Win-win solution found for Elizabeth St. Garden

Local kids, like this girl at a worm release, love the Elizabeth St. Garden.
Local kids, like this girl at a worm release, love the Elizabeth St. Garden.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Community Board 2 has identified an alternative site for affordable housing project that could save the Elizabeth St. Garden.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin and the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development want to develop the Elizabeth St. Garden with around 60 units of affordable housing.

These units were a last-minute “add-on” to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area project on the Lower East Side, meant to increase that project’s overall affordable housing percentage. But C.B. 2 members have repeatedly stressed that they were never notified of the Little Italy plan or given a chance to review it until the Bloomberg administration and Chin had already hashed out the deal.

Meanwhile, after finding out two years ago that the Elizabeth St. Garden, located between Prince and Spring Sts., was in fact city-owned land — albeit privately leased — community residents in open-space-starved Little Italy have embraced it wholeheartedly and have been waging an all-out struggle to save it and get it designated an official New York City park.

In a recent meeting about the thorny issue convened between C.B. 2 members, Chin and H.P.D. officials, Tobi Bergman, the board’s chairperson, offered that a far better solution would be to site the affordable housing at Hudson St. between W. Houston and Clarkson Sts., where work is concluding on a water shaft to the Third City Water Tunnel.

C.B. 2 in the mid-1990s identified this Hudson Square site as a potential spot for a future park after the shaft work was done, and at the time went on record supporting this. But, as Bergman told The Villager, since that time, Hudson River Park has been built and Pier 40, at W. Houston St., has become a heavily used youth-sports mecca.

“That’s a position that the board hasn’t reviewed in 15 years,” Bergman said of the idea of converting the Hudson St. site to a park. “And we haven’t reviewed it in the context of the affordable housing crisis.”

In addition, according to Bergman and Jeannine Kiely, the president of the Elizabeth St. Garden, due to the Little Italy Special Zoning District, if affordable housing were to be built on the garden, the only open space would be in the rear, since building walls must come out to the street — to provide a continuous, uniform street wall — under the special district’s rules. They both said that this would never work for open space, since, for starters, people wouldn’t really want to use it, and, second, if they did, the residents in the new building would only complain about the noise.

“It won’t work as both” a site for housing and open space, Bergman told The Villager. “I think if you talk to most people in the community, they want the open space [to be preserved].”

Indeed, in February 2014, more than 140 Little Italy and Soho residents turned out at a C.B. 2 full-board meeting to support saving the garden. The board voted overwhelmingly, with only two “No” votes, to safeguard the garden, while pledging to search for other sites for the affordable housing.

“Hudson St. is a better site,” Bergman said, speaking this week. “You have the ability to rezone that area. It’s across the street from the Hudson Square rezoning.”

And, as opposed to low-scale Little Italy, the Hudson St. site is surrounded by tall buildings, he noted, such as the sizable Carpenters Union building, the huge federal building and the enormous Saatchi & Saatchi building. Also, indoor recreation facilities could be included in the new housing project, as a sort of annex to the nearby Dapolito Recreation Center, he added.

The Elizabeth St. Garden, which has been open to the public for two years now, is 100 percent staffed by volunteers. On Sat., May 30, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., they’ll be celebrating in the garden to mark the second anniversary of its volunteer movement. There will be a cookout, pot luck food, live music and a post box in which people can leave their “love letters” to the garden, plus hula hooping, hopscotch and much more.

Preserving the garden is an absolute priority for C.B. 2.

“The Elizabeth St. Garden is a miracle in terms of just offering space and light in the middle of a very dense neighborhood,” Bergman said. “Also, its history is one of open space — until 1975 there was a school there and that school had a very large schoolyard. The school was there since 1903, so for more than a century there was a historical precedent of open space.”

Meanwhile, Soho and Little Italy currently have only 3 square feet of open space per person, Kiely said at last week’s C.B. 2 meeting as she gave a report on the garden. Standing next to her, a fellow garden activist held up a sorry-looking square of green to illustrate just how little open space the neighborhood has per capita.

The Friends of Elizabeth Garden has also just released its annual report. In addition to Kiely as president, the garden group’s chairperson is Kent Barwick, former president of the Municipal Art Society. The garden offers a full slate of free programs, from yoga, art classes and movies to educational activities for kids, like worm releases, gardening and more.

However, Councilmember Chin isn’t sold — at least not yet — that the Hudson St. site is the better solution.

In a statement, she said, “When we have an opportunity to build 100 percent affordable housing within what is currently one of the city’s least affordable areas, I think we need to embrace it. We have that opportunity on Elizabeth St., and we can make it happen while preserving open space for the neighborhood. That’s why H.P.D. made an affordable housing commitment on this site back in 2012, and it’s why I’ve continued that discussion. I’ve worked hard to help build and preserve affordable housing in Chinatown, Soho, the Lower East Side and throughout our district — and I’m always proud to continue that work.”

But what about the fact that all the open space would be crammed into an uninviting “courtyard” in back of the affordable housing?

A Chin spokesperson responded, “There is no finalized proposal yet and there are multiple potential configurations for that.”

For more information about that concern, he said H.P.D. should be contacted.

The spokesperson added that Chin can’t comment on the idea to put the affordable housing at the Hudson St. location since it’s not in her City Council district.

But Bergman said that Chin does represent part of Community Board 2 — so constituents from her Council district could stand to get units in a new project there. The board would advocate for 50 percent of the units to be earmarked for C.B. 2 residents.