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Lawsuits filed against Elizabeth Street Garden affordable housing project

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Opposition to plans to tear down the Nolita garden and build housing argue that the project is unlawful

The Elizabeth Street Garden

Opponents of a contested city-backed housing project that will raze the Elizabeth Street Garden have followed through on months of legal threats, and have filed lawsuits against the development.

The garden and a separate non-profit devoted to protecting the garden are each filing suits against the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) this week in Manhattan Supreme Court, charging that the city’s environmental review failed to rigorously evaluate the impacts of the green space’s loss. They’re asking the court to mandate that the city conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before moving forward with plans to replace the one-acre open space with affordable senior housing.

“Respondents failed to take a hard look at relevant areas of environmental concern-specifically, Zoning, Open Space, Neighborhood Character, and Public Policy-with respect to the Proposed Project, and failed to recognize the adverse environmental impacts that may result from the Proposed Project,” the suit filed by the Elizabeth Street Garden, which maintains the green space, states.

The redevelopment project, known as Haven Green, would bring 123 studio apartments, 15,000 square feet of ground-level retail, and some 8,000 square feet of open space to where the garden now stands. But opposition to the plan has been fierce, with Community Board 2 rejected the proposal. The project has divided local elected officials—City Council member Margaret Chin is in favor, while Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou is against. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer ultimately okayed the plan to head to the next step in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

Now, in a last-ditch effort to put the brakes on the proposal those who run the garden and a separate non-profit known as the Friends of the Elizabeth Street Garden argue in their respective lawsuits that the city did not comply with the law and that it made errors in the project zoning review.

“HPD did not do what the law requires them to do to go forward with this project,” Norman Siegel, an attorney with the Elizabeth Street Garden’s legal team, told Curbed. “The city is pitting New Yorkers against New Yorkers by pitting open green space against affordable housing and we need to resist that and say we must have both.”

Counsel for the Friends of the Elizabeth Street Garden—whose suit lists Assembly members Deborah Glick and Yuh-Line Niou as co-plaintiffs—echoed Siegel’s concerns and emphasized the need to preserve open space in the Manhattan neighborhood.

“The city talks of preserving public open spaces, but it must act,” said lawyer Michael Gruen. “The open public space within a half mile of the Garden, including the Garden, adds up to just ten percent of what the City proclaims is the rock bottom need for a residential area. That makes even a small jewel a big symbol.”

The suits argue that the city evaluated the project using the wrong zoning—C6-2 instead of the Special Little Italy District—and says that the building height and other features would actually violate the area’s current zoning. Additionally, the complaints rebuke the city’s designation of the garden as an Urban Development Action Area—a classification typically used to revitalize blighted land. The city stood by its project Wednesday.

“HPD stands by its review of a project which is expected to create more affordable housing,” a Law Department spokesperson said. “We will review the lawsuit when we are served.”

Siegel, who says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the cases against the city said the development has implications beyond the Nolita community that New Yorkers should be worried about.

“This is not just an issue in [Council member] Chin’s district, if the city can get rid of the Elizabeth Street Garden they can do this in any district in the city,” Siegel said. “It could happen anywhere.”