BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | On the chilly morning of Mon., Nov. 21, more than two-dozen members of Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden ringed The Cooper Union before Mayor Bill de Blasio’s major speech on how the city will resist Donald Trump’s efforts to deport illegal aliens. They had fanned out around the building so as not to miss the mayor.
As de Blasio came walking from the north end of the university’s Foundation Building at Astor Place down to its entranceway, he was swarmed by the garden volunteers, who personally hand-delivered to him an invitation to visit the Little Italy green oasis.
On “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC, in response to a request that he do so, the mayor had said that he would “happily, happily” visit the garden. So the volunteers wanted to follow up with a formal invite.
“The mayor said that he would visit this park, and we are calling on him to see for himself how important this space is to the community,” Jeannine Kiely, president of F.E.S.G., said. “We will fight the destruction of this park in every way possible.”
Councilmember Margaret Chin is pushing a project for affordable senior housing on the treasured garden, which is located between Prince and Spring Sts. and covers 20,000 square feet. Developers’ responses to the city’s R.F.P. (request for proposals) for the project are due Dec. 14.
Opponents note that the project will also include space for luxury retail.
Residents from Little Italy, Nolita, Soho, Noho, Chinatown and the East and West Village have rallied to the cause of saving the garden. Community Board 2 has identified an alterative site in Hudson Square, at Hudson and Clarkson Sts. — less than a mile away — that could support at least five times as much affordable housing.
Yet, Chin has stubbornly turned a deaf ear to the community’s pleas, and has refused to consider moving the project to the West Side site and save the rare spot of public greenery in open-space-starved Little Italy.
According to the Friends, the garden offers more than 200 free public and attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually.
The gardeners charge that Chin, in 2013, included the Elizabeth St. Garden site “in a backroom deal, with no public review whatsoever, as part of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area development in Community Board 3 on the Lower East Side.”
All the area’s other politicians support the C.B. 2 alternative proposal. However, Borough President Gale Brewer, a strong Chin ally, has been on the fence, hoping that a compromise can be worked out. The project’s R.F.P. stresses that 5,000 square feet of the site must be left open for public use. But the opponents note that current zoning already mandates that.
More to the point, they call Chin’s plan “a betrayal” of a previous agreement with the city. A public school and its playground previously occupied the southern part of the block, including the garden. In 1981, when 62 percent of the existing lot was designated for the LIRA affordable housing project, an agreement was reached that the rest of the site would be maintained “exclusively for recreational use.”
Chin did not respond to request for comment by press time. Garden advocates plan to press their cause at another rally, Wed., Dec. 7, at noon, outside 250 Broadway.