L.M.D.C. denies funds for embattled housing project at Eliz. St. Garden

Local school kids enjoyed the Elizabeth St. Garden’s nature and painting pumpkins at last fall’s Harvest Fest.  File photo by Tequila Minsky

Local school kids enjoyed the Elizabeth St. Garden’s nature and painting pumpkins at last fall’s Harvest Fest. File photo by Tequila Minsky

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Wed., March 23: In some encouraging news to supporters of the Elizabeth St. Garden, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation last Friday rejected the city’s application for $6 million for a planned affordable housing project on the site of the Little Italy / Soho green oasis.

Last September, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development applied for the funds out of a pot of $50 million that the L.M.D.C. was then making available. A wide range of other Lower Manhattan nonprofit organizations and entities also applied for funding.

At the September hearing for the applications, an H.P.D. representative said the proposed project at the Elizabeth St. Garden, known as 21 Spring St., would include 60 to 100 apartments in a seven-story building, costing $20 million to $24 million to construct. If H.P.D. could get the $6 million from H.P.D., the official said, it would allow the city to “target deeper affordability,” in terms of who could live there. Subsequently, H.P.D. has said the project would only include 60 residential units.

The September L.M.D.C. hearing was packed by 200 garden supporters who live right around the garden, plus a smaller number of affordable housing advocates, many of the latter brought over by van from Hamilton-Madison House in Chinatown.

While the de Blasio administration and Councilmember Margaret Chin have been pushing the housing project, other local politicians have come out strongly against it, including Assemblymember Deborah Glick, state Senators Daniel Squadron and Brad Hoylman and Congressmember Jerrold Nadler.

C.B. 2 also is on record vehemently calling for the garden’s preservation. And it has become a personal crusade for the board’s chairperson, Tobi Bergman, a longtime parks advocate.

Previously, H.P.D. officials said the agency planned to issue a request for proposals, or R.F.P., from developers for the project in early spring.

Following last week’s news, Bergman issued a statement, calling the application’s rejection an encouraging sign the garden ultimately would be saved.

“We were gratified to learn this morning that the city withdrew its request for funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for affordable housing development at Elizabeth Street Garden,” he said.

“This decision reflects the strength of community support for the garden,” the C.B. 2 chairperson said. “This same support will eventually lead to failure of any ongoing effort to develop housing there. If H.P.D. decides to pursue a request for proposals for the Elizabeth St. site, it will waste its own resources and those of developers who may respond to the R.F.P. without understanding the costs of the fight they will be investing in.

“We commend Councilmember Chin for her long and passionate commitment to building affordable housing and to the needs of our senior citizens,” Bergman added. “But we urge her to embrace the importance of this garden to her constituents and to work with the whole community to find better solutions.

“We remain committed to working with H.P.D. and our elected officials to assure development of affordable housing at better sites in our district, starting with the city-owned site at Hudson and Clarkson Sts.

“This is a moment of opportunity to direct the energy and unity of our community to improving our network of parks and open space while we shoulder our responsibility to contribute to the mayor’s bold plan to build affordable housing,” Bergman urged. “It’s a moment we should not waste. We all need to pull together now.”

C.B. 2 has been advocating for an alternative site for the affordable housing project — an open lot at Hudson and Clarkson Sts., in Hudson Square, where the city recently completed construction of a water shaft down to the new City Water Tunnel No. 3.

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The Department of Environmental Protection, which has jurisdiction over the Lower West Side site, has said it needs to maintain control of 35 percent of it, in order to preserve access to the water shaft. But, according to Bergman, D.E.P. is willing to give up the other 65 percent of the location, or about 20,000 square feet.

Meanwhile, the Elizabeth St. Garden, located between Spring and Prince Sts., is 25,000 square feet. But only 17,000 square feet of that could be developed with housing, due to open-space and zoning restrictions, Bergman noted. Also, the Special Little Italy District zoning caps building heights at roughly the height of an average old-style tenement, which would further constrain any potential project’s size there.

In short, the West Side option has a larger footprint, plus would allow for a far taller building. A zoning change would be needed, though, to allow residential use and the added height.

For its part, H.P.D., at a presentation to C.B. 2 in January, assured that 5,000 square feet at Elizabeth St. could be preserved as open space. But the project’s opponents said that was not adequate to replace the green oasis five times that size that the community now enjoys.

Terri Cude, C.B. 2 first vice chairperson, was at Friday’s L.M.D.C. meeting where the approved projects were unveiled.

“They had a list of what was being funded — the Elizabeth St. Garden was not on it,” she said. “For this round of money, the L.M.D.C. basically maxed out — there was only a little money left for maintenance.

“It takes a little pressure off the garden,” Cude said. “It also shows that L.M.D.C. recognizes that open space is a priority. A lot of what they funded was for open space. You can put more people into the city, but you can’t enjoy it if you don’t have open space, the ability to see the sky, the ability to breathe because of trees sequestering the carbon. Human beings need green.”

Jeannine Kiely, the president of Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden, said it’s high time for the city to start working with the community.

“L.M.D.C.’s decision clearly reflects our community’s tremendous interest and support in preserving Elizabeth St. Garden as a New York City park,” she said. “Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden requests that H.P.D., C.B. 2 and our elected officials work together to achieve affordable housing development in our community while preserving the garden, a heavily used and much-loved green oasis in Little Italy and Soho.”

However, just because the L.M.D.C. denied the 21 Spring St. application, it apparently doesn’t necessarily mean the housing project is off the table. And Bergman admitted he misspoke to say the city withdrew the application.

Bergman subsequently said, “I know we were wrong in thinking that H.P.D. withdrew [the application]. In fact, it was just not funded.”

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Asked whether the divisive, hotly opposed project is, in fact, still alive, an H.P.D. source indicated that the answer is yes.

“The underlying concern of all those involved is to promote a diverse, livable community in which many options are available — including fair, affordable housing and open green space,” the source said. “H.P.D. will be engaging with Community Board 2 shortly.”

That would be a huge improvement from the way things started: The housing project was originally hatched stealthily — without any C.B. 2 notification — as an affordable housing “add-on” to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) mega-project, which isn’t even located in C.B. 2 but is in C.B. 3 on the Lower East Side. That covert beginning — without any community notification or buy-in — has cast a shroud of illegitimacy over the project from day one.

For her part, Councilmember Chin said, “I am incredibly grateful that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation decided to invest in open spaces for our community, including the East River Esplanade and Brooklyn Bridge Beach, as well as provide considerable funding for the Hudson River Park Trust. While I am disappointed that the L.M.D.C. declined to provide funding for deeper affordability for seniors in Little Italy, I remain committed to working with the city and members of the community to ensure that this important project continues to move forward. The growing number of seniors who are struggling to stay in the neighborhoods they love cannot wait a moment longer than is necessary to get the safe, accessible and affordable housing they deserve.”

David Gruber, who was C.B. 2 chairperson immediately before Bergman, also was heartened by last week’s development, and called on Chin finally to heed the community’s call and drop the project. He noted that the Elizabeth St. Garden has more than 5,000 people on its mailing list.

“She should embrace this and not try to put people in this little sliver,” Gruber said of the cramped Elizabeth St. site. “We’re going to have senior housing at the St. John’s site — and we’re going to give her another site. But we need this little part preserved,” he said of the garden.

Gruber was referring to the upcoming St. John’s Partners project on Washington St. in Hudson Square across from Pier 40, which will include a whopping 476 permanently affordable apartments, 175 of which would be earmarked for seniors.

In the end, only 14 organizations received L.M.D.C. money, including $10 million to help complete Hudson River Park’s Segment 3 (Chambers St. to W. Houston St.), $10 million for the East River Esplanade south of East River Park, $7 million for the project to turn the Lower East Side’s Pier 42 into a park, $6 million for the Battery Conservancy, $5 million for river access at Brooklyn Bridge Beach, $4.8 million for the South St. Seaport Museum, $2.5 million for the Flea Theater, $1.1 million for University Settlement and $1 million for the Jackie Robinson Museum.

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