A united fight to preserve a beloved green oasis

At a mass rally in the garden two years ago, Asse.mblymember Deborah Glick urged Mayor de Blasio to “come back to the negotiating table” and save the Elizabeth St. Garden. At right is former C.B. Chairperson Tobi Bergman, who identified the alternative West Side site — formerly earmarked for a park — for the affordable housing project. But the city has responded by saying that it would just use both sites for affordable housing. Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Nearly three years ago, Chelsea residents, with the support of their always-responsive councilmember, Corey Johnson, succeeded in getting the city to commit to building a park on W. 20th St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves. Mayor de Blasio, however, had initially earmarked the site for affordable housing. But he relented in the face of a unified front of local residents and — very importantly — their councilmember.

In the end, de Blasio brokered a deal under which 220 units of affordable housing would instead be built at an alternative site, on Eleventh Ave. between W. 40th and W. 41st Sts. The site for the long-sought park was preserved, and construction on the park there began earlier this year. It was a win-win solution. Everyone was happy. Government worked the way it should, being responsive to New Yorkers.

Sadly, a similar scenario has not played out the same way in Little Italy. Not at all. Whereas the Chelsea site was admittedly an eyesore, a grungy Department of Sanitation lot, the Elizabeth St. Garden is already, right now, a truly wondrous and unique green space. No park needs to be constructed there since one already exists, and has been there for more than 25 years — it only needs to be preserved. The mayor could easily do it, too, since Community Board 2 has identified an alternative site, which like Elizabeth St., is located in C.B. 2, but could provide up to five times as much affordable housing.

Instead, the mayor and Councilmember Margaret Chin refuse to budge from their position, and refuse to heed the pleas of the community. Such is the anger at Chin that an upstart politico, Christopher Marte, nearly beat her — a two-term incumbent — in the Democratic primary last year, losing by only 222 votes. Had not two other challengers run in the race, including one very suspect “spoiler,” Marte would have won.

In May 2017, Elizabeth St. Garden supporters buttonholed Mayor de Blasio when he spoke at The Cooper Union, and he promised them he would visit the garden. He still hasn’t. In the center of the front row in the photo above is Chris Marte, who nearly beat Councilmember Margaret Chin in last year’s Democratic primary. Marte is a strong supporter of the Elizabeth St. Garden, which was a key campaign issue in the First Council District.

But not even nearly being unseated has caused  Chin to change her position. Clearly, it will come down to a legal fight at this point. The garden’s two main groups recently agreed to “coordinate legal strategies” as they draw closer to unleashing their lawsuits against the de Blasio administration. Their attorneys are the highly respected Norman Siegel and Michael Gruen.

Although the garden has been there for more than 20 years, its creator, Allan Reiver, couldn’t keep it open to the public that much due to liability issues and the fact that he needed to have staff there to operate it.

However, starting about five years ago — after the Bloomberg administration and Chin had stealthily designated the site for affordable housing, without notice to the community — a group of local volunteers started working to activate the space and truly bring it to life. No surprise to anyone living in the concrete jungle of New York City, and especially in park-starved Little Italy, the foliage- and monument-filled green oasis has since become a treasured space for locals.

From worm and ladybug releases to yoga and live music to exercise and lunches for local seniors and just peaceful relaxation, the garden offers something for everyone. And what it offers is so sorely needed. It has created a special new feeling of community in the heart of Little Italy. What it creates can’t be commodified.

In September 2015, at budget meeting of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, City Councilmember Margaret Chin smirked, right, as boxfuls of signed petitions in support of saving the garden were handed to an L.M.D.C. staff member. Chin and city officials supported the housing project planned on the garden site getting the federal funding, but garden advocates urged the L.M.D.C. to deny the application. Photo by The Villager

Meanwhile, all of the area’s local politicians — save for de Blasio, Chin and her ally Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer — support saving the garden. Clearly, there is a huge disconnect here.

Local politicians and other local leaders are standing strong in defense of the garden — and keeping up the pressure.

“This is the kind of issue that drives people crazy about government,” said state Senator Brad Hoylman. “If the Elizabeth St. Garden is lost, it’ll go down in history as the collective failure of City Hall to use common sense and save something so widely cherished by New Yorkers. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say destroying Elizabeth St. Garden for housing is like bulldozing Penn Station to build Madison Square Garden. In both cases, we shouldn’t mistake change for progress.

“Nobody disputes that the Elizabeth St. Garden is beautiful and beloved by the local community. Housing is important,” Hoylman said, “but alternative locations have been presented by the community board.

“I implore City Hall to save this unique open space before it’s gone forever.”

Public Advocate Letitia James, in the Elizabeth St. Garden in December 2016, above, is another influential politician who supports saving the Elizabeth St. Garden.

His colleague in the state Senate, Brian Kavanagh, said, “Lower Manhattan does not have enough open space or enough affordable housing. We need more of both, and we shouldn’t have to choose between much-needed housing and a beloved — and also much-needed — community open space.”

Assemblymember Deborah Glick said, “The city cannot continue to upzone and build without considering open space for New Yorkers. They were offered a place in the West Village which could have offered them significantly more affordable housing close to existing parks — J.J. Walker and the Hudson River Park. But, for whatever reason, they dug their heels in, and a true gem of a park is at threat.

“I have not understood it from the get-go,” Glick said. “We had a better alternative and they simply would not admit they were wrong. That’s the worst part of government, when government simply cannot admit that there’s a better alternative.”

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou called the city’s plan completely “crazy.”

“We have a lack of these spaces,” she said of Elizabeth St. Garden, “and we also have a lack of affordable housing. We shouldn’t be pitting these uses against each other. It’s a crazy plan that’s going to ruin everything for everybody. It’s crazy how little transparency they have given the community on this.”

Similarly, City Comptroller Scott Stringer said, using de Blasio’s trademark phrase, “This is the disconnect of ‘a tale of two cities.’ It’s a disgrace that they have gotten away with stealing this in the light of day. Something tells me this is not over yet.

“When I was borough president, we used to have something called ‘community-based planning,’” Stringer said, adding, “We will be out in the street with the children and the parents to save this garden.”

Voicing strong support for saving the Little Italy garden at an Oct. 2016 rally were future Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, left, and City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

For her part, Brewer continues to back the Chin / de Blasio plan.

“I love this garden but recognize the dire need for affordable senior housing,” the B.P. said. “I am glad that there will still be open space on this site, and hope that all the wonderful gardeners and activists will stay involved.”

Chin did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development indicated that, simply put, housing trumps gardens.

“This city is in the midst of an affordability crisis, with the number-one issue being a lack of affordable housing for New Yorkers,” said Matthew Creegan, the agency’s deputy press secretary. “We have worked diligently to strike a balance between the dire need for low-cost housing for seniors with maintaining New York’s vibrant open spaces, which is why the site is keeping some public space for the community while also creating affordable housing for the seniors who need it most.”

The city’s line is that long before the space was open to the public, the city made a commitment to dedicate the site for affordable housing. Of course, C.B. 2 was never told about that commitment until after the fact.

Meanwhile, lovers of the garden continue to feel incredible frustration as their pleas to the city fall on deaf ears.

“Saving the Elisabeth St. Garden should not be the political issue it has become,” said Renée Green, chairperson of Elizabeth St. Garden. “The garden is a living, thriving, beautiful, magical, self-supporting community focal point. Spend some time in the garden and you will hear languages from all over the world being spoken. To even think of destroying this treasure is unconscionable.”

In February 2017, the garden activists rallied outside the Prospect Park YMCA, to catch Mayor de Blasio going in to his morning workout. Again, the mayor promised he would visit the garden — again, he failed to follow through on his promise. Photo by Rebecca White

Several times the gardeners have invited de Blasio to visit it, and he has answered that he would. To date, though, he has not come by to enjoy its beauty and sense of community.

And so, things will likely come down to a court battle, with the city sparring against two top attorneys, both of them with impressive past victories under their belts.

“The city’s plan regarding the Elizabeth St. Garden raises serious and substantial environmental and community issues,” said one of them, Norman Siegel. “The garden is a community and city treasure that is enjoyed by many people, including residents of Little Italy, Chinatown, Soho and other New Yorkers. It is a unique urban open green space. Open green spaces are scarce resources in New York City. This is especially true in Community Board 2, which is an underserved community, in terms of access to open space. The campaign to save the Elizabeth St. Garden — including legal action, if necessary — is an important environmental and community undertaking.”

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