OPINION: Stop rubber stamping: Save Eliz. St. Garden

BY EMILY HELLSTROM | I went to my daughter’s closet last Thursday morning to dig through her art bin. I was looking for a rubber stamp. As an Elizabeth St. Garden volunteer and supporter, I decided to bring it to City Hall to hold in my hand while giving testimony in favor of saving Elizabeth St. Garden. You see, we had been told, “Don’t bother showing up at the City Council hearing. They will never vote against the local councilperson out of deference. They just use the rubber stamp.”

This rubber stamp is a symbol of what is wrong with the process. How else to explain how this got so far?

Elizabeth St. Garden activists Emily Hellstrom, left, and Jeannine Kiely with a banner at hearing on funding for the city-sponsored housing project slated for the garden. (Photo by The Villager)

When land that has been public since the 1800s is sold to a developer for a dollar, decided during a secret backroom deal with former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver without so much as a courtesy call to Community Board 2…rubber stamp.

After the residents held hearing after hearing where hundreds of people turned out to show their support for the garden…rubber stamp.

When thousands of letters have been written in support of this stunning outdoor community center that many call the soul of our historic Little Italy neighborhood…rubber stamp.

The borough president came to our Harvest Festival, saw the diversity of the community gathered together and declared that this space should never be destroyed, but then out came…rubber stamp.

So our grassroots coalition went further. We realized how deep this housing crisis was and pleaded with our elected officials to help us find an alternative, so that green space and housing would not be pitted against each other, tearing our community apart. And they did! The leaders of our community board found a piece of land that could house up to five times as many seniors and they passed a resolution to allow that swap. And what do we get…rubber stamp.

Did our councilmember ever even bother to visit the Elizabeth St. Garden to see why this community has never given up? Sit down with us work on a solution? Did she forge coalitions, and find a win-win compromise, actually do the work of a leader, and harness the boundless energy of garden supporters? She could save the garden and, in return, demand that we unite our efforts in the charge for making more affordable housing. But no, she did not.

She is simply relying on this rubber stamp.

But I have faith that the City Council knows better. That they will put an end to this cynical process, that robs people of their voice. At the Council hearing earlier this month, joined by well more than 100 garden volunteers and supporters, I asked the councilmembers to vote against the destruction of our precious green space and put away this dreaded rubber stamp. I said that, in doing so, they would have a community ready to get to work.

Put away the rubber stamp, because we are ready to participate!

Hellstrom is a board member, Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden

15 Responses to OPINION: Stop rubber stamping: Save Eliz. St. Garden

  1. Talk about a "cynical process": how about a private garden, available only to a select few, that cravenly opens to the public only when threatened with new development? How about people that prioritize this private garden over the provision of desperately needed affordable senior housing, including housing for LGBT+ seniors? How about organizations that mobilize to fight all development, that want to trap the city in amber, that reflexively cringe at any change, that fail to see that shrink wrapping our city will only make housing more expensive for those not lucky enough to live in regulated housing? THAT'S cynical.

  2. Vittoria Fariello

    It is at best disingenuous to claim this is about affordable housing when an alternative has been offered that would create affordable housing for far more people.

    Thank you Emily, Jeannine and many others for your tireless effort to save Elizabeth Street Garden. ESG serves as a place to build and strengthen the community. This is why so many community members are fighting for its survival.

    • William Thomas

      There are over 200,000 seniors on the affordable housing waitlist, it's not a matter of swapping one site for another, it's a matter of building them wherever we can. I know it sucks to lose a pretty space that you've put five years of work into beautifying, but the best use of the site is clearly senior housing––especially with a 7-acre park two blocks away. I'm frankly disappointed at how many self-proclaimed progressives have fought this tooth and nail.

      • And if those 200,000 are given housing in this City, you can sure bet that another 200,000 will move to this City right away, and you will have accomplished nothing except luring people to move here who can't afford anything but cheap housing.

        You're trying to bail water out of a boat that you first want to punch a hole in the bottom of. In a country of millions and millions of people who'd do almost anything to live in one of the greatest Cities in the world, it's impossible to build a way for everyone to get what the want for cheap. Just shooting off without logic. ugh!

        • William Thomas

          This is frankly exclusionary and anti-poor. I bet you personally know many people who came to this city with nothing and made something of themselves, why would you want to put an end to that? Plus, it's absurd to think that if we built enough housing to keep up with demand that everyone in the country would move here. Let me give you an example: Tokyo has far looser zoning than we do, builds 160k units a year, and subsequently has rents of ~$1000 a month. And yet the entire country hasn't moved there, just the people who have wanted to. Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki all still exist! In Tokyo there is no epidemic of crime, the economy is booming, and there are less than 1300 homeless people in a city of 9.2 million. It continues to shock me that people here willingly ignore that obvious success just so they can keep all buildings in their neighborhood the same size as they were in 1960.

          • Are these the rich people of Soho that Jim referred to in his article about the Haven Green development? They seem like Soho elites to me. I even found that Jeannine Kiely is running for district leader. Seems more like another group of politicians and less like a "community garden". We need affordable housing and Emily and Jeannine clearly don't know a single thing about what it is to need affordable housing, no matter how many times they say otherwise.

          • In Tokyo, they live in very tiny places and in overly dense areas that are so polluted most residents wear masks. That's why people don't wanna live there… no matter how cheap it is.

  3. You can't be serious…rubber stamp?? If you think this garden has been "rubber stamped" then the phrase has lost all meaning.

    Consider a different way of thinking about this: if someone suggested tearing down 100% affordable housing for the elderly and putting a semi-private garden in it's place in an area where the average home price is $2 million, would you support it?

    • "Consider a different way" — you mean, make shit up?? Makes no sense. No one recommended that we tear down Rivington House, and yet it was taken from us anyway. I've fought to keep SRO's on the Bowery, and I've fought for the garden on Elizabeth St. — your opposing forces are NOT mutually exclusive. clueless! ugh.

  4. For the record, Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden is fighting for the site, land that has been owned by the public since the 1800's, to be mapped park land, open to all from dawn until dusk. Instead the City ignores the alternative win-win lot at 388 Hudson which would serve the same Community Board and the same 50% community preference. That would allow up to 5 times as many seniors to age in place while keeping a beloved park open for all to enjoy. Instead the City would sell the land for $1 to the developer for a far smaller amount of much needed housing, but also 11,700 square feet of reduced rate office space as well as high end retail.

    The idea of using both sites for housing is not an option. The Hudson Street lot was promised years ago as a park. CB2 graciously allowed for the swap, but only on the condition that the Garden be saved. This kind of compromise is urban planning at its best, and a similar exchange in Chelsea was happily achieved by the Mayor and Speaker Corey Johnson just a few years ago. Not doing this is just stubborn and unnecessary.

    Also, posting nasty comments about people and calling them "Rich Soho Elites" is shameful. Jeannine Kiely spends HOURS of her time volunteering to help make our schools and neighborhood parks better. Just because you disagree with her does not mean that you should label her with unkind (and unwarranted) monikers. You do not know me or Jeannine, but if you care to sit down and meet with either of us, to actually have a discussion instead of anonymously lobbing insults, please reach out.

    • So Jeannine Kiely is just volunteering her time as a community member and has no political agenda?

      With her practically being handed the District Leader position it appears that Kiely has political motives and greater offices in mind. How does she find all this time to work in community board 2 and "volunteer"? It must be easy to pursue a career in community politics when you're extremely wealthy. But anyone who chooses the the interests of wealthy SoHo residents over homeless seniors should not be a representative of our neighborhoods and communities.

      It was clear during every community board hearing on the Haven Green development that there was a conflict of interest between the board and your group. The chair of the board made statements and acted in his own interest and the interests of other community board members who happen to be a part of your group. Does this not call of an investigation?

      It is about time we have representatives that represent the working class people who make our neighborhoods so great, not hand-me-downs to friends and colleagues to control offices.

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