proposal to be funded been presented to Community Board 2 or even publicly announced or made available to the public in any way,” Barwick and Kiely wrote.

“We request that you withdraw this funding allocation and work with Community Board 2 and our local elected officials to assess the best opportunities for affordable housing in the district.”

As first reported by The Villager back in May, the alternative location cited by Barwick and Kiely — which was identified by Tobi Bergman, the C.B. 2 chairperson — is another city-owned property, a water-shaft site in Hudson Square. A former open-air parking lot on the east side of Hudson St. between Houston and Clarkson Sts., this property was used as the spot to drill a water shaft to access the new City Water Tunnel No. 3. Unlike the Elizabeth St. Garden, the Hudson Square location is not restricted by the Little Italy Special Zoning, so a project there could be built significantly larger. Not only is the block-long site bigger, but it could be rezoned to allow even more square feet for development, Bergman argues.

“It’s a much better space,” Bergman said. “It would allow five times as much affordable housing. It’s close to parks — the Hudson River Park is just a few blocks away — and public transportation. And it doesn’t involve a battle with the community. It’s a win-win.”

The board chairperson said that the Hudson Square spot could be rezoned to allow a 290-foot-tall building, as opposed to a seven-story one on the garden site. Ideally, it would have a range of affordable housing, he offered.

“Why are they so set on that site?” he asked of the Elizabeth St. Garden. “I have no idea. It’s not something that we’ve able to figure out.”

On the other hand, he said of the Little Italy location, “You have a site with thousands of supporters — basically, a movement — with hundreds of volunteers.”

Young Elizabeth St. Garden activists made their point clear at the November 2013 C.B. 2 meeting, hoisting their signs up in the front of the auditorium, right next to where the community board officers were seated on stage.  C.B. voted overwhelmingly to preserve the garden in perpetuity. Photo by Lincoln Anderson
Young Elizabeth St. Garden activists made their point clear at the November 2013 C.B. 2 meeting, hoisting their signs up in the front of the auditorium. The board voted overwhelmingly to preserve the garden in perpetuity. File photo by Lincoln Anderson

Chin and the city earmarked the garden for affordable housing as a sort of add-on to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, plan, after Chin and housing advocates were unable to achieve 100 percent affordable housing at SPURA. The main SPURA plan went through intensive and excruciating community review at C.B. 3. However, C.B. 2 never heard about the Elizabeth St. project until after the site had already been designated for housing. This remains a real sore sport for the community board, which considers the project nothing less than a “stealth plan.”

Local residents subsequently realized that the Elizabeth St. open space was actually city-owned property, and not owned by an adjacent gallery, which since 1991 has been leasing it to store monuments and hold weddings. The neighbors mobilized and, working with the gallery owner, who was fully cooperative, soon turned the spot into a thriving and active community space, as it remains today.

Chin has been unyielding in her support for the housing scheme.

In a statement this week to The Villager, she said, “I was elected on a platform to provide affordable housing for the people that desperately need it. Based on that promise, and as chairperson of the Council’s Committee on Aging, I am in full support of the city’s efforts to develop this H.P.D. site to provide up to 100 units of affordable housing, and will work to ensure that the housing at this site is set aside specifically for seniors. Too often, I see elderly people subject to tenant harassment and the threat of eviction. We as a city have a responsibility to our seniors to make sure that they age with dignity in the neighborhoods they helped build.”

A Chin spokesperson said that the project is currently slated for affordable housing, and that Chin wants to push for it all to be senior housing.

So far, public hearings on the garden’s fate have been totally skewed toward one direction — saving it from destruction and ensuring its survival as permanent open space for the community. A November 2013 hearing on the issue at C.B. 2 drew around 160 local residents in support of the garden. Only a handful of people at that hearing, including a few members of C.B. 2, spoke in favor of the housing project. The community board passed a resolution overwhelmingly recommending that the garden be saved.

However, while the public turnout so far has been one-sided, the Chin spokesperson said it will be different at the Sept. 17 L.M.D.C. hearing, when, he assured, there will be many people attending in need of affordable housing who will testify in support of the project on the garden site.

Free Sunday yoga classes draw a big crowd at the Elizabeth St. Garden.  File photo by Erum Hasnain
Free Sunday yoga classes draw a big crowd at the Elizabeth St. Garden. File photo by Erum Hasnain

Asked by The Villager why this garden is any different from ones on the Lower East Side that Chin recently has rushed to try to save when they were threatened by development projects, the spokesperson called it “apples and oranges,” since the Little Italy site offers an opportunity for so much affordable housing.

An H.P.D. spokesperson provided a statement indicating that the agency, in fact, wants the project to be senior housing.

“The city has had an agreement in place since 2012 — determined in relation to the Seward Park development project’s land use process — to build badly needed affordable housing for seniors in Lower Manhattan. H.P.D. applied to L.M.D.C. for support as a preliminary step in the process, but there will be significantly more consultation with the local community and elected officials as H.P.D. develops a plan later in the year.”

According to an agency source, H.P.D.’s thinking is basically that the Elizabeth St. Garden is “a recent addition” and that, unlike many other community gardens that have agreements with H.P.D. and / or the Parks Department, this one “never sought or had permission.”

Regarding the West Side alternative proposed by Bergman, the source said the city is “assessing” it — as it does for all of its publicly owned land — for how it can be used “to provide affordable housing or other critical community needs.”

The property at “388 Hudson St. is under evaluation, but we are just beginning to develop ideas for the site, and will engage the public fully before making any specific proposal for its use,” the source said.

Bergman expressed frustration that the community has not even seen a glimpse of a plan yet for Elizabeth St.

However, when asked this week to provide the plan, the H.P.D. spokesperson told The Villager, “There isn’t a plan for the site yet.”

Bergman blasted what he called the secrecy surrounding the project. For example, he and others only recently learned about the $6 million application after someone saw a mention of it in the Real Deal, which only referred to a development planned at 21 Spring St.

“It’s upsetting when the first that you hear about this is when your read it in the Real Deal,” Bergman said. “Thankfully, there was an alert person who knew what 21 Spring St. was. We haven’t heard about it from H.P.D. It kind of feels like it’s happening in secret. And it’s happening as part of SPURA, which isn’t even in C.B. 2.

“If there is support for the project, why is H.P.D. proceeding secretly and refusing to discuss alternatives? We are just asking the city not to turn its back on the community, and at the same time promising that we are ready to support a better project.”

Obviously, just as they did at the November 2013 C.B. 2 hearing, garden supporters plan to turn out in massive numbers at the upcoming L.M.D.C. hearing.

Expressing the sentiments of many of his neigbors, Aaron Booher said, “I have lived on Elizabeth St. for more than 18 years and have never seen the neighborhood come alive in such a wonderful and unified way. Elizabeth St. Garden has become a dynamic center for the community — a unique place of respite off the busy streets, a place for children to learn about nature, and a place to get to know your neighbors. The Soho and Little Italy neighborhood desperately needs and deserves this green space to become a permanent park. I strongly encourage L.M.D.C., H.P.D. and our elected officials to recognize this special opportunity and act to preserve the garden, not destroy it.”

During a visit to Greenwich House’s senior day center on Washington Square North last week, Chin spoke at length about the need for senior housing and, specifically, the project slated for the Elizabeth St. Garden.

“I like parks,” she said, “but housing is more important.” 

The Hudson St. site is in Councilmember Corey Johnson’s district, who so far has stayed silent on the issue, apparently not wanting to cross Chin. Bergman, though, said he believes Johnson would back affordable housing on the West Side site.

Meanwhile, Assemblymember Deborah Glick — who doesn’t sit in the same legislative body with Chin — told The Villager, “The Clarkson St. site actually makes a lot of sense. It’s two blocks from Hudson River Park,” she added, regarding the location’s benefits. “It seems like a reasonable compromise and something we would support.”