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BY SARAH FERGUSON | The embattled Children’s Magical Garden got a resounding thumbs up from the Parks Committee of Community Board 3 last week.
C.M.G. came under attack last month when developer Serge Hoyda — who has a history of power plays on the Lower East Side — fenced off one of the three lots which make up this garden on the corner of Norfolk and Stanton Sts., effectively bisecting this small green haven.
Last Thursday, C.B. 3’s Parks Committee voted unanimously to endorse the gardeners’ request to transfer the garden’s two other lots — currently owned by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development — to the Parks Department for preservation under the GreenThumb program. The committee further recommended that the Bloomberg administration offer Hoyda a deal to swap his relatively small interior lot for a comparable city-owned lot elsewhere.
The full board will vote on the committee’s resolution on Tues., June 25. But since the community board generally approves the recommendations of its committees, such unequivocal backing was critical for C.M.G.
At the meeting’s outset, Councilmember Margaret Chin told board members she had reached out to both H.P.D. and Parks to discuss ways of preserving the garden, but said she needed the board’s “strong support” to move forward.
“This garden has been in the neighborhood for 31 years, the same age as my son,” Chin noted. “H.P.D. says their mission is to build affordable housing. But I think this site, because it has been here so long, I’ve said it is important to preserve the green space. That’s what I’ve talked to [H.P.D.] about, but we need the community board to support that, so I hope you will listen to them,” Chin said, gesturing to the gardeners and supporters who filled the meeting room at the Bowery Residents’ Committee off Delancey St.
Earlier, Chin accompanied scores of garden fans — including many children dressed as superheroes, sprites, fairies and even a couple of “Angry Birds” — as they rallied at C.M.G., then marched to the meeting site.
“Gardens are forever!” and “Make it permanent!” they chanted to the beat of a bass drum played by a member of the Rude Mechanical Orchestra.
At the meeting, C.M.G. members presented a short video documenting the history of the garden and a petition signed by nearly 2,000 people, calling on Mayor Bloomberg to preserve the space. They also submitted letters of support from 35 local businesses and the principals of the four public schools that front on the garden, as well as nonprofit groups that utilize C.M.G. as a play and learning space.
Mimi Fortunato, the principal of Marta Valle High School, located across the street from C.M.G., spoke earnestly about its role in an area notably lacking in green. Youth leaders from Marta Valle meet every week at C.M.G., and this year the school’s culinary classes even used eggs from the chickens C.M.G. housed to make quiche.
“This kind of connection to the real world around us is an essential, essential, essential thing,” Fortunato stressed.
C.M.G. treasurer Dave Currence, owner of Tiny’s Giant Sandwich Shop on Rivington St., said his restaurant composts its kitchen scraps at the garden.
C.M.G. board president Kate Temple-West, a writer and herbalist, said she had been tending plants — and children — at C.M.G. since she was a 19-year-old theater major at New York University. Now 36, Temple-West choked up as she described the evolution of the kids she’s helped mentor there.
“There are people I would not know if it weren’t for this garden,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve spoken to teachers who say their children, some of whom have trouble in their classrooms, behave differently in the garden. I get emotional because it’s hard to explain what this community garden means to the children. These children inspire me every day I get to be with them.”
Her emotion was echoed by Rachel Kramer, who spoke with her 7-year-old daughter, Frances, by her side.
“Living in the city, my kid gets to see people behaving pretty poorly,” said Kramer. “Here she gets to play with chickens and worms.
“I grew up in New York City,” Kramer added. “I never dreamed about seeing my child on Stanton St. hold a chicken in her hands. It makes me feel like a good parent.”
Shaun Joseph, an architecture student, said he and other college students with the group Freedom by Design were working on projects to improve C.M.G. — like installing a new pond with a solar-powered pump and a nicer exterior fence — using a grant awarded to C.M.G. by the Citizens Committee for New York City.
Many spoke to the way the garden has become embedded in their lives. Emily Wiechers said her 5-year-old, Tristan, walks by the garden every day on his way to kindergarten at P.S. 20, and often plays there after school. Now P.S. 20 is working with C.M.G. to teach its students how to compost and grow tomatoes and herbs as part of the “Wellness in the Schools” program.
Yet when security guards and police arrived last month to fence off Hoyda’s lot, Wiechers said young Tristan was told by an attorney for the developer that he could be arrested for trespassing if he and his father did not leave.
“It would be a real shame to do anything but preserve it where it’s been for the last 31 years,” Wiechers told the committee, her voice edged in anger.
Hoyda and his representatives declined to appear before the committee. The only voice of dissent came from a neighbor, James Gregg, who said he has lived two doors down from the garden for the past seven years. Gregg said he spoke on behalf of “a group” of fellow residents who felt C.M.G. did not benefit the wider community.
Specifically, Gregg complained that C.M.G. did not have the “recognized attributes” of a community garden — “well-tended grass, posted hours and specific policies about what is allowed and what is not.”
“The area continues to be a blight on the community,” Gregg told the committee, using a term frequently used in condemnation proceedings. “It was rat-infested for over a year. It’s full of junk and generally poorly maintained.”
Gregg’s comments were met with loud “boos” and shouts of “Who paid you?” A board member asked Gregg whether he or any of the others in his group had children. He conceded they did not.
Thomas Wu, the Parks Committee’s chairperson, asked whether the city had ever agreed to swap a city lot for private land in the past.
“There have been past swaps of land where gardens were involved,” Matt Viggiano, director of land use policy for Councilmember Chin, responded. “But H.P.D. has never said to a private owner that it would swap private land for city-owned land elsewhere.”
“That’s not to say that with lots of pushing and prodding it’s not possible,” Viggiano added. “But it would be a unique experience for the agency.”
When The Villager first asked H.P.D. about the possibility of swapping a private lot for a city-owned one, a spokesperson termed it “not a common practice” by any stretch.
Hoyda, however, may be more open to the idea. C.M.G. board member Aresh Javadi, co-founder of the activist group More Gardens!, told the committee that when he and Temple-West pitched the land swap idea to Hoyda last fall, the developer told them he might welcome the idea.
“I think he would be open to some swap or some other incentives — like getting a zoning bonus at another project,” Javadi told the committee.
Hoyda, Norfolk Development Corp LLC, Hoyda’s property management firm S&H Equities, and lobbyist Greenberg Traurig LLC did not respond to The Villager’s requests for comment.
But Javadi remains optimistic.
“I think we can do this,” he told the committee. “I already see the garden fence going down. With the help of our elected representatives, it’s absolutely doable.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Rachel Kramer is a single mom.