C.B. 2 weighs compromise on Eliz. St. Garden before its final vote

A rendering of the proposed Haven Green development of senior affordable housing at the current site of the Elizabeth Street Garden. Courtesy Curtis + Ginsberg Architects

BY SARAH FERGUSON | Updated Tues., Jan. 22, 2 p.m.: It was high drama last week at the Sheen Center’s Loreto Theater on Bleecker St., as community members and housing advocates faced off at the final public hearing of the Elizabeth St. Garden Working Group.

The working group was tasked by Community Board 2 to formally assess the city’s plan to replace the iconic sculpture garden in Little Italy with 123 units of “deeply affordable” L.G.B.T.-friendly senior housing.

While C.B. 2 has consistently opposed the so-called Haven Green project, the board is required to respond to how the proposed development would impact the neighborhood. The working group’s final resolution will be put to a vote by the full community board this Thurs., Jan. 24.

Emotions ran high as fans and predominantly foes of the proposed housing project lined up to express their views. Not surprisingly, the C.B. 2 members of the working group took issue with the city’s Environmental Assessment Statement, which found that the loss of the garden would not have a significant impact on the surrounding community.

That “negative declaration” allows the city to fast-track the project through its Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) rather than undergo a lengthier Environmental Impact Statement.

Rich Caccappolo, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Parks Committee, said the loss of 70 percent of the existing garden to housing was significant in a neighborhood so underserved by open space, and said that fact should have triggered the need for a full environmental review.

He called the city’s claim of preserving more than 8,000 square feet of open space at the site “misleading.” About 1,700 square feet would be beneath a covered walkway, and the remaining park space would be cast in shadow for much of the day, he said, making the grassy lawn depicted in the project renderings “unsustainable.”

Caccappolo questioned why Habitat for Humanity, one of the three project sponsors, had been allocated 11,200 square feet of ground-floor office space.

“Why aren’t they using that to expand the number of apartments or green space?” concurred David Gruber, the working group’s chairperson.

One of the many distinctive statues and monuments in the Elizabeth St. Garden. Photo by Bob Krasner

Also speaking were the lawyers for the two garden preservation groups. Civil-rights attorney Norman Siegel is representing Elizabeth St. Garden, Inc., the group currently running the garden. He argued the project flies in the face of the environmental-sustainability goals laid out by the de Blasio administration’s OneNYC plan.

“These policies promote increasing, not destroying, open green space in the city and planting more trees, which can have a positive impact on air quality, storm-water runoff, energy consumption and climate change,” Siegel said.

“Climate change is real folks,” Siegel declared, prompting loud cheers and a few jeers.

“So is homelessness in New York City!” shouted a proponent of the new housing.

Similarly, Michael Gruen, the lawyer representing the group Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden, faulted the city’s E.A.S. for “illogically” claiming that the loss of the garden would have little impact — because there already is so little open space in the Little Italy/NoHo area.

“That paucity of open space is precisely what makes this garden so valuable,” Gruen countered.

Many longtime residents decried the city’s assault on this “unique” and “one-of-a-kind” oasis — what one supporter called the “heart of the community.”

“This park, no matter where you go in the world, people have heard about it,” said chef Frank DeCarlo, who said he was inspired to open his upscale Peasant restaurant on the block because of the garden.

“One-third of the block is already public housing,” DeCarlo noted, referring to the subsidized Section 8 housing project that sits adjacent to the garden to its south. “Why does two-thirds of it need to be that?”

A sign at a rally last year to save the Elizabeth St. Garden shows the vacant city-owned lot at Hudson and Clarkson Sts., where advocates argue that five times as much affordable housing could be built compared to the Little Italy site. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Such comments drew fire from K Webster of the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Coalition, who accused garden supporters of ignoring the city’s dire homeless crisis.

“I am so f—king ashamed of you,” she shouted at the board members, prompting Gruber to kick her out of the meeting for cussing.

Val Orselli of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association said C.B. 2 members were being “intellectually dishonest” by ignoring the proximity of Sara D. Roosevelt Park, and suggested the committee should lobby the city’s Parks Department to move the Elizabeth St. Garden’s statuary there instead.

“This garden isn’t an example of community but of gentrification,” he claimed of the Little Italy green oasis.

The Elizabeth St. Garden attracts birds and butterflies, like this Monarch from this past summer. Photo by Bob Krasner

There was also a posse of placard-waving activists from Open New York, a pro-development “YIMBY” group that lobbies for more housing in wealthy or high-demand areas, on the theory that expanding supply will lower rents for everyone.

But others, including Siegel, called out the city for dividing the community by not choosing an alternative site for the project — such as the larger city-owned lot at 388 Hudson St. that C.B. 2 favors.

“As important as affordable housing is, we don’t pit affordable housing against open space,” Siegel told the crowd. “We should not do what’s happening across the country under Trump and divide each other.”

As the meeting went into executive session, the working group committee members were debating whether to present the city with a resolution rejecting the Haven Green project outright, or to press for compromises that might save more green space.

“No one even asked if we could go two stories higher and build more housing and also gain more open space,” Gruber noted.

Former C.B. 2 Chairperson Tobi Bergman suggested altering the building’s “inefficient T-shape” to allow for a more viable park space.

“What’s our leverage?” Gruber asked. “We’re in this position of grasping at straws.”

The community board has only advisory power, he noted, and the city’s decision to issue an E.A.S. instead of a more rigorous E.I.S. means the board has even less input in the design.

The real power lies with the project’s backer, Councilmember Margaret Chin, who can ensure the project gets voted up by the City Council. Chin, Gruber noted, has declined to appear before the E.S.G. Working Group or take phone calls.

6 Responses to C.B. 2 weighs compromise on Eliz. St. Garden before its final vote

  1. Yes! If ESG has to go, and I hope it does not, then they should move it to Sara Roosevelt Park between Rivington and Delancey St.s There's lots of poorly used space there, and the sculpture could improve that rat-infested area. I'm sure that if you support senior housing, taking away people's garden, then you'll wanna share SDR Park with those being displaced.

    • Unfortunately this couldn't happen in such a simple way. You're overlooking tons of problems and the fact that Parks department doesn't just work that way.

      SDR Park is nice for how it serves the community, but it serves completely different purposes, and is mostly paved.
      The only part that is a little bit closer to being similar is M'finda but this garden is barely open to the public and is still very different, though it is beautiful.

      Most importantly and as Tish James put it, this is a FALSE CHOICE!

      Its really sad that community board 2 is saying that they will consider a compromise, when the community has already been in favor of using the other site and saving all of the garden. Why do they get to override the community with their own views? Seems a bit elitist and not what the community has stood for if you ask me.

      It's so ironic that official decisions are always made by people on boards like this, and not by the people of the community and neighborhood who live around and enjoy the garden.

      Looks like it will be the legal fight that saves this garden. The city's processes are a complete sham.

    • Kathleen Webster

      Dear “guests”: happily would we offer the sections in SDR Park in need of volunteers – as would I'm sure the Parks Department. The M’Finda Kalunga Garden is very well cared for and accessible by seniors weekly through the BRC Center with ID (schools, domestic violence shelters, foster care agencies and others also welcomed with notice/gardener guide). It is senior protected space during the week. Open on Thursday evenings, weekends and late afternoons when two gardeners are available to open it after BRC hours. The Liz Christy Garden ('grandmother of all community gardens') might also like help. Our gardens got their start in the late 70's and early 80's before our neighborhoods were "discovered".
      There is a ‘community” that lives here in CB2 (including myself) that would welcome the mixed use of space and affordable senior housing with Habitat and SAGE within. The "other site" isn't "here" – it's across town. It matters to invite those in need into one's own neighborhood in these times.
      ESG has done an excellent job of curating it since 2013. And it will be very hard lose so much of it, but it was always a gamble. Poorer neighborhoods are quite used to gambles and losing their gardens – Adam Purple's astonishing 'Garden of Eden' was 11 years building its soil in the midst of a neighborhood that had been left to rot. The loss was deeply mourned while the efforts of M'Finda Kalunga Garden (and other nearby gardens) garnered more help. And then we got new neighbors who made us a better community.
      Poor communities have to be resilient in the face of far more difficult challenges than this neighborhood or site currently faces. And..if all you see in SDR Park is a paved, “rat infested” area – and not the beauty created in parts of it after four decades of work by people who have and still do face institutional racism, poverty, neglect, whose homes were burned for profit and yet still picked themselves up and started again – it says a great deal about those who kept hurling that insult that evening, unimpeded by the chair.

  2. Sounds like it's time for M'Finda to give up half of it's city-owned space. 2 gardens there would be much better than one. Seniors should be happy to split their square footage with kids in the area. The sculpture would look much nicer there than what currently exists around Rivington St. There are rarely people in M'Finda, so making it half the current size shouldn't be a problem.

    It would only make sense that people who actively advocate for others to lose their garden would be open to solving the problem by giving up half of the garden they have long commandeered. Cursing at others who are losing their garden while your garden is not in peril doesn't solve anything (it's just mean and rude), but generosity would be an expected good start.

  3. Kathleen Webster

    First, I don’t speak for M’Finda Garden though I’m a member.
    Second, if you’d actually ever been there you’d know many children consider the garden their backyard – we raised our now 20 and 35-year old children there. We have chickens and turtles and flowers and compost bins. We have a children's area designated just for them. Elementary school groups use it, Pace HS, UN School, Tenzer, Emma Lazarus, and neighborhood children.
    Third, it sounds like you prefer Euro-classical sculpture – fine – but we like our human-sized mosaic sculptures built after 9/11 by Marte Valle HS public school teenagers in homage to the disaster. Try to remember that your taste is not universal?
    Fourth: We have plenty of visitors. Bob, the head gardener, is known all over the world. Again, you clearly don’t come here.
    Fifth: The park would welcome people to build gardens in parts of the park that need help (it’s what we do). M’Finda is already ‘built’. Traditionally, this is how community gardens happen – you roll up your sleeves and build them. The Tenement Museum staffers could use help in the New Forsyth Conservancy, or the Audubon plot in front of the BRC, or The Hort down on Hester. And the Stanton area needs work too. There’s even a Park's Department gardener who would work with you.
    Lastly, to my mind, far more ‘offensive’ and ‘mean’ things were said that night than my exasperated curse while being heckled and interrupted. Some of those things were said quite "nicely" but for those of us raised working class/poor – we are not confusable as to there meaning.
    And next comment, if you believe in what you write, sign your name?

    • I walk along the Rivington St. crossover regularly and jog around this portion of SRP, over15 years now, but thanks for painting a rosy picture of such a derelict area. I know what I see, but others can evaluate the accuracy of your description. I imagine keeping it in such an unsafe state prevents others from taking it away. Sorry you couldn't find it in your heart to apologize for cursing at folks in a public meeting. No remorse at all? sad, but I guess that means you're not up for sharing half your park with less fortunate parents. Hard to tell any more who's the Haves and who's the Have Nots.

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