It’s a story that’s all too common in the history of New York City: A beloved community space finds itself under threat from rapacious private development that doesn’t care about things like “beauty” or “neighborhood character.” And for supporters of the Elizabeth Street Garden, a one-acre green space between Prince and Spring streets that’s slated to be replaced with a residential development, the notes are all the same: community opposition, plenty of favorable coverage of the effort to save it, and prominent friends fighting for it. (“Sadly, like so many of this city’s gems, the garden is being threatened by development, and its destruction may be imminent,” HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky recently told New York magazine. “So be sure to stop by before the bulldozers beat you to it.”)
But lost in the noise of the opposition is the fact that the development going up on Elizabeth Street isn’t full of luxury condos would block out the sun: The development, known as Haven Green, is a Habitat for Humanity-backed affordable housing complex specifically designed for low-income seniors, a population that desperately needs housing. It’s also backed by community members who’ve fought to save Rivington House, as well as the neighborhood’s City Council member, who staked an election on it.
Looked at through another lens, the fight is a common, though much less sympathetic, story in the history of New York City: a neighborhood banding together to fight affordable housing.
The history of the lot that the Elizabeth Street Garden sits on is a long one. Originally home to a public school that was torn down in the 1970s, the land, between Elizabeth and Mott streets, was slated to become Section 8 housing. Those apartments were never built, and eventually the abandoned (but still city-owned) lot was leased to Elizabeth Street Gallery owner Allan Reiver, who planted greenery and used it to store sculptures. Until 2013, the garden was open to members of the public who entered through Reiver’s gallery. But that year, a handful of community members convinced Reiver to let them open an entrance on Elizabeth Street in return for volunteering to take care of it.
At the same time, City Council member Margaret Chin asked former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to include the lot as an affordable housing component to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA, later renamed Essex Crossing), a request that was granted by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in 2012. Not long after that, Community Board 2 began fighting the effort to develop the lot, proposing a series of alternate sites in the district. The most popular is located at 388 Hudson Street, about a mile away, and is owned by the Department of Environmental Protection (which itself is supposed to be turned into a park). Meanwhile, HPD issued a request for proposals for the Elizabeth Street site in 2016.
Along the way, those who want to save the garden racked up support from local electeds who weren’t Chin, as well as friendly press and celebrity might in the form of Gabriel Byrne and attorney Norman Siegel, the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
All of the heavy artillery has not been a high-profile NIMBY effort, says Jeannine Kiely, the president of the Friends of the Elizabeth Street Garden; instead the group is demanding a more democratic process.
“This is grassroots community planning,” says Kiely. “This is listening to the community. This is not a community saying ‘No,’ this is a community being asked for what they want, offering a better alternative, and being ignored.”
But in the face of a thousands-long waitlist for affordable senior housing, Chin questions why the city has to make a choice between two different sites as opposed to utilizing both of them.
Haven Green, which is being developed by Pennrose (a developer that’s worked on the Prospect Plaza NYCHA/affordable housing development), will include 123 studio apartments, 15,000 square feet of ground-level retail, and an 8,000-square foot open space as a replacement of sorts for the current garden. The open space will be managed by Habitat for Humanity, which—along with elderly LGBTQ advocacy organization SAGE and RiseBoro Community Partnership—will provide programming and support for the residents of the building.
“In my City Council district, there over 5,000 seniors on waiting lists for senior housing, and citywide there are over 200,000 waiting for senior housing,” says Chin. “When we look at [388 Hudson], that is not an alternative site; it’s an additional site. If we can build affordable housing on that site, we should build it, because there’s such a tremendous need. It’s not one or the other.”
Chin also disputes the story of the garden as it’s popularly told. She remembers the land as a place Little Italy residents always looked at for housing. “I grew up in that neighborhood, and I remember walking by every time, and it was always locked,” says Chin said. “And when I talked to community people in Little Italy, who desperately need affordable housing, they were always looking at that site and said ‘Wow, it would be great if we could build housing on that site.’ So that’s why we advocated to build senior housing there.”
And rather than a decades-old community space—a “cornerstone of the neighborhood” since the 1990s, as one story about the garden described it—Chin said for most of its life, access to the garden was a perk of being friendly with Reiver.
“When you look at that site, don’t forget about the history: It was never open to the public,” says Chin. “Members of Community Board 2 came to my office, sat down with me, and gave me the history from their perspective. One of them told me, ‘Margaret, yeah, it was always locked. But if you go to the gallery, and if the gallery owner liked you, he would let you go to the garden through the back of his building.’”
“They know the history,” she continues. “It was never open to the public until they heard that the site was going to be designated for affordable housing, and then all of a sudden it’s open? They cannot rewrite history.”
Kiely disagrees with Chin’s assessment. “This [effort to save the garden] started from a grassroots initiative to get more open space, period,” she says. “What the gallery owner did in those prior years is irrelevant.”
The Friends of the Elizabeth Street Garden say they’re fighting for an area that’s drastically lacking in city-owned green space. CB2 is one of only four Community Districts classified by the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination as “underserved” by green space (defined as an area with less than 1,000 acres of green space per 2.5 residents).
Still, long-promised parks are on the way, and neighborhood data compiled by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy also shows that while 99.8 percent of the residents of the Lower East Side and Chinatown live within a quarter mile of a park, only 7.4 percent of the neighborhood’s housing units are affordable for people making 30 percent or less of the area median income.
Haven Green would, in theory, serve the latter need: According to a presentation from the developers, annual income limits for the studios will range from $18,774 to $37,548, with 72 of the units set aside for people making 30 percent AMI or less. For Benjamin Dulchin of the Association For Neighborhood and Housing Development (which has endorsed the project), the competing claims of parkland versus affordable housing have to be weighed in the larger picture of what the neighborhood needs.
“You need to find the right balance, and the truth is that one of the issues in that neighborhood, from the affordable housing point of view, is that there are very few opportunities to develop it,” says Dulchin. “So the opportunity to build a substantial new project with a lot of genuinely low-income senior housing, which is really what that neighborhood needs, is the the higher good in this particular case.”
The neighborhood also doesn’t lack for community gardens as K. Webster, a neighborhood activist with Friends of Rivington House, pointed out in an op-ed of support of using the land for affordable housing. Class issues also inform the attachment to Elizabeth Street, Webster argues.
“I think it has to do with what people perceived as beauty without any sense that that’s … determined by your culture, your class, you race sometimes, what you consider beautiful,” Webster says. “There’s people who will disparage the M’Finda Kalunga garden, which is in Sara D Roosevelt Park, and that’s one of the most beautiful gardens there is going.” And like Chin, Webster remembers the garden as more of a luxury item. “It never felt very open to me,” she says.
Calling the leaders of CB2 good people with every right to fight for what they want, Webster notes that the level of rhetoric and vitriol surrounding the effort to keep the garden is out of step from what’s being proposed, and drowns out less affluent voices. The public meetings on the garden have a “level of unwelcome that a large part of this community feels, and then get targeted for any thoughts they have contrary to what some want in the outcome,” she says. “I just feel like we don’t know how many people really would like to have this go forward, because people have told me they can’t and they won’t speak up.”
That fear was borne out at a December meeting of CB2’s Elizabeth Street Garden working group. Objecting to the size of the studios Pennrose is building (375 square feet each), committee chair David Gruber called the apartments “elaborate prison cells.” Amid comments that the development was some kind of plot by big real estate, and a charge that HPD and an affordable housing developer were “crude students of Trump,” one audience member said that “Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with HPD, is colluding with the real estate developers and real estate market in New York to remake the city for the one percent,” a plot whose ultimate goal was, according to the speaker, “community and ethnic cleansing.”
The insistence that there’s more support for the project than is seen at community board meetings might be tough for garden supporters to swallow. But the fact remains that however narrowly Chin won her last primary, and then the general election—despite garden supporters throwing their weight (sometimes questionably) behind her opponent—she still won. As the old chestnut goes, elections have consequences.
“There are seniors living in Little Italy who are living in tenement buildings on the top floor or even on the second or third floor—they cannot come down to enjoy the sunlight in a park or in an open space,” Chin says. “They desperately need housing with elevators. That’s who I’m fighting for: the seniors who helped build up the neighborhood, who should be able to continue to live there.”