Garden vs. housing: Sides make case for space

Max Schoenstein, 11, who lives near the Elizabeth St. Garden, testified about its importance to the community. Photos by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | More than 200 people turned out on Mon., June 25, for a presentation of a housing plan slated for the Elizabeth St. Garden in Little Italy. But most in the room didn’t attend to learn more about the project — since they were already dead set against it. Instead they came to voice their vehement opposition to it. And they also came to warn of lawsuits, if the city persists in moving ahead with the unpopular plan.

It was the inaugural meeting of Community Board 2’s new Elizabeth St. Garden Working Group, chaired by David Gruber, a former chairperson of C.B. 2.

Last December, the city unveiled a plan to build 121 units of senior affordable housing on two-thirds of the garden, which runs between Elizabeth and Mott Sts. midblock between Spring and Prince Sts. Called Haven Green, the housing project would preserve only around 6,600 square feet of the current 20,000-square-foot green oasis, which is festooned with monuments and architectural ornaments. In addition, under the city’s plan — in a move that is both puzzling and upsetting to many of the project’s opponents — Habitat for Humanity would get 11,000 square feet of office space in the new construction. The development would have 4,000 square feet of commercial space, and SAGE, an organization serving gay seniors, would also have office space in the new building.

The development group picked for the project is a consortium of Pennrose Properties, Habitat for Humanity NYC and RiseBoro, a nonprofit formerly known as the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council.

At the C.B. 2 meeting, a team of architects presented the project, including one who assured that the community would have input into designing the remaining open space if the housing project is indeed built there. Two officials from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development were also on hand, as was a top official from Habitat NYC, as it is known.

Although there were a couple of contingents of Haven Green supporters in the audience, they were outnumbered by a far larger number of local residents who live near the garden and are furiously fighting to save it. Although the meeting didn’t devolve into the “Jerry Springer Show,” people’s frustration was clear — and, at times, they hooted and jeered in disgust at the team of presenters and city officials.

At one point, Matthew Melody, of Curtis + Ginsburg Architects, describing a 2,000-square-foot corridor underneath the planned building that would lead from Elizabeth St. to the reduced amount of green space, said this alleyway of sorts would also actually be like a garden, too.

“The space is really thought of as a covered garden area,” he said, adding, “People can go there when it’s snowing or raining.”

As an image of the proposed building’s Elizabeth St. side was shown — featuring the corridor — it was greeted by boos.

Grayson Jordan, a passive-house consultant with the Lower East Side-based Paul A. Castrucci Architect firm, said that, under the plan, a final design for the leftover garden space — which would involve community input — would be ready by October.

After the project’s presenters were done, Jeannine Kiely and Emily Hellstrom, leaders of Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden, teamed up on a scathing rebuttal, basically calling Haven Green a cynical ruse.

“We are here to talk about the facts. This development will destroy the garden,” Kiely said, sparking applause. “This [plan] is not a compromise. A giant building will reduce the size of the garden by 70 percent. The hallway or breezeway [leading to the green space] is a retail tenant amenity. The rooftop green space is not open to the community. The developers are inflating their amount of open space by 30 percent. The lawn is not sustainable due to shadows of the adjacent building.”

Under the plan, the remaining open space would be privately owned by Habitat NYC and Pennrose.

Hellstrom pleaded, in frustration, “Why? Why? Why are we here? We are all asking, Why?”

She said the city should do what Community Board 2 has been urging, and build Haven Green on an alternative site — namely the city-owned lot at Hudson and Clarkson Sts., where, advocates contend, five times as many affordable housing units could be built.

Meanwhile, she noted, Little Italy and Soho have only 3 square feet of open space per person — “the size of a subway seat.”

“Put the building on Hudson St. and we will be allowing five times as many seniors to age in place,” Hellstrom stated, emphatically.

“If this [project] moves forward,” she warned, “we will launch our lawsuit against the city — and we will win. We already have our haven, we already have our green — the soul of our neighborhood, Elizabeth St. Garden.”

Hellstrom’s rousing remarks brought down the house, as garden supporters cheered wildly and waved their signs.

Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden, along with Elizabeth St. Garden — another group that currently operates the green space — recently pledged to “coordinate legal strategies” in suing the city to defeat the plan. Each group has retained its own well-known, high-powered attorney: E.S.G.’s is Norman Siegel and F.E.S.G.’s is Michael Gruen.

“Our community is very tired because we have been speaking out for five years,” said Joseph Reiver, a leader of E.S.G. “Listen to the community. We don’t want the development on this space. Use the alternative space.”

In an end-around Community Board 2, the Bloomberg administration and City Councilmember Margaret Chin stealthily earmarked the Elizabeth St. site for housing without first informing C.B. 2. This stands in stark contrast to the painstaking, years-long consensus-building process that occurred at the East Side’s C.B. 3 for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, redevelopment project. Because Chin felt she had failed by not getting 100 percent of SPURA’s residential units to be affordable, the Elizabeth St. site was quietly included as an add-on of sorts to SPURA — even though it was in another community board and there had been no public consultation about it. The de Blasio administration, in turn, O.K.’d the housing plan for the garden site.

Tino Delgado, an original SPURA tenant, left, and attorney Norman Siegel spoke after the June 25 meeting. They are on opposite sides of the issue on the Elizabeth St. Garden.

At the June 25 meeting, attorney Siegel took exception to architect Melody having stated that no environmental impact statement, or E.I.S., would be needed for the Haven Green project. He said the required environment assessment statement, or E.A.S., could well lead to a more-rigorous and lengthy E.I.S.

“That’s just not true,” Siegel said of Melody’s statement. “The E.A.S. is supposed to tell us whether or not an E.I.S. is required.”

Furthermore, Siegel said, because the garden is located within the Little Italy Historic District, Haven Green would be considered a “Type 1 project,” thus triggering a more rigorous environmental review.

Siegel explained that, in his view, an E.I.S. should be done to analyze myriad conditions that Haven Green would likely exacerbate, such as air quality, traffic levels, noise, flooding, drainage and storm-water runoff. Basically, the garden is needed because of its positive environmental effects, he said.

“Seventy-two percent of the city is concrete,” Siegel explained. “Grass and earth absorb water. This is a growing issue. You want to take that 20,000 square feet and reduce it down to 8,000? No way. You gonna go through with this?” Siegel warned. “Make my day! We’ll see you in court.”

Garden supporters cheered and broke into a chant of “Nor-man! Nor-man! Nor-man!”

After the meeting, Siegel told The Villager, “If they don’t do an E.I.S., we’ll have to do our own E.I.S.”

Susan Wittenberg, a C.B. 2 member and active garden supporter, noted that the LIRA (Little Italy Restoration Association) affordable housing complex, just south of the garden, could be coming out of the affordable Section 8 program soon — so why not work to save that housing as affordable rather than destroy the garden?

Veanda Simmons, H.P.D.’s director of Manhattan planning, answered that they are “doing outreach” to try to get LIRA’s owner “to come back to the table and extend affordability.” She added of the proposed Hudson St. alternative site for Haven Green, “We will share our analysis of 388 Hudson St. It’s not five times as much housing in our view. It’s not ‘either / or,’ it’s ‘and.’”

The de Blasio administration has responded to the idea of the alternative site by saying that it simply offers another spot to build even more housing.

At another point, Simmons said of the Elizabeth St. Garden location, “At this point, the project for this site has been in the pipeline since 2012, and is ready to move forward.”

As for the affordability of Haven Green, she said it would last for at least 60 years, after which, “it’s not automatic that the units come out of affordability.”

Jennifer Romine, a LIRA resident who has polled the complex’s tenants, said 97 percent of them support keeping the adjacent garden as open community space.

“In 1981, when Little Italy was a sleepy neighborhood,” she recalled, “the city agreed the open space would only be developed if it was a school, and that otherwise, 20,000 square feet — at minimum — would be kept, developed as recreational open space.”

Romine charged the Haven Green tenants would, no doubt, get priority on using the remaining open space.

“What should I tell the low-income residents who have been waiting 37 years for somewhere to sit?” she asked.

But Steve Herrick, executive director of the East Village-based Cooper Square Committee, backed up H.P.D.’s Simmons.

“We support affordable housing and we think it should be built on as many sites as possible,” he said. Knocking the alternative plan, he added, “There’s no way you can get 610 units of senior housing on that site [Hudson St.]”

Supporters of the Haven Green plan noted that 60,000 people are currently living in city shelters.

“Housing is a human right!” one called out at one point.

Valerio Orselli, former executive director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, likened the situation to Adam Purple’s Garden of Eden on the Lower East Side, which was bulldozed by the city for low-income housing in the 1980s, and counseled garden advocates to back the city’s plan.

“The garden is beautiful,” he said. “The only problem is, the canvas is too big. The head of the Garden of Eden, Adam Purple, refused to compromise and the garden was lost.”

Orselli added that Sara D. Roosevelt Park is just “two blocks away” from the Elizabeth St. Garden.

“It’s not a park,” a woman called out in protest, “it’s for basketball.”

William Thomas, a member of Open NY, accused, “I suspect some here might be more concerned with their property values than helping the homeless,” sparking offended shouts of “Nooo!”

Ed Morris, a self-described philosopher, expressed scorn at Habitat for Humanity taking space in the project.

“It should be Habitat for Inhumanity,” he spat. “This is where we hang out. This is our place,” he said, noting the garden is sorely needed because, “Our city is disgusting.”

Similarly, Amanda Rodrigues said of Habitat for Humanity, “I’m so disappointed at the way you’re supporting a project that is dividing the community. You’re pitting the community against each other. No one who supports the garden is against affordable housing.”

“NIMBY,” someone in the audience muttered as she spoke.

Amanda Rodrigues said of Habitat for Humanity, “You’re supporting a project that is dividing the community. You’re pitting the community against each other.”

Preservationist Kent Barwick, another leading member of F.E.S.G., is renowned for having worked with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to landmark Grand Central Terminal.

“I am a little unclear,” Barwick said, “why Habitat for Humanity has 11,200 square feet of office space in this project.”

Karen Haycox, C.E.O. of Habitat NYC, responded, “We are doing significant preservation work in the area. We are looking for a home; we believe it should be anchored in the community.”

Tino Delgado, an original tenant of the SPURA site from when it was cleared for “urban renewal” decades ago, recently finally moved back there into a new affordable apartment.

“We need affordable housing,” he told the meeting. “People are dying. You can’t have it all. Working people need something, too.”

Also strongly advocating for Haven Green was Jim Fouratt, a gay senior activist from the West Village.

“I’m 77,” he said. “I’ve lived in the Village since 1961. I’m under eviction. It’s what they do to all of us older artists.”

However, Fouratt drew the ire of many in the audience — and a flurry of objections — when he chided what he called the “rich moms of Soho.”

“You live in a townhouse,” he shot back. “I live in a rent-stabilized apartment. I want each of you to think about how you’re going to explain to your children your selfishness about having a garden without affordable housing.”

Another issue is the Haven Green apartments will be somewhat small.

Whoever stuck this sticker on a desk in the meeting room at N.Y.U.’s Silver Building clearly hopes the Elizabeth St. Garden will be sticking around.

As one woman, a senior artist, put it, “I want to live a lifestyle creating art — but I don’t want to live in 400 square feet.”

Eric Diaz, a lifelong Lower East Sider who said he works with 150 seniors and is also a gardener, advocated for the housing project because, he said, “A garden is only partial-year access. Senior housing is year-round.”

Lora Tenenbaum, 70, noted she moved into Soho in 1973, and now she and her neighbors in her artists’ co-op are all aging in place.

“Green space is very important,” she said. “You’re creating a Hobbesian choice, which is not necessary. It is an amazing space, and we did not have a place like this before. We have been able to create community.”

Christopher Marte, who nearly upset Councilmember Chin in last year’s District 1 Democratic primary election, said local businesses — such as cafes and restaurants and McNally Jackson bookstore — really benefit from the beautiful garden’s presence and the foot traffic it brings.

“A study should be done,” he said of the garden’s boost to the local economy.

Georgette Fleischer, president of Friends of Petrosino Square, said she takes her new baby, Augusta May, to the garden so she can look at the sky.

“She is so happy there,” she said. “This is not about affordable housing. This is about development. This is a land grab. Please do not build this eight-story monstrosity on top of her little piece of paradise.”

Allan Reiver, father of E.S.G.’s Joseph Reiver, has leased the Elizabeth St. lot from the city since 1991, and it was he who personally beautified it from a garbage-strewn space to a lush garden. Driving a forklift, he put its signature monuments into place.

“Community Board 2 found out quite late that this might be destroyed,” the senior Reiver said of the garden. “Why would H.P.D. be afraid of an E.I.S.? Because it would show that green space is needed desperately. And if you don’t go for [an E.I.S.], we’ll go for it — through the courts, or on our own,” he warned, echoing attorney Siegel’s statement that E.S.G. might do its own E.I.S. for the project if the city refuses to do one.

Speaking afterword, Gruber, chairperson of the Elizabeth St. Garden Working Group, said, “I want an E.I.S.” The project will come before the community board in November, and they’ll see what happens then, he noted. No matter what, though, it will go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, which can take around seven months, and which would involve a vote by the full City Council.

Like others, Gruber was perplexed at Habit for Humanity taking so much office space in the hotly contested project.

“I think the Habitat people are taking a little bit of a hit on their halo,” he observed.

Similarly, calling the move strange, Allan Reiver pointed out that the 11,200 square feet of office space for Habitat could be used to create 28 affordable apartments of 400 square feet each.

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