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Elizabeth Street Garden’s future debated at raucous City Council committee hearing

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The debate over the future of the open space—garden or affordable housing—is now in the City Council’s hands


The fight over Nolita’s Elizabeth Street Garden moved to City Hall last Thursday, as a pair of dueling rallies preceded an hours-long, and occasionally feisty, hearing by a City Council subcommittee over the future of the land the garden sits on. It’s the latest step in the process to determine whether the garden will remain as-is or become a 100 percent affordable housing development.

Garden advocates rallied on both Wednesday and Thursday to ask the City Council to vote against the new development, known as Haven Green, and instead save the Elizabeth Street Garden. They were joined by advocates for the Mandela Garden and Pleasant Village Community Garden, two gardens in Harlem that are also slated for development by the city.

Echoing previous statements from garden supporters, Elizabeth Street Garden executive director Joseph Reiver blasted the Haven Green development as giving public land to private hands at Wednesday’s rally. After the rally, Reiver told Curbed that he believes Elizabeth Street Garden should be turned into a conservation land trust rather than a Parks Department space, saying that it would lead to more community-focused private management of the space.

“I believe the way we can really save the Elizabeth Street Garden as the unique space that it is, is as a conservation land trust, and many of our members do,” Reiver said, adding that he’d be happy to go over other potential futures for the garden if it isn’t developed. The difference between “privatizing” the spaces in that instance, according to Reiver, “is that it would be run by a non-profit that’s run by the community, and they’re the ones who are governing the space, and that in turn benefits the community.”

“[Haven Green] is privatizing the land with luxury retail, privatizing it with profit, it’s privatizing it in a completely different way,” he continued.

The next day, Haven Green’s supporters rallied prior to the City Council hearing, with speakers from Habitat From Humanity, building developer Pennrose, and organizations like Housing Works and the Cooper Square Community Land Trust arguing that the affordable housing/open space design of Haven Green is a necessary compromise to fight the city’s housing crisis. They also spoke to the tensions of wealth and class that have bubbled up in the fight over the development.

Jim Fouratt, an LGBTQ activist going back to the Stonewall uprising, cast the fight for the garden as one fought by wealthy NIMBYs who are telling a different history of the land. “A longtime Italian resident of the neighborhood had a sweetheart deal with the city for what has become a very valuable piece of property,” Fouratt told the assembled crowd. “When Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg, at the pushing of [City Council member] Margaret Chin, designated the publicly owned space for housing, what did he do? He invited the rich women of SoHo to come and squat on that land and build quote unquote a garden containing his statuary which was his business. That’s the story. How dare these rich people and their allies confuse the issue, it’s selfish.”

“In a crisis, you don’t ask what somebody can do across town,” K. Webster, a Haven Green supporter and local activist said near the end of an impassioned speech, referring to the suggestion from garden advocates that the city build housing on an empty lot one mile away from the Elizabeth Street Garden. “You ask yourself ‘What can I do in my neighborhood?’”

Council Members for the most part listened to the testimony delivered by speakers on both sides of the issue, though Chin took the opportunity to ask representatives from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development how Haven Green would remain in the city’s affordable housing program for longer than 60 years. HPD’s Leila Bozorg said that there were “financial incentives” for Haven Green developer Pennrose to remain. In particular, Bozorg told the Council that HPD is “essentially providing a mortgage for the construction of this project, and we have the terms set up in a way so that there’s interest growing over time over those 60 years on our mortgage, and that becomes a very large balloon payment at the end of that 60 years that the developer is responsible for paying back unless they extend the affordability with us.”

Where the City Planning Commission hearing had in-person testimony from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who supports Haven Green, Thursday’s hearing featured testimony in favor of the garden from state Assembly member Deborah Glick, who represents pieces of lower Manhattan that include the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, and the East Village.

Glick urged the city to instead situate affordable housing at 388 Hudson Street, a site garden proponents have floated as a better alternative. “It is disappointing to me that residents are asked to choose between critically-needed affordable housing and vital open public space,” Glick said during her testimony. “These two elements are essential to the quality of life in our increasingly dense city. The concept of livable communities is often lost in the equation in favor of pursuing other public policy goals, even when more appropriate and robust opportunities exist elsewhere.”

Glick also suggested that the fight over the garden was an example of the wrong kind of city planning, which deserves more local input and control. “In the case of the Elizabeth Street Garden, the community uses this space as a park, it has all the characteristics of a park,” she stated. “In theory the community board process should allow for local control and discussion about how city-owned sites can be used in the future. It is a false choice.”

The hearing was also occasionally raucous, as uniformed City Council security guards had to tell audience members multiple times to stop cheering and taunting. The phrase “sex abuser” was yelled on two different instances by an audience member after pro-Haven Green speakers were invited to testify, and one member of the audience fled the Council chamber after screaming “liar liar pants on fire” at Fouratt before his testimony.

The committee didn’t actually vote on whether the project would be allowed to move forward at the conclusion of the hearing, and subcommittee chair Adrienne Adams told Curbed that there isn’t a date set for the vote yet. While the City Council has a long tradition of deferring to local council members on the subject of land use issues, Adams didn’t give Curbed any clue as to how she might vote, instead saying that “I was very grateful for everyone that spoke today on both sides of the issue. It’s a very important issue, and I think it was very important that all sides be heard. There’s still a lot to consider and I’ve really made no decision one way or the other yet.”