Monumental battle in Nolita over fate of garden site

Differing from most community gardens, the Elizabeth St. Garden is chock full of large-scale ornaments.  Photo by Don Mathisen
Differing from most community gardens, the Elizabeth St. Garden is chock full of large-scale ornaments. Photo by Don Mathisen

BY GERARD FLYNN  |  Land use issues at community board meetings can generate strong feelings, and a special public hearing held by Community Board 2’s Land Use Committee Monday evening was no exception.

Community residents are upset with city plans to turn the Elizabeth St. Garden, a 20,000-square-foot, city-owned lot in Nolita into affordable housing units.

The open space was tacked on last year to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, project, a mixed-use development at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. SPURA will include 1,000 housing units, of which 500 will be permanently affordable for residents earning 30 percent of area median income, which for New York City is $90,000.

While recognizing the need for affordable housing, the project’s opponents want to preserve the site as a permanent public green space, for their well-being and that of their children. They reminded those at the hearing that Little Italy and Soho have one of the lowest ratios citywide for park space — .07 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents — and that in a sea of concrete, the soft touch of grass is crucial to for local kids growing up in the neighborhood.

The Elizabeth St. site was a blighted lot until 1991, when it was transformed into a sculpture garden by Allan Reiver, owner of the adjacent Elizabeth Street Gallery. Reiver denied charges that the garden was not open to the public until news got out in June about the city’s housing plans. He said that due to insurance concerns about some of the valuable artwork on display at the site, access has been through his gallery since 2005.

However, since news of the housing plan got around in June, local volunteers have helped make the garden increasingly accessible to the public. One speaker at Monday’s hearing remarked that a person could not “stand in that garden for one hour and think that it ought to be a building.” An online petition has garnered nearly 800 signatures since June, and a recent October “Harvest Festival” brought an estimated 1,500 residents to the garden.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin attended the hearing and later expressed hope for a compromise on the issue. She said she “would love to see” a mixed use for the site — affordable housing with additional on-site space accessible to the public. She said while nothing is set in stone at this early stage, the units will probably be affordable for applicants at 30 to 40 percent, and even up to 80 percent of median area income.

Although a city planner from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which will oversee the project, kickstarted the meeting’s discussion with an overview on affordable housing and possible designs for the site, the proposal is in its preliminary stages and neither a design nor a developer have been chosen.

Because the site is in the Little Italy Special District, there is a height cap of 75 feet, equal to about seven stories, for new construction.

When asked why local residents can’t instead just use other green spaces, like Tompkins Square Park, Aaron Booher, an architect and member of the Elizabeth Street Garden Committee, said the Nolita garden must be preserved because other green spaces are too far away.

While most of the roughly 200 people at the meeting raucously expressed their disapproval of the housing plan, not everyone wanted the garden preserved.

Debbie Gonzalez said she admired the Elizabeth St. lot, but only learned it was open to the public in June. She was dismayed when she heard some opponents at the meeting voice fears the project would bring low-income residents into the neighborhood and drive property prices down.

K Webster said that many who want to preserve the Elizabeth St. site as green space were “well-heeled” and so didn’t need affordable housing. But many elderly in the neighborhood live in walk-ups, she added, so new housing is more sorely needed than open space. She added that if she can use other green spaces farther afield, like Tompkins Square Park, the project’s opponents can, too.

Tobi Bergman, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Land Use Committee, said afterward, “I was surprised that the community spoke out in such a unified voice. Fifty-three people, all nearby residents, spoke with passion for preserving the garden. The only people who spoke in favor of affordable housing were one resident who needs a bigger apartment for his family, his grandmother and two community organizers who live in Community Board 3. It was very persuasive.”