Raymond Figueroa, president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, at a rally to save Elizabeth Street Garden last year. (Photo: Ryan Krause)

In the latest chapter of a divisive issue that has pitted garden advocates against city officials and affordable-housing supporters, the City Council approved Haven Green on Wednesday, potentially cinching the fate of the Elizabeth Street Garden, where the city wants to build the development for senior citizens. Now, the project must win in the legal arena as well, after two grassroots organizations filed lawsuits against New York City the first week of March.

With 45 votes in favor and one abstention from council member Rafael Espinal—who objected to a community garden being destroyed—the project spearheaded by council member Margaret Chin overcame its last official hurdle before Mayor Bill de Blasio signs off on it.

“It’s sad, but it’s expected,” Joseph Reiver, the garden’s executive director and son of its founder, said about the vote. The site of the Haven Green project is city owned land, privately leased since the 1990s to gallerist Allan Reiver, who owns the adjacent building and who throughout the years created a lush garden which was opened to the community in 2013.

The move green-lighted the construction of 123 units of housing for low-income seniors in Little Italy, including 37 set aside for formerly homeless people. Eligible candidates should have an annual income ranging from $18,774 to $37,548, according to a presentation by the developers. Developed by Pennrose, RiseBoro and Habitat NYC in partnership with city housing agencies, the project promises more than 8,000 square feet of publicly accessible open space and to make the units LGBTQ-friendly. The details of what this last bit would look like are unclear, beyond the developers partnering with the LGBT advocacy group SAGE and mentions of “centers on the ground floor with services, advice, and activities.”

In the words of council member Chin, the vote was “a victory for the hundreds of thousands of elderly New Yorkers languishing on waitlists for precious units of affordable and age-friendly housing.” 

Earlier that day, Chin met at the steps of City Hall with supporters of the development, who clustered in a circle trying to escape the sun’s rays and heat. “Housing is a right. Fight fight fight!” they shouted moments before walking into the building. 

Attendees before the City Council hearing.

The nonprofit Open New York applauded the decision. Lauren Thomas, chair of the organization’s board, said, “it is rare to see new housing, particularly an all-affordable, senior housing development like Haven Green, in high-opportunity, centrally located neighborhoods like Soho and Nolita, where the need for such housing is most acute. Too often, certain neighborhoods shirk their responsibilities to house New York City’s residents, particularly those most vulnerable.”

Although low-income housing is a real necessity in swiftly-gentrifying Little Italy—over the last decade, the neighborhood has seen the creation of only 70 units of affordable housing, according to Chin—the Elizabeth Street Garden’s defenders insist that bulldozing the garden is unnecessary and say that the city has ignored their counter solution: an alternate site at 388 Hudson Street. The gravel-filled vacant lot would allow for five times as much housing, and would allow for the conservation of the garden in Little Italy, the organizations contend.

“Margaret has worked really hard with the developers to spin the truth around the garden,” said Reiver. “They say that it’s an elitist garden, they pit it against affordable housing and say that this is the only way to achieve affordable housing, and that this garden is not open. City planning calls it a vacant underutilized lot,” he said and laughed. “This is a lie. Chin and de Blasio and HPD have put forth this false choice that it has to be either the garden or affordable housing and they have discredited the real alternative viable solution which is 388 Hudson.”

Chin has said in the past that Haven Green is the only “currently developable site” that is controlled by the City’s housing agency, since the Hudson site is controlled by the Department of Environmental Protection. Despite that, the City is evaluating the Hudson site as a future housing and green space development, Chin said. But a city official, who did not wish to be identified, also told B+B that, even if construction started at Hudson, a critical water system access shaft on the site would complicate the number of units that could be built. 

The lawsuits, filed just days of each other by the two nonprofit groups defending the garden, Elizabeth Street Garden and Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden, allege that the city acted illegally when it claimed there was no significant environmental impact when getting rid of the garden. They are programmed to be reviewed by New York County Justice Debra A. James in late September.

Thursday, the garden will be holding a legal defense fundraiser from 7 to 10pm.