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War of words at last Elizabeth St. Garden hearing

BY SARAH FERGUSON | The de Blasio administration is plowing ahead with its plan to raze the iconic Elizabeth St. Garden for low-income senior housing, despite vociferous opposition from Little Italy residents and Community Board 2, whose members have repeatedly urged the city to shift the project to a vacant lot half a mile away.

Last week, fans and foes of the hotly disputed Haven Green development faced off at City Hall with back-to-back rallies and heated testimony before members of the Council’s Land Use Committee.

Supporters of the Elizabeth St. Garden rallied on the City Hall steps before a City Council hearing on an affordable housing project slated for the site. (Photo by Sarah Ferguson)

This hearing was the last opportunity for the public to weigh in on the 123-unit, mixed-use housing and retail development before it goes for a full vote by the City Council at the end of the month.

Councilmember Margaret Chin, who pushed to have the garden site designated for housing back in 2013 (without the knowledge of C.B. 2), outmaneuvered garden supporters by obtaining a permit for the Haven Green rally first.

That enabled the pro-housing crowd to pack the hearing room seats early, relegating most of the garden fans to the balcony upstairs.

Not that the councilmembers seemed all that interested in hearing from the garden supporters anyway. Aside from Adrienne Adams, the subcommittee chairperson, most of the other committee members were absent for most of the hearing (a stance in keeping with the Council’s tradition of rubber-stamping projects sponsored by fellow members — in this case Chin.)

During their rally, Chin and various heads of affordable housing groups sought to cast the Elizabeth St. Garden as a luxury in the face of the city’s dire housing crisis.

Standing before a group of Asian-American seniors, Chin spoke of the fears of many about being priced out of her district.

“They want to know when it will be built,” she said. “Telling them that now is not the time and that this city-owned lot in not the place is unacceptable,” she said, defending her choice to site the project on what is now a heavily used and much-loved sculpture park.

“Fair and equitable housing calls for all neighborhoods in our city to participate in alleviating this crisis,” she added.

Scott Short, the C.E.O. of RiseBoro Community Partnership, left, called the Little Italy area in which the garden is situated, “one of the wealthiest and most privileged communities in the city.” (Photo by Sarah Ferguson)

A similar line was voiced by Scott Short, the C.E.O. of RiseBoro Community Partnership, one of the developers.

“It is rare that you get the opportunity to approve a single project that so clearly advances the principles of equity and fairness,” Short said. “To be able to build housing for some of our poorest, oldest, most vulnerable citizens in one of the wealthiest and most privileged communities in the entire city, while offering publicly accessible open space back to that community…is a chance that doesn’t come around very often,” he said.

Karen Haycox, C.E.O. of Habitat for Humanity, which will be getting 11,000 square feet of below-market office space out of  the project, was even more emphatic.

“Haven Green will be built in one of the wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods in the city — a neighborhood that rarely — if ever — sees new affordable housing created.”

She said building “deeply affordable” L.B.G.T.Q.-friendly housing on this particular site was “a matter of social, economic and racial justice.”

But garden defenders pushed back against the shame campaign.

“This is not an elitist space. It is a delight for all,” said Michelle Campo, of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors a.k.a. BAN.

“If this city was truly interested in affordable housing, they would take Hudson Yards and make that affordable housing,” charged Aziz Dehkan, director of the NYC Coalition of Community Gardens, which represents gardens across the city.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick took the city to task for pursuing an unnecessarily divisive project when there is another alternative site at 388 Hudson St. where even more housing might be built.

“The proposed destruction of the Elizabeth St. Garden is emblematic of the constant, pernicious way in which the city pits open space and housing against each other,” Glick charged.

Noting that C.B. 2 has one of the lowest ratios of open space in the city, she said the garden “has all the characteristics of a park and is used as a park.”

Similarly, Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou also called the fight a “false choice” and called on the city to preserve the Elizabeth St. Garden as a public park.

But although Glick and Niou have both signed on to the community lawsuits seeking to save the garden, neither of them has a vote on this matter.

In a sign of how well the city has lobbied, the head of New Yorkers for Parks also testified on behalf of Haven Green.

“We did not come to this decision lightly,” said the group’s director Lynn Kelly, who cited the area’s “limited opportunities for deeply affordable housing” as the reason for her support.

Thus far, only Councilmember Rafael Espinal, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, has been willing to denounce the city’s campaign against the Elizabeth St. Garden. Espinal has also criticized the city for targeting two other gardens in Harlem for affordable housing. He has proposed a moratorium on the development of green spaces.

Whether Espinal or Carlina Rivera, whose East Village district includes more than 50 gardens, will speak out on the Elizabeth St. Garden when the project comes up for a full vote will be interesting to watch.

Civil-rights attorney Norman Siegel, who is representing the nonprofit currently running the garden, challenged the Council to do its due diligence.

“Only one of the five committee members are here,” he observed. “Is this democracy? You’ve got to go to the garden before you vote! If you go, the choice before you becomes no longer abstract.”

C.B. 2 member David Gruber wondered why the city would want to destroy a place that brings wonder to ordinary New Yorkers.

“It’s always voted as one of New York’s 10 most beautiful and unique places,” he noted. “I don’t want to compare this to the old Penn Station, but there will be buyer’s regret if this park is destroyed. It’s not a NIMBY issue.”

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