While Community Board 3 is staunchly opposed to synthetic greenery, it’s doing everything it can to preserve actual greenspace. The board wants to designate all of the East Village and Lower East Side’s community gardens as parkland, so that they’re protected from future development. Last night, it overwhelmingly approved a resolution to request that the city officially name its area Community Gardens District.
“We’ve been kind of fighting for the last fifteen or twenty years [to preserve] many of the community gardens,”said Aresh Javadi, Director of More Gardens! and Board Member for New York City Community Garden Coalition. “So it’s a nice turn of events to see that many of the elected officials and representatives are supporters of making sure the gardens are going to stay for a long time.”
Currently, most of the Lower East Side’s 46 community gardens are on city land and under the jurisdiction of the Department of Parks and Recreation. But, according to the resolution presented last night, city maps list garden lots as “vacant,” leaving them vulnerable to future development. With the gardens mapped as parkland, any change in their use would require an act of the State legislature. (That rule may sound familiar: a debate over parkland designation is at the heart over the lawsuit against NYU’s Greenwich Village expansion.)
There was tremendous support for the resolution, with attendees applauding and cheering after each speaker. But a few dissenting voices cautioned against using these lots for gardens rather than for affordable housing. Resident and Board member Zulma Zayas said it was a “constant battle” to achieve a balance between preserving community gardens and ensuring low-rent housing.
Borough President Gale Brewer shares those concerns. She was not present at last night’s meeting, but Bedford + Bowery obtained a reaction from her office. “Our desperate need for more affordable housing does mean we sometimes need to allow development on unbuilt land,” she said. “But to navigate these competing demands for space, we must have a process that engages all members of the community and acknowledges the real value of these community treasures, before we make decisions we can’t reverse.”
At the meeting, garden supporters argued that there are ways to create much-needed housing—such as converting existing housing into affordable units—without endangering gardens.
“Once open space is gone, then it’s gone forever. We can create new policies to incentivize the creation of affordable housing, but we can’t create new open space through public policy. We should protect the green open spaces that we have,”urged Bill LoSasso, the Executive Director of La Plaza Cultural Community Garden, and a member of Community Board 3.
In 1973, New York City’s first community garden sprouted from the rubble of a nearly bankrupt Gotham. According to the resolution, landlords had abandoned “overwhelming” numbers of Lower East Side buildings, inviting in drugs, violence, and squalor. Liz Christy, a Lower East Side resident and environmental activist, started the garden on East Houston, between Bowery and Second Avenue.
In the following years gardens sprung to life all over the neighborhood. By 1999 there were 57 registered gardens, and many more independent ones. According to Javadi, under Mayor Giuliani many community boards were selling off their gardens; the resolution notes that Community Board 3 lost ten during this period. Nevertheless, it remains the “community board with the largest number and highest density of community gardens in all of New York City and New York State.”
The work of preserving the green heritage of the neighborhood is far from over; in October, the board demanded that the Siempre Verde garden, on the Lower East Side, be turned over to the parks department lest the William Gottlieb Estate build on it.
The next step with this broader resolution is to take it to the City Council. Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens (LUNGS) reported that if Community Board 3 passed the resolution, Councilwoman Rosie Mendez would draft a bill and bring it before the City Council. Councilwoman Mendez’s office could not be reached for confirmation, but Borough President Gale Brewer’s office confirmed that she supports the resolution.