BY SARAH FERGUSON | Council Speaker Christine Quinn is calling on developer Serge Hoyda to remove the fence his workers erected in the middle of the Children’s Magical Garden on the Lower East Side two weeks ago.
In a strongly worded letter co-authored with Councilmember Margaret Chin, Quinn said she was “very disappointed” in Hoyda’s sudden move to fence off the portion of the garden owned by his development firm, Norfolk Development Corporation LLC.
“We request that N.D.C. remove the fence, for you are not currently acting in the best interests of your local community,” their May 28 letter states.
When N.D.C. dispatched a security detail and work crew to fence the lot on May 15, Hoyda’s reps said they did so to protect N.D.C. against liability claims that might arise if anyone were injured there. Last week, C.M.G. gardeners took out a $2 million insurance policy to indemnify Hoyda and N.D.C. against any lawsuits due to injury in the garden.
“This should allow you to continue sharing your unused property, as you have done for the past 10 years,” Quinn and Chin wrote.
“By suddenly and forcefully putting up the fence,” their joint letter continues, “N.D.C. has threatened this local neighborhood treasure, damaging the garden and its plantings in the process. Given that there are no immediate plans to develop the plot, we believe that N.D.C. should remove the fence and continue to allow the Children’s Magical Garden to flourish on the corner of Stanton and Norfolk Streets.”
Borough President Scott Stringer is also urging Hoyda to back off.
“The Children’s Magical Garden has a rich history of serving the Lower East Side’s gardeners, students and residents,” Stringer said in a press statement. “I encourage the property owner to begin a dialogue with the gardeners and community members to find an amenable solution for this precious community resource.”
Hoyda, representatives of N.D.C. and Hoyda’s property management firm, S&H Equities, did not respond to requests for comment.
Hoyda purchased his small interior lot for $180,000 in 2003. The garden’s other two lots are owned by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Last week, Hoyda reached out to H.P.D. to reaffirm his interest in partnering with the agency to develop the entire garden site as a mix of affordable and market-rate housing.
When Hoyda first pitched that plan back in 2006, Community Board 3 rejected it and instead urged the developer to work with the gardeners, greening groups and city officials to find some common ground.
H.P.D. says it has made no commitment to develop its lots.
“At this point, the proposal [from N.D.C.] is still in a very preliminary state, and there hasn’t been a decision regarding whether or not to move forward,” H.P.D. spokesperson Eric Bederman told The Villager, adding, “We are still working closely with Councilmember Chin and her staff to assess available options with relation to these sites.”
The turf battle over this L.E.S. haven comes at a time when gardens and the importance of green space are receiving heightened attention from City Hall and on the campaign trail.
At a recent mayoral forum, Speaker Quinn jousted with her opponents on how to preserve and potentially expand the number of community gardens, including those occupying lands under the jurisdiction of H.P.D.
State Senator Daniel Squadron, who is running for public advocate, just penned an op-ed for Sunday’s New York Times calling on the need to help finance parks in underserved communities.
“We know that the Lower East Side and other communities in need across the city are lacking in open space and green space. I’ll continue to work with the gardeners and our community to find a solution — and I urge the property owner to work with us,” Squadron said of the situation at C.M.G.
According to a survey by the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, Council District 1 ranks 32nd in the amount of parkland per resident — and that area actually includes the 22-acre Battery Park, on the tip of Manhattan.
It was that lack of green space that drove community members to begin clearing what were then abandoned, rubble-strewn lots festering with rats, garbage and junkies 30 years ago. They put up their own fence and began planting peach trees and tomatoes and organizing after-school programs for local children. But C.M.G. was never offered a GreenThumb lease, in large part because a portion of the land was privately owned.
C.M.G. has been through its ups and downs over the years, particularly after the death of its co-founder Carmen Rubio in 2005 and the subsequent departure of her partner Alfredo Feliciano, who had been the primary caretaker for the site. But three years ago, the garden revived under the new leadership of longtime member Kate Temple-West and Aresh Javadi of the activist group More Gardens! Working with a pro-bono attorney, they and other local residents formed a nonprofit organization to run the garden.
C.M.G. now serves as an outdoor classroom for students at four neighboring schools and is utilized by groups like the Cub Scouts and Grand Street Settlement, which brings kids there as part of its summer camp and after-school programs. Over the winter, C.M.G. housed 18 chickens on loan from the environmental group Earth Matter, which had been keeping them at its compost project on Governors Island.
Now, gardeners are fighting to save this children’s oasis. They launched a petition calling on Mayor Bloomberg and elected officials to preserve the garden by transferring the two H.P.D. lots to the jurisdiction of the Parks Department’s GreenThumb program. They are further urging the city to “swap” Hoyda’s lot for some other city-owned parcel elsewhere.
Chin and the other elected officials say they want to preserve C.M.G. but are waiting for Community Board 3 to vote on the issue first, in order to have a clear sense of what the community wants for this site.
On Tuesday, garden members and supporters came to C.B. 3’s full board meeting to plead their case during the public session. Among those speaking were an E.S.L. teacher from Lower East Side Preparatory across the street. She said her students, all recent immigrants, have been planting in the garden. Several other students also said they literally grew up at C.M.G.
“I can’t imagine myself without the garden,” said 18-year-old Feng Chen, who has been working at C.M.G. since the sixth grade and is now co-leader of the garden’s youth leadership group
C.B. 3’s Parks Committee will be voting on the gardeners’ proposal to save C.M.G. on June 13. C.M.G. members are calling on all “angels, fairies, elves and superheroes young and old” to rally at the garden and then march to the meeting, which will take place at 6:30 p.m. at the BRC Senior Services Center, 30 Delancey St. Hoyda and his reps have been invited to present their plans for the site.