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Despite Public Outcry, City Seeks Proposals for Nolita Garden

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Plans for the affordable housing project that is set to replace the Elizabeth Street Garden will likely be unveiled by the end of this year, representatives from the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) told neighborhood residents at a community board meeting last night. The meeting was organized by Community Board Two's working group on affordable housing development, created specifically to address issues surrounding the community garden, and was held at the Scholastic Building auditorium in SoHo. It was the first time that representatives from the HPD publicly revealed plans on how they plan to move forward with the conversion of the city-owned site.

"At the end of the day we work in highly populated neighborhoods, and are faced with thinking about trade offs," David Quart, a representative for HPD told a packed auditorium at the meeting Wednesday night. "We are in a position of seniors wanting to age in place, and affordable housing is desperately needed. We believe this property can accommodate affordable housing and open space."

As of now, HPD intends for the construction of a seven-story building on the 20,265 square foot lot to provide affordable housing for seniors. HPD needs the building to have a minimum of 60 units to make the project financially feasible. The agency suggested a range of 60-75 units with each apartment averaging about 800-900 square feet. Of the total space available on the lot, about 15,000 square feet will be used for the new building, and the remaining will be used for retail and open space, that HPD intends to be publicly accessible. Most people gathered at the meeting complained that this would be a paltry amount for open space or a garden.

"Would you consider tearing down the high line to build affordable housing?" Rene Green, an 84-year-old who lives across the street from the Garden asked the HPD representatives. "Then why tear down the magical space that is the Elizabeth Street Garden?" Green suffers from arthritis and said the Garden is one of the few open spaces she can easily access, and also where she finds a sense of community.

HPD is currently in the planning stages of the project —they've conducted a land use analysis, gathered socio economic data, and evaluated the financial feasibility of the project. Wednesday night's meeting marked the final stage in that first planning process - getting community input. It was a notion most people present at the meeting were outraged with. The agency had already taken so many preliminary steps without informing community members, people gathered at the meeting said. And while that is standard procedure, those present at the meeting questioned whether city law needed to changed in this regard.

HPD will likely release the Request for Proposal (RFP) for the site sometime in the spring. It's a long drawn out process from there. Developers have about three months to submit proposals. HPD will then review the submissions and make a final decision by the end of the year. But that's in many ways just the beginning. The application will then have to go through a ULURP process —this is another juncture where community members will be able to voice their input. Construction won't likely start until early 2018, and the project is expected to be complete in early 2020.

Community Board 2 has been opposed to the project right from the start, and a lot of the people present at the meeting Wednesday echoed that opposition.

"This is not a divided community," Kent Barwick, a representative from the Elizabeth Street Garden, said at the meeting. "Over the years we have learned to work together, suffer together, and achieve things together. There is no need for New Yorkers who care about housing, seniors, and open space to be divided. The role for the government is to build consensus."

Several community members, and representatives of the community board have pointed to alternate government owned sites in the neighborhood such as an empty lot of 388 Hudson Street, and a parking lot in the neighborhood owned by the federal government. As to the latter, HPD representatives said they had no jurisdiction, but the agency is looking into the viability of developing housing at the Hudson Street property.

Most local elected officials are also in support of the Garden. The most notable exception is City Councilperson Margaret Chin.

"Seniors built our neighborhood and now they can't stay in it," Chin said. "I'm here to support HPD's presentation. As in any development, this project can include open space and play space too. We just need to work together to secure maximum benefit from this city owned site."

One of the major points of contention is that the Elizabeth Street Garden isn't in fact officially recognized by the city as a community garden. And this technicality has allowed the HPD to move ahead with its plans. Neighbors and those who help take care of the garden however argue that the space has come to be a neighborhood asset and a vital symbol of the lack of open space in the area.

The land that the garden sits on today first functioned as an outdoor space for the former P.S. 106. The school was demolished in the 1970s, and the garden lot remained vacant for several years. The community board passed a resolution in the 1990s to lease the space to the Elizabeth Street Gallery on a month-to-month basis, and the organization cleaned up the space, and has helped maintain the garden since. In 2014, the community board passed a resolution to preserve the garden. The garden is located in what is historically known as the Special Little Italy District.

The community board's role is only advisory in nature, and as of now the HPD is likely to release its RFP sometime in the spring.

All the Elizabeth Street Garden Coverage [Curbed]