No more shell games

Elizabeth St. Garden leaders Emily Hellstrom, left, and Jeannine Kiely proudly displayed a banner for the garden at a hearing last year for funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for an affordable housing project proposed for the garden. L.M.D.C. denied the funds, but the city and City Councilmember Margaret Chin are still pushing on with the face in the face of united community and political opposition.
Elizabeth St. Garden leaders Emily Hellstrom, left, and Jeannine Kiely proudly displayed a banner at a hearing in September 2015 at which the city requested $6 million in funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for an affordable housing project proposed on the garden. This past March, L.M.D.C. denied the funds. But City Councilmember Margaret Chin and the de Blasio administration are still pushing forward with the development plan in the face of united community and political opposition, as well as a more viable alternative plan backed by the community. Villager file photo

This insane presidential election is over — well, mostly. Recounts are going on, but are unlikely to change the final outcome, according to experts. And many hope the Electoral College will snub Donald Trump as unsuitable to be president. He surely is — but again, it’s a long shot.

Meanwhile, the election knocked many important stories off the front pages, including, notably, the scrutiny that Mayor Bill de Blasio has been under on a number of fronts. Specifically, these include two stories in The Villager’s coverage area: Rivington House and the Elizabeth St. Garden.

What both of these issues share is that City Hall made decisions on essential resources without notifying the community. De Blasio ran for election on a promise of increasing bottom-up grassroots involvement in community planning — but both of these instances flout that pledge.

A plan to build affordable senior housing on the Elizabeth St. Garden was quietly tacked onto the SPURA (Seward Park Urban Renewal Area) development project three years ago by Councilmember Margaret Chin. As is well known, earlier in her career, Chin worked in affordable housing and is a fierce advocate for it. However, Community Board 2 was never consulted about this scheme until after the fact. On the other hand, the main SPURA plan went through a lengthy, painstaking public review process over many meetings at Community Board 3, to ensure there was buy-in from all stakeholders. Yet, after becoming mayor, De Blasio quietly O.K.’d the plan for housing on the Elizabeth St. Garden.

After the community discovered that this property was, in fact, city-owned, however, droves of volunteers championed it and have turned it into a thriving and vital open space. From local senior citizens to Chinatown schoolkid gardeners to local “wiseguy” TV and movie actors, simply everyone loves this garden. Plus, C.B. 2 has identified an alternative site where 400 percent more units could be built.

In short, this whole process has really been a sham from Day One. Chin and City Hall did a disgraceful end run around the community. It’s hard to recall such an egregious flouting of the public process. And C.B. 2 has offered a solution far better than the current plan. The situation is maddening and frustrating, unfair and undemocratic.

To top it off, the de Blasio administration then announced it was “keeping its commitment” to C.B. 2 to redevelop the alternative site as a park — plus, hopes to build some affordable housing there, too. So the already-existing green open space that everyone wants to keep at Elizabeth St. would be shifted to a far worse spot for green space at Hudson St. (Since it covers a water-shaft site over the Third City Water Tunnel, large trees couldn’t even be planted there.)

As for the Rivington House fiasco, if city officials who testified during a lengthy City Council oversight hearing in October are to be believed, it merely fell into the city’s bureaucratic black hole. In short, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services unthinkingly lifted deed restrictions for nonprofit healthcare use, clearing the way for this valuable resource — an AIDS hospice, essentially, a nursing home — to be sold off for private market-rate redevelopment. In the process, the community was stripped of a key resource that had been promised to it through the original deed restriction on this beautiful former school building.

During that October hearing, de Blasio announced that, to make up for this colossal bungle, the city would build a new senior housing development and healthcare facility on Pike St. — beneath the Manhattan Bridge, with its constant stream of subway trains thundering virtually overhead.

The shifty process that allowed that deed-lifting and property-flipping trickery is still under investigation by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, for one.

Again, de Blasio responds with a sort of “shell game” approach: Moving the community facility to another site, while giving the better, existing property – which overlooks a park, naturally — to a developer.

It’s time to end these three-card Monte real estate scams. Stop swindling the community out of its resources. Don’t make any more of these backroom deals out of the light of public review.

The Elizabeth St. Garden should be preserved. Period. The Rivington House sale should be rescinded and the property returned to community use. Period. Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter said he would be exploring all options, including getting the Forsyth St. building back for the community, and we sincerely hope this happens. If there is any sense of justice, it will happen.

Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden will be protesting outside 250 Broadway on Dec. 7. Neighbors to Save Rivington House plans a visioning session to let locals think about healthcare and nursing homes and what they mean to a community. Meanwhile, a stop-work order is still in effect at Rivington House.

The election pushed these stories to the side — but that doesn’t mean de Blasio, Chin and the developers are off the hook. Speaking of elections, de Blasio and Chin should consider how they are alienating voters with these two development projects. No question, it will come back to bite them at the polls.