City readies to request developers’ proposals for Elizabeth St. Garden

A young girl amid festive pumpkins that gardeners had painted at the Elizabeth St. Garden’s annual Harvest Fest in October.  File photo by Tequila Minsky

A young girl amid festive pumpkins that gardeners had painted at the Elizabeth St. Garden’s annual Harvest Fest in October. File photo by Tequila Minsky

BY ALBERT AMATEAU | The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development presented its plan to build affordable senior housing on the site of the much-loved Elizabeth St. Garden at a Community Board 2 working group forum last week.

Most of the nearly 300 people who filled the auditorium of the Scholastic Building in Soho on Wed., Jan. 20, were with Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden and demanded saving the 20,265-square-foot oasis between Prince and Spring Sts. and building much-needed affordable housing for seniors someplace else.

Saving the garden is also the goal of Community Board 2. Tobi Bergman, C.B. 2 chairperson, reminded the crowd last week that in December the board passed a resolution to support an affordable housing project on the city-owned site of the water tunnel shaft at Clarkson and Hudson Sts., but only if the city drops the Elizabeth St. proposal.

Garden friends also have put forth another affordable housing possibility — the parking lot at 2 Howard St. currently used by the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Supporters of affordable housing on the Elizabeth St. site hope that open public space would be included in the project.

“It can be done on this site,” said City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who represents the neighborhood and supports the H.P.D. plan. Chin said the Elizabeth St. site had been padlocked for a long time after a public school there was demolished in 1971, despite the aging population’s desperate need for affordable housing.

Since 1991, Allan Reiver has leased the site from the city. He cleaned it up and has used it as an outdoor storage space for his architectural monuments and statues. It was only a few years ago that the community discovered the property was public land, and since then it has functioned as a vital open space for the neighborhood.

While the H.P.D. team at the forum said the city is still studying alternative sites for affordable housing, the department nevertheless is preparing to issue a request for proposals, or R.F.P., for developers to build affordable housing for seniors on the garden site.

The city envisions a project with 60 affordable apartments (the minimum required for economic feasibility) for senior citizens in a seven-story building with ground-floor commercial space. The H.P.D. team said the city expects that the selected developer would include about 5,000 square feet of public open space. But opponents said that was not adequate to replace the more than 20,000-square-foot green oasis that neighbors now enjoy.

The R.F.P. is part of Mayor de Blasio’s program to finance 40,000 units of affordable housing. Once H.P.D. accepts a developer’s proposal, the plan becomes public and the project undergoes the city Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. The ULURP could take up to a year to complete and must be approved by the City Council.

Construction on the project, which must conform to the Special Little Italy District, which imposes height restrictions, would begin in 2018 with completion expected in the spring of 2020.

Senior residents of the C.B. 2 area (between the Bowery/Fourth Ave. and the Hudson River from 14th St. to Canal St.) would receive preference for 50 percent of the apartments. But once those apartments become vacant, they would be available by lottery to any city resident.

However, a pending lawsuit in State Supreme Court is challenging the 50 percent preference for local residents. If the city loses the case, such housing would be open to all by lottery, regardless of where they live in the city.

The H.P.D. team, led by Deputy Commissioner David Quart, told the forum last week that the R.F.P. could not be made public until after a developer is selected. But in response to complaints that the process excludes the public, the team said the R.F.P. would include an addendum of observations and comments from the forum. The R.F.P. could also give the selected developer the voluntary option of contacting the local community board for suggestions about the project, the H.P.D. team said.

“We take your comments very seriously,” Quart told the forum, “but we always face trade-offs.” City housing projects include public open space wherever possible, he added.

Affordability in H.P.D. projects is defined as rent that equals about one-third of the area’s average median income. But Sante Cordella, a Little Italy resident, protested that many elderly neighbors could not afford that rent.

One of the many architectural monuments in the unique garden space.

One of the many architectural monuments in the unique garden space.

 

Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden was organized in 2014 to preserve the heavily used community garden in a neighborhood with barely any park space.

“We have 1,500 letters of support for the Elizabeth St. Garden,” said Jeannine Kiely, a leader of the Friends group. “The neighborhood has an average of 3 square feet of park space per resident, counting the planted median on Houston St.,” Kiely said.

“Students, seniors, new residents and old neighbors — we’ve all come together to create this community space. It’s the soul of our neighborhood,” said Emily Hellstrom. She went on to say that neighbors want the Elizabeth St. Garden preserved for the community, and they want affordable housing for seniors on either the water tunnel shaft site or the Howard St. parking lot.

In addition to Little Italy neighbors, representatives of local politicians also spoke up for preserving the garden and for building affordable housing elsewhere. Aides to Assemblymember Deborah Glick, state Senators Daniel Squadron and Brad Hoylman and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer urged H.P.D. to find another site for affordable housing.

Keen Berger, a C.B. 2 member instrumental in securing the New York State-owned 75 Morton St. for a public school, recalled that the state had issued an R.F.P. for the site but did not accept any, allowing it to become a local middle school. Berger asked if there was any chance the city might decide not to accept any proposal for Elizabeth St., allowing it to remain a neighborhood park
H.P.D. representatives said it was possible but they did not think it was likely.

“I want to see affordable housing built, but not on the Elizabeth St. Garden,” said Renee Breen, an 84-year-old widow, adding, “there is no other place like it.”

Howard Blakey, a neighborhood resident for 50 years, told the forum that he recently sustained a heart attack and the garden, a short walk from his home, is just what the doctor ordered.

“Don’t let them take a bulldozer to our little piece of paradise,” pleaded another friend of the garden.

“I feel we’re presented with a fait accompli,” said Amanda Rodriguez, adding that there is no guarantee that the R.F.P. would yield any senior housing.

However, the H.P.D. team replied, “The site will not be sold for luxury housing. It will be for affordable housing.”

Speaking for Community Board 2, Bergman said, “We do not consider this a done deal.”

“This is the people’s property, don’t call it ‘city property.’ It’s the people’s property,” said Aziz Dahkan, executive director of the New York City Community Garden Coalition. “We’ve been fighting H.P.D. for years,” Dahkan said, “and we’ve been able to save seven of 18 community gardens that were threatened.” He urged Elizabeth St. neighbors to carry on the fight to save the garden.

Although outnumbered at the Jan. 20 forum, supporters of the H.P.D. plan spoke up.

Linda Hoffman, executive director of the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens, which has developed 10 senior residential buildings, said that H.P.D. should include a full complement of social services in its senior housing projects.

Veronica Li, representing Asian Americans for Equality, said the city should make sure that 100 percent of the project is for senior residents.
Kent Barwick, former president of the Municipal Art Society and former member of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, is chairperson of Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden. Nevertheless, he sees the potential for agreement.

“This is not a divided community,” Barwick, a resident of Mott St., said at the forum. “We’ve learned over the years to work together and support each other. There is no reason to be divided. Government’s role is to build consensus. I hope H.P.D. can work with this community.”

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