It was a long row to hoe, but gardeners reach deal

By Sara Levin

Following a year’s worth of negotiations, construction will begin on the Chrystie Place II apartment complex on the north side of Houston St. on the Bowery after an agreement was reached last Friday with volunteers from the neighboring Liz Christy Garden over protecting their turf. Gardeners opposed developers’ plans to excavate 3 feet into the garden. Although construction will still intrude somewhat, it is about two-thirds less than originally proposed, and will preserve the garden’s towering dawn redwood tree and smaller blue Atlas cedar tree, which are prized by gardeners.

AvalonBay Communities, the company developing Chyrystie Place II, also promised the garden just an amount less than $160,000 to cover damage repair during construction and to add some new features. The agreement, mediated largely by the garden’s current owner, the Parks Department, involved negotiating the priorities of AvalonBay and the volunteer gardeners with the Department of Housing and Preservation, which owned the land prior to AvalonBay’s purchase of it.

Alarmed that construction plans would kill much of the garden’s vegetation, volunteers at Liz Christy, along with Green Guerillas, a leading community garden advocacy group, organized a letter-writing and petition campaign in December calling for Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Mayor Michael Bloomberg to head off expected damage.

“A year ago they wanted to go in 3 feet the entire length of the garden,” said Penny Jones, who has represented the garden by participating in various meetings with AvalonBay, Parks and H.PD. representatives.

Technically, the builders are allowed to dig into the neighboring property up to 3 feet because it is considered a conventional building technique, as stated in their contract with the city. In order to build a basement up to its property line, shared by the garden, AvalonBay claimed excavating was necessary to keep the garden from caving in during construction.

“In order to install the foundation, normally, you have another building to brace against,” said Fred Harris, AvalonBay senior vice president for development. “If nothing is there you need to put a temporary sheeting and shoring wall against the permanent wall, so cement can harden.”

However, Harris also said that his company wants to keep a friendly relationship with volunteers next door. Earlier in the year, he and the rest of the development team decided to set part of the building back 10 feet so it wouldn’t uproot the dawn redwood, a tree that can be see from blocks away and is irreplaceable according to gardeners.

Though a decision on the future shape of the construction project was supposed to be announced by H.P.D. two weeks ago, a series of meetings secured the intricate deal announced Friday. Excavation will be pulled back surrounding the blue Atlas cedar tree, and run along just over a third of the garden’s length. AvalonBay will provide $80,000 for a new steel picket fence to surround the garden and $50,000 to purchase new trees or plants after construction. They will also pay $7,250 for a trellis along the eastern portion of the property line and a water and electricity hookup to the garden, according to Neill Coleman, an H.P.D. spokesperson.

“We are disappointed that the excavation was approved,” said Elizabeth DeGaetano, a veteran garden volunteer who has also been closely involved in the negotiations. “Considering the magnitude of this development, the additional cost to use an alternative method would have been nominal. But the gardeners are looking to the future and are focusing on the positive things that we have gained.”

Jones added she and other volunteers are happy AvalonBay has agreed to redesign its first-floor commercial space facing south without windows, so the garden will keep an element of privacy. They are also hiring an arborist and consulting landscape architect to protect the plants as much as possible.

The new building is planned to have over 200 rental apartments, 80 percent of which will be market rate and the rest reserved for families earning less than $37,680 for a family of four, according to Coleman. It is part of a mixed-income, four-building development project in the Cooper Square urban renewal zone; when finished, they will have a total of 712 rental apartments among the four buildings. It faces the recently erected Chrystie Place on the south side of Houston St. between the Bowery and Chrystie Pl., which will have a 40,000-square-foot community center and gym and a 60,000-square-foot Whole Foods supermarket.

Liz Christy Garden will remain closed to the public during construction, but AvalonBay promised to coordinate a schedule for gardeners to be allowed in after hours.

“We appreciate the community spending a whole year signing petitions and writing letters because that put pressure on Avalon to negotiate with Parks,” said Jones. She added that the compromise is an example of how an organized writing campaign worked to help the neighborhood.

“While the garden will certainly change somewhat, we are convinced that the garden has an excellent future and we are committed to working hard to restore it,” said DeGaetano. “We are all looking forward to reopening our gates to the community.”