A hard row to hoe: Garden or housing at Little Italy lot?

Garden leaders Emily Hellstrom, left, and Jeannine Kiely proudly displayed a banner for the Elizabeth St. Garden.

Garden leaders Emily Hellstrom, left, and Jeannine Kiely proudly displayed a banner for the Elizabeth St. Garden. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  An estimated more than 200 supporters of the Elizabeth St. Garden packed a hearing last week to protest against funds being allocated to help build affordable housing at the Little Italy location. Notably joining them was Assemblymember Deborah Glick.

Far fewer, about 50 people — many of them seniors from Chinatown — came to advocate for the housing. City Councilmember Margaret Chin, the project’s main sponsor, spoke in favor of the project, and then sat up in the front of the main hearing room for the duration.

The pro-garden group was so large that the crowd filled two overflow rooms, plus a balcony outside the 13th-floor hearing room.

The venue was Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Fiterman Hall, just north of the World Trade Center. There an advisory committee for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation heard testimony in support of applications for federal funding for what it called local “potential projects.” These ranged from restoring the historic Seward Park fountain, to tearing down the pier shed at Pier 42 on the Lower East Side to create an open park there, to keeping the 9/11 Tribute in Light beaming skyward for the next few years.

But only the contentious garden issue saw anyone actually testify in opposition — and that organized opposition was tremendous.

Indeed, it’s rare for anyone to testify against an L.M.D.C. funding application, much less in such a massive and impassioned manner.

The L.M.D.C.’s funding pot is $50 million. The city is requesting $6 million of this for the project at 21 Spring St., the garden’s address. The agency is expected to make public its decision on the garden’s fate as soon as next month, according to Chin’s office.

Chinatown seniors came to the hearing by van from Hamilton-Madison House, which is located about a mile from the garden.   Photos by Lincoln Anderson

Chinatown seniors came to the hearing by van from Hamilton-Madison House, which is located about a mile from the garden. Photo courtesy Councilmember Margaret Chin’s Office

Eric Wilson, associate commissioner of planning and development at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, briefly presented the housing plan.

“New York City is in the middle of a housing crisis,” he said, adding that Mayor de Blasio’s plan calls for 200,000 affordable units to be created over the next 10 years, with 40 percent of them newly constructed units.

The 21 Spring St. development would include 60 to 100 apartments in a seven-story building, with a price tag of $20 million to $24 million, he said. The $6 million L.M.D.C. grant, Wilson explained, would help H.P.D. to “target deeper affordability,” in terms of who could live there.

He said H.P.D., within the first three months of next year, would release a competitive request for proposals, or R.F.P., for developers to build the housing.

“It’s very early in the process,” he said.

Chin spoke of growing up just five blocks from the future garden when the neighborhood was known only as Little Italy — long before the trendy acronym Nolita was coined by real estate types. The garden was just a vacant site back then.

Wenjii Zhou, a garden member, spoke to the Chinatown seniors in Chinese, telling them of the importance of the garden to the heart of the Little Italy community.

Wenjii Zhou, a garden member, spoke to the Chinatown seniors in Chinese, telling them of the importance of the garden to the heart of the Little Italy community. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

“I grew up in Little Italy, on Mott St. near Hester St., with many Italians,” she said. “For many years, I heard from neighbors about this site, that they wanted to have housing there.”

Chin noted that the city designated 21 Spring St. as a site for affordable housing back in 2012. This was done because 100 percent affordable housing — which most would say was never an obtainable goal — could not be achieved in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area development project, which is actually in Community Board 3. The garden, however, is in C.B. 2.

“The city surveyed all of the city-owned sites in the district and found this was the best space for affordable housing,” Chin said.

Yet, C.B. 2 was never notified of this decision by the city until after the fact.

Chin said she likes parks and gardens, but explained, “As a councilmember, you have to make tough choices and take the long view. Seniors right now are struggling to climb stairs in four-story walk-ups.”

The new building would have elevators.

“Fourteen years after 9/11, there’s a new housing boom in Lower Manhattan,” the councilmember said, adding, “The vast majority of this new construction is luxury housing.”

She added that while affordable housing is achievable at 21 Spring St., H.P.D. needs the L.M.D.C. grant to ensure that the project would be for seniors.

Chin was formerly a leading member of Asian Americans for Equality, a group active in developing housing Downtown.

Kent Barwick, president emeritus of the Municipal Art Society and chairperson of Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden, said neighbors over the years always wanted the garden site to be used for recreational purposes for the community, such as a soccer field.

Kent Barwick, president emeritus of the Municipal Art Society and chairperson of Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden, said neighbors over the years always wanted the garden site to be used for recreational purposes for the community, such as a soccer field. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Meanwhile, Glick, in her testimony, urged L.M.D.C. to deny the application — at least until the community has been included in the process and discussion, which affects the district’s open space.

“I am gravely concerned about the location of this project,” she said. “While there is no denying that we need more affordable housing, there is also no denying that this community has the second-least amount of open space in the city and this project would eliminate a well-used and public community garden. Furthermore, it is troubling that this application has never been presented to Community Board 2, as outlined in L.M.D.C. protocol, and raises the question whether H.P.D. is even eligible for funds.

“While this site was raised as a potential location during the SPURA land use review, that project is solely taking place in C.B. 3, and there were no presentations or hearings regarding this site’s role in the project at the time. Members of C.B. 2 and the elected officials in the area were not part of the SPURA discussions.”

Glick added that C.B. 2 has identified an alternative city-owned site that is larger and could hold even more units of affordable housing — at Hudson and Clarkson Sts. — “and equally important, it would would do so without the destruction of existing community open space.”

Also speaking for the garden were Tobi Bergman and Terri Cude, C.B. 2 chairperson and first vice chairperson, respectively.

Echoing Glick, Bergman said, the housing project “was sited in our board, but Community Board 2 was not notified until after the fact.”

He further told the L.M.D.C. panel, “You may hear today that this affordable housing project will happen anyway and that this is just about whether it will be senior affordable housing — that’s not true.”

Bergman urged that the housing could instead be built at the alternative Hudson Square site — a block-long former open-air parking lot that was used to drill a water shaft down to the new City Water Tunnel No. 3 — where “generous height and zoning allowances could allow it to be five times bigger — more units,” he said.

As first reported last week by The Villager, Councilmember Corey Johnson has announced that he supports developing affordable housing at the West Side site, which is in his district.

Bergman said if L.M.D.C. won’t let C.B. 2 review the housing project first, then it should just “pull it.”

Fay Matsuda, at left with her back to the camera, the program director at Hamilton-Madison House, stands by as seniors from the Chinatown / Lower East Side settlement house exit a van that brought them to the hearing. The settlement house is located a mile away from the Elizabeth St. Garden. Photo by Lora Tenenbaum

Fay Matsuda, at left with her back to the camera, the program director at Hamilton-Madison House, stands by as seniors from the Chinatown / Lower East Side settlement house exit a van that brought them to the hearing. The settlement house is located a mile away from the Elizabeth St. Garden. Photo by Lora Tenenbaum

Cude two weeks ago was elected a Democratic district leader.

“When I was campaigning,” she said, “I talked to many people and heard them say there was a need for green, open space where people can meet and congregate — and, most important, commune with nature. Seniors, adults and children love this space and participate in its dozens of free programs each week.”

The city should use the Hudson St. site for housing, she said, “and keep the livability, garden and the respite that is so vital.”

Jeannine Kiely, president of the Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden, said park activists who live near the gated property — which is festooned with stone monuments — did not realize until June 2013, that it was owned by the city, at which point they began to organize around using the space and saving it.

“We were unaware of the affordable housing plan deal, but had recently heard it was a city-owned site,” she said. “Thousands of people are on our garden’s mailing list. Our community is incredibly behind saving this.”

Kiely noted that the Soho / Little Italy area has just a paltry .07 acres of open space per 1,000 residents.

Lora Tenenbaum, a senior living in Soho, testified that after living through 9/11 and its toxic fallout, she values open green spaces like the Elizabeth St. Garden more than ever. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Lora Tenenbaum, a senior living in Soho, testified that after living through 9/11 and its toxic fallout, she values open green spaces like the Elizabeth St. Garden more than ever. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Kent Barwick, a former chairperson of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and president of the Municipal Art Society, is F.E.S.G.’s chairperson. A neighborhood resident for decades, he told a different story than Chin.

“I have different memories of that lot,” he said. “There used to be talk of making it a soccer field.

“We do not accept that it’s a Hobson’s choice — that we can have the housing or have the garden,” Barwick said. “There’s a choice.”

F.E.S.G. is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to turn the garden into a permanent park.

The garden is also supported by the Downtown Independent Democrats club, Soho Alliance and Noho Neighborhood Association, plus Bowery Babes, a vibrant group of more than 2,500 Downtown moms and their families.

Speaker after speaker told of how the garden has brought a magical change. One was an 84-year-old woman who said she bought an apartment nearby it as a retirement home.

“I had chosen Little Italy because it felt like a neighborhood,” she said. “Now — because of the garden — it’s become a community.”

A group of young activists began to protest, “This is not right! This is totally not fair!” saying their side wasn’t getting equal time at the microphone.

Before the L.M.D.C. officials cut off the pro-garden testifiers for a while, Wenjii Zhou took the mic, then spun around to face the crowd instead of the panel. Speaking in English and then translating into Chinese, while gesturing expressively with her hands, she addressed the Asian seniors. She said that while she understood the need for housing, the neighborhood also had a great need for the open space and community feeling provided by the garden.

But Teresa Chan, a member of the 90-year-old Gee Hong Chan Association, said build the housing.

So did West Village activist Jim Fouratt.

“I’m 74 years old and I live in a sixth-floor walk-up,” he said. “There is no senior housing.”

He said he was part of the creative class of people who were once drawn to Greenwich Village and have now aged here.

“We do not make a lot of money,” he said. “We have no place to go. There is no housing for senior creative people. This is a critical situation for us.”

K Webster is former co-chairperson of the M’finda Kalunga Garden, at Rivington St. in Sara Roosevelt Park, and is currently president of the Sarah Roosevelt Park Community Coalition. But she spoke against preserving the Elizabeth St. Garden. The alternative site in C.B. 2 is not suitable for senior housing, argued Walter, 

“It’s in a high-traffic, high-density area with no grocery stores nearby — not even expensive ones,” she said.

Meanwhile, she derided the garden as “a showcase for pricey artifacts.”

Allan Reiver has leased the lot from the city since the 1990s to display his artifacts and monuments. He supports the garden wholeheartedly.

John Benscoter, left, the garden's treasurer, presented an L.M.D.C. official with more than 1,300 petitions signed by supporters, asking the agency to deny the application for $6 million in funding for the housing project. Councilmember Margaret Chin, seated at right, the project's main sponsor, did not look happy as the petitions — showing overwhelming opposition by community residents who live in the garden's surrounding community — were presented. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

John Benscoter, left, the garden’s treasurer, presented an L.M.D.C. official with more than 1,300 petitions signed by supporters, asking the agency to deny the application for $6 million in funding for the housing project. Councilmember Margaret Chin, seated at right, the project’s main sponsor, did not look happy as the petitions — showing overwhelming opposition by community residents who live in the garden’s surrounding community — were presented. No petition was presented on behalf of the housing project. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Republican District Leader Carmela Livoti, who is a senior, lives in the LIRA (Little Italy Restoration Apartments) affordable housing on the block, whose address is also 21 Spring St. Jabbing her finger in the air, she said the garden stays.

“Now we got something going, and they can take it over?” she said. “Over my dead body! That garden is a wonder…all our children, our grandchildren use it.”

Jennifer Romine said, according to a petition signed by the LIRA tenants, 95 percent — or 131 households — strongly oppose the garden’s destruction. These tenants are comprised of 60 percent senior households and 40 percent families, she said.

Garden booster Sharon D’Lugoff, who has lived on Elizabeth St. for 40 years, indignantly said there are seven vacant affordable units in her own former TIL (Tenant Interim Lease) low-income building right now. Having a green space on the block has been a game-changer for her and her young daughter, Ace, she said.

“I’ve walked to Washington Square and Tompkins Square for grass,” she said of her past treks to get to a park that really felt like one.

Housing advocates argue that there are other parks nearby, including Sara D. Roosevelt Park and DeSalvio Playground.

However, Adam Woodward said, “All the other parks they mentioned are concrete, paved…basketball courts.”

Harriett, a young devotee of the Elizabeth St. Garden, expressed herself in a colorful letter, saying she loves the garden's kid-friendly events, like the worm release and the seed festival. The garden is a huge favorite of the community's children and seniors alike.

Harriett, a young devotee of the Elizabeth St. Garden, expressed herself in a colorful letter, saying she loves the garden’s kid-friendly events, like the worm release and the seed festival. The garden is a huge favorite of the community’s children and seniors alike. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Veronica Lee, of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, said Chinatown is losing affordable and rent-regulated housing.

Meanwhile, she said, “The garden has attracted wealthy newcomers who have pushed out the longtime affordable tenants.”

Kenny Mei, also from CAAAV, offered a novel idea: Put a park on top of the new building, like the elevated High Line park. This elicited some exasperated tsks and sighs from the audience.

John Benscoter, the garden’s treasurer and a 25-year Elizabeth St. resident, presented the L.M.D.C. panel with several boxes containing more than 1,300 petition signatures supporting saving the garden.

Tom Connor, chairperson of the Greenwich House Senior Advisory Board, said he thought there was “room for both” housing and the garden on the Elizabeth St. site.

“I’m using all of all of my Social Security to pay my rent,” he said. “I love gardens, but I don’t want to have to sleep in gardens at night.”

Similarly, Deborah Gonzalez, a tenant leader at 10 Stanton St., supported the affordable housing in an era of spiraling costs.

“We used to be a community,” she said, “now we’re a commodity.”

But Soho’s Lora Tenenbaum, her voice trembling with emotion, said the garden is irreplaceable for the open-space-starved area.

“I am a senior and I need this garden,” the former C.B. 2 member said. “On 9/11 my home was filled with dust. I wore a mask inside. I need fresh air, I need green space — and that is something that seniors like me need.”

Christabel Gough, of the Society for Architecture of New York, said, “The proposal to build on this site shows an incredible shortsightedness.”

More written testimony — written to L.M.D.C. Chairperson Joseph Chan — from local kids who treasure the rare open green space that the Elizabeth St. Garden provides in the middle of the concrete jungle. "I love planting in the garden," wrote Keith Ngo. "Please keep it open for everyone to enjoy." Munyee Lee wrote, "It is a garden and very important to our community." Miki Li wrote Chairperson Chan, "Please save the Elizabeth St. Garden. Trees and plants provide clean oxygen and we need them." Photo by Lincoln Anderson

More testimony — letters submitted to L.M.D.C. Chairperson Joseph Chan — from local kids who treasure the rare open green space that the Elizabeth St. Garden provides in the middle of the concrete jungle. “I love planting in the garden,” wrote Keith Ngo. “Please keep it open for everyone to enjoy.” Munyee Lee wrote, “It is a garden and very important to our community.” Miki Li wrote Chairperson Chan, “Please save the Elizabeth St. Garden. Trees and plants provide clean oxygen and we need them.” Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Stuart Zechman could barely contain his emotion as he said, “It is cynical, false and divisive to make us choose between our grandparents and our children. Don’t make me go home and tell my daughter she can never play in the Elizabeth St. Garden again.”

After the hearing, C.B. 2 Chairperson Bergman told The Villager that the opinion of people who actually live near the garden should take precedence.

The Chinese seniors were driven over to the hearing from Hamilton-Madison House, a settlement house in C.B. 3. Similarly, Coalition for a District Alternative, an East Side political club in C.B. 3, last week voted unanimously to do a letter-writing campaign in support of the housing project.

“Everyone has a right to speak,” Bergman said, “but it’s always better when people know something about what they are speaking of. People who live a mile away in another community are unlikely to understand the community value of the garden.”

Bergman said neither the housing advocacy organizations nor H.P.D. had reached out to C.B. 2 to “exchange ideas about how to get the most possible affordable housing built in our district.”

Of H.P.D., specifically, he said, “They do not seem to embrace the idea of working with us as a partner.”

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