Walking down Soho’s Elizabeth Street can feel like a neverending vortex of high-class retail, where the designer clothing racks outnumber the people. That is, until you arrive at the lush, green Elizabeth Street Garden, between Prince and Spring Streets. The green “oasis” (as many have dubbed it) and community hub is once again being actively considered for a site for affordable senior housing, a decision that has long been opposed by Community Board 2 but supported by the area’s City Council member Margaret Chin.
The 20,000-square-foot garden is city-owned, but privately leased by gallerist Allan Reiver, who initially planned to use it to store his sculptures but opened it up as a unique respite from the city’s concrete surroundings, full of colorful flowers, green grass, seating areas, and many eye-catching sculptures. Volunteer-run, the garden has been used for community events, education, performances, film screenings, and an annual Harvest Festival. Some of these events draw hundreds of people, located in a neighborhood the NYC Parks Department has previously identified as “underserved by open space.”
Last week, news surfaced that the NYC Housing and Preservation Development (HPD) had officially issued a Request for Proposals to develop the land the garden stands on. Wednesday afternoon, dozens gathered in the garden for a press conference, bearing signs and passionately asserting their garden’s right to remain where it is.
Among those present was actor Gabriel Byrne, who has lived near the garden for about ten years. “I regard this garden, like most other people, as a communal garden, but it feels very personal,” he told me. “Obviously we live in the middle of concrete. For me, one of the most joyful things is to see children running around planting things, older people finding repose here, tourists who come here and sit down. It’s not just a space.”
Aziz Dehkan, executive director of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, told the crowd that the HPD wasn’t listening to the community’s needs. “It seems like I keep doing this week after week,” he said, having also been present for the recent efforts to turn Roosevelt Park’s Stanton Building into a community space. He went on to explain that in the past year HPD has been responsible for the demise of nine community gardens, which are vulnerable spaces unless officially transferred to the Parks Department. Like others, he stressed that in no way was he opposed to affordable housing being built, he just didn’t see why it must replace another useful community facet. “Stop making it a wedge issue,” said Dekhan. “They’re both compatible.”
It has been a rocky road for the fate of the garden. The plan to redevelop it came about in 2012 as part of the SPURA rezoning, much to the ire of many community members—the garden is located in CB 2, while the rest of the rezoning deal (and subsequent communication) was centered in CB 3 and the Lower East Side. However, it seemed that matters had changed for the better this past March, when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation denied HPD’s request for $5 million in favor of more popular development projects. But last week’s RFP makes the future look much dimmer.
“The deal on this park was made with Community Board 3, and Community Board 2 knew nothing about it,” State Assembly member Deborah Glick told the crowd. “And that is why we are so upset. We have no space. We want not just affordable housing—which is crucial—we want a livable city. And a livable city means open space.” She explained that the RFP on the garden allows for a small amount of green space, but there’s no way of telling if that would mean the housing complex’s backyard or an entranceway, rather than something accessible to the public, and the small amount would not be sufficient to continue the garden’s current operations.
“We have not been able to have a real conversation,” Tobi Bergman, chair of Community Board 2, said of Council Member Chin, who he says is “very determined to build housing here.” Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden president Jeannine Kiely said in a press release that Chin has “turned a deaf ear to her constituents.” Chin has described the RFP as “an important step as a community to create affordable housing for our seniors, as well as establishing a permanent garden space at this location.”
Rather than simply opposing the plan, Community Board 2 has offered an alternative within their board’s jurisdiction: Instead, build the affordable housing nearby, at a site they have located at 388 Hudson Street, at Clarkson Street, approximately a 20 minute walk from the garden. They say it’s near another park, and can provide “five times more housing” than the garden lot, 350 units versus 70. According to Bergman, Chin claims that the Hudson Street site’s distance is too far from the seniors who live near the garden. “It reflects a misunderstanding about how selection to affordable housing works,” he argued. “If you build affordable housing here, people who live across the street can apply, and people who live on Hudson Street, or 14th Street, or Soho, they can all apply to live here. And then it becomes a lottery. People who live here or on Hudson Street are not going to live across the street from where they live now.”
However, the site CB 2 is proposing is technically designated as a park. The Friends of the Garden wish for a flip-flop situation, where the Garden gets classified as a park, while the Hudson Street park gets zoned for affordable housing instead.
Glick claims that she “personally mentioned it to the mayor several months ago, and reiterated it to him a week ago Monday. He didn’t seem to remember our initial conversation, [but] suggested one of his key people talk to me. Then Tuesday, the RFP came out. So I am not just disappointed, I am insulted.”
They explain that throughout this process there had not been an “attempt to reach out to Community Board 2, where the Garden is located.” Kiely stressed to the crowd there is no shortage of communication on their end, indicating that they have the support of “virtually every elected official that represents this community board,” including assembly members and state senators. She also said that 4,500 letters have been written in support of the garden and the CB’s housing site alternative.
Kiely added that in the RFP there are “no minimum number of senior housing units, no restrictions on luxury penthouses or ground-floor retail,” and it could very well just add to the city’s expensive real estate. “We will no longer sit idly by while politicians make deals behind closed doors that are bad for our neighborhoods, bad for our quality of life, and bad for New York City.”
This support appeared in droves at the press conference, which was attended by local residents and owners of nearby businesses such as Lovely Day and Peasant, and some folks from Spacious, which turns dinner-only restaurants into daytime coworking spaces.
Community activist and Greenwich Village resident Ronna Texidor seemed slightly optimistic, telling me she sees the Elizabeth Street efforts as a “much bigger fighting team” than she’s observed with other community initiatives (she was active in the fight against the NYU 2031).
As part of the conference, teachers from Chinatown’s P.S.1 explained that they frequently take their students to the garden, and they have helped cultivate its thriving plant life. Some youngsters penned short statements; “Wonder fills the garden,” one read. “It makes your troubles go away,” stated another.
Byrne, after telling me why he enjoys the garden, went on to say, “You can be pessimistic about it because the reality is, bureaucracy doesn’t really care about the things I just talked about. On the other hand, if enough people protest, it might make a difference.” He then joined the ranks of those demanding action from the mayor: “We have to get beyond the red tape and bureaucratic doublespeak. De Blasio needs to be down here. He’s the mayor of this city, and if something like this is affecting so many people, he should be here. It’s part of his job.”
“It’s a bit like what’s happening with this election,” Byrne added. “We can’t assume it’s a foregone conclusion. [But] people are beginning to see how the system actually works, they’re beginning to see. And there’s hope in that.”
Some had more succinct opinions, like former Sopranos actor Vinny Vella, who grew up near the garden.
“Don’t believe HPD. They’re no good.”
The Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden will be staging a rally before an upcoming developer meeting outside the NYC HPD at 100 Gold Street on Thursday, October 6, 9 am to 10:30 am.