Monumental battle in Nolita over fate of garden site

Differing from most community gardens, the Elizabeth St. Garden is chock full of large-scale ornaments.  Photo by Don Mathisen

Differing from most community gardens, the Elizabeth St. Garden is chock full of large-scale ornaments. Photo by Don Mathisen

BY GERARD FLYNN  |  Land use issues at community board meetings can generate strong feelings, and a special public hearing held by Community Board 2’s Land Use Committee Monday evening was no exception.

Community residents are upset with city plans to turn the Elizabeth St. Garden, a 20,000-square-foot, city-owned lot in Nolita into affordable housing units.

The open space was tacked on last year to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, project, a mixed-use development at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. SPURA will include 1,000 housing units, of which 500 will be permanently affordable for residents earning 30 percent of area median income, which for New York City is $90,000.

While recognizing the need for affordable housing, the project’s opponents want to preserve the site as a permanent public green space, for their well-being and that of their children. They reminded those at the hearing that Little Italy and Soho have one of the lowest ratios citywide for park space — .07 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents — and that in a sea of concrete, the soft touch of grass is crucial to for local kids growing up in the neighborhood.

The Elizabeth St. site was a blighted lot until 1991, when it was transformed into a sculpture garden by Allan Reiver, owner of the adjacent Elizabeth Street Gallery. Reiver denied charges that the garden was not open to the public until news got out in June about the city’s housing plans. He said that due to insurance concerns about some of the valuable artwork on display at the site, access has been through his gallery since 2005.

However, since news of the housing plan got around in June, local volunteers have helped make the garden increasingly accessible to the public. One speaker at Monday’s hearing remarked that a person could not “stand in that garden for one hour and think that it ought to be a building.” An online petition has garnered nearly 800 signatures since June, and a recent October “Harvest Festival” brought an estimated 1,500 residents to the garden.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin attended the hearing and later expressed hope for a compromise on the issue. She said she “would love to see” a mixed use for the site — affordable housing with additional on-site space accessible to the public. She said while nothing is set in stone at this early stage, the units will probably be affordable for applicants at 30 to 40 percent, and even up to 80 percent of median area income.

Although a city planner from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which will oversee the project, kickstarted the meeting’s discussion with an overview on affordable housing and possible designs for the site, the proposal is in its preliminary stages and neither a design nor a developer have been chosen.

Because the site is in the Little Italy Special District, there is a height cap of 75 feet, equal to about seven stories, for new construction.

When asked why local residents can’t instead just use other green spaces, like Tompkins Square Park, Aaron Booher, an architect and member of the Elizabeth Street Garden Committee, said the Nolita garden must be preserved because other green spaces are too far away.

While most of the roughly 200 people at the meeting raucously expressed their disapproval of the housing plan, not everyone wanted the garden preserved.

Debbie Gonzalez said she admired the Elizabeth St. lot, but only learned it was open to the public in June. She was dismayed when she heard some opponents at the meeting voice fears the project would bring low-income residents into the neighborhood and drive property prices down.

K Webster said that many who want to preserve the Elizabeth St. site as green space were “well-heeled” and so didn’t need affordable housing. But many elderly in the neighborhood live in walk-ups, she added, so new housing is more sorely needed than open space. She added that if she can use other green spaces farther afield, like Tompkins Square Park, the project’s opponents can, too.

Tobi Bergman, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Land Use Committee, said afterward, “I was surprised that the community spoke out in such a unified voice. Fifty-three people, all nearby residents, spoke with passion for preserving the garden. The only people who spoke in favor of affordable housing were one resident who needs a bigger apartment for his family, his grandmother and two community organizers who live in Community Board 3. It was very persuasive.”

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28 Responses to Monumental battle in Nolita over fate of garden site

  1. The "compromise" mentioned by Council Member Chin for a mixed-use of housing and open space on the site would only be possible by first destroying the garden as it now exists. Mature trees would be ripped out. The site would be bulldozed. Any new garden would be squeezed between buildings and in no way would it replicate that very special place that now exists at the Elizabeth Street Garden.

    That bad result is not in the public interest of those in the local community, or for parks-deprived residents of Community Board 2 and Council District 1. The goal should be to preserve the existing garden and find an alternative site for affordable housing within CD1.

  2. no more free ride housing for the low lifes..isnt there enough on the entire waterfront on the east side.. make affordable housing upstate..there is no reason for these people to have to live in SOHO…AVE D is already full of it

  3. First, it was nyu, then a bid in soho, now this! I am soooo disappointed in my councilmember.

    What good is affordable housing if those residents have to live without any nearby green space? Did we learn nothing from the 5 Points days?

    And, how does it help the poor to give them housing in an area where they cannot afford to live?

    • We who don't have wealth shop in Chinatown, join CSA's at lower prices, look for sales (yes even at WholeFoods) and just don't eat out much. We manage.
      As to green spaces: within a few blocks: the world famous Liz Christy Garden on Houston/Bowery and the jewel of a garden at M'Finda Kalunga in Sara Roosevelt Park two blocks away. Plenty of greenspace if you are willing to go out of your comfort zone. As well as a playground which that Council member got funding to renovate (could have lots more greenspace there).
      And since 5 points existed we have lived quite civilly, quite well… at least before the current influx of money forced many of our neighbors to leave.
      But thanks for looking out for us.

      • wholefoods, please. don't each out much – sounds like a depressing life. is that the best we can hope for in life – to manage? sad. and those are some fine jewel parks, but that's jewel as in tiny. added up they do not amount to much. in fact, that's a horrible shortage of greenspace compare to other neighborhoods. very weak rebuttal all around. ps. I'm one of your bowery neighbors currently being forced out, and my councilmember has been no help, only making my life harder here until I'm gone.

  4. One of the most valuable elements of Nolita/Soho is its mix of socio-economic, cultural and ethnic groups. It's a diverse village of its own. The garden will be for everyone — a wonderful place to continue to build and strengthen this unique and progressive community. Without this central soul — a 20th century version of an old town square or plaza — there will be no organic spot for the community members to gather. What is the value of a diverse neighborhood if there is no place mingle? What is the value of a city if there is not place to pause and breath? There are so many ways to be creative about building affordable housing… and so many opportunities with the number of other CB2 developments. There are no other viable opportunities to create true green space in the area. Open spaces like Petrosino Square are wonderful additions and welcomed, but a triangle squeezed in between 3 busy intersections can hardly be called peaceful nor green. I trust that the talent mind of Councilmember Chin will be able to come up with a solution that preserves the garden as it is, and identifies other opportunities for affordable housing. After all, this housing development would not create more than some 20 affordable units for CB2 members at best…. And the chances for anyone entering that lottery to secure housing is apparently at best 2% (thus no guarantee for any local resident to get a new apartment). THE VALUE OF GREEN SPACE IN THIS NEIGHBORHOOD IS PRICELESS. (Did I mention that the greater neighborhood already lost the key park and Mercer Street Park to NYU). Buildings come and go. Once a plot of green is taken away, it never comes back.

  5. 1- My comment at the hearing was: as the mother of a young child 14 years ago, this "garden" property was inaccessible. But I found a community garden a mere two blocks from this site (M'Finda Kalunga Garden in Sara Roosevelt Park). I used all the playgrounds nearby and found a wonderful, diverse community of friends in all of those places.
    2- The notion that this space was EVER open to the public is simply not true. It was never open, there was never any signage posted for a way to enter into it- not ever. As for "insurance issues" how is that suddenly different now that his profitable free space might be lost? This businessman has had the use of this space for decades and only opened it this summer when he faced the potential loss of this, almost private, city-owned asset.

    3- But I understand why some want this become a public garden space (I'm a community gardener). However when some children don't have a roof over their head it becomes harder to justify why we who live with so much privilege have the greater need. Lousy choices, but that is what we've been given in Bloomberg’s New York. Many (not all) of the people who spoke in favor of a garden over affordable housing moved into this neighborhood and became a major factor in the rents going up in it and the enforced exodus of some of its former residents. Some who spoke live in housing that is subsidized -but want their view.

    4-As to the comment that it was an amazing turn out: when you have resources, money, time, and slack (the capacity to put together a power point presentation and video with music) you of course have greater capacity to "turn out" to fight for amenities you'd like to have. The people who came in support of affordable housing have a different task. We are trying to represent the voices of the people who can't get there 1) because they don't have resources, time or slack or 2) who don’t live here anymore because they had to move out when their homes became suddenly enviable, or 3) they don't live here yet but would like to but can’t afford what it’s become or 4) simply don't feel they have the same kind of entitlement or worth as others. The young man who came with his grandmother lives here now in a walk-up. He asked for housing so that his grandfather might live with an elevator that would enable him just to make the journey downstairs. They have as much right to a quality of life as anyone who spoke and clearly the greater need.

    We live in a time of unprecedented income inequality. We in this neighborhood have an embarrassment of riches. At what point do we decide we forgo something (even something we would really like) on behalf of other families who need such basic help. There were clearly some neighbors there who were willing to look at that issue. More of us need to ask: What kind of community are we trying to maintain and build here? What are we trying to model for our children?

    • It's interesting that you are a gardener but want the only green space left in Soho ripped out. It's also interesting how the city planner from HPD was salivating over "such an untouched city lot, almost 20,000 square feet." Central Park is 1.317 square miles. When will you, HPD and Margaret Chin start cutting down the trees there?

    • I've lived near this lot for over 25 years and have really enjoyed it, but never had to go inside. Having open space and light and air is important just to walk past. One less shadow from a big building, one sliver of sky to catch the sight of the sun or moon. You don't have to play in an open space to benefit from it.

      • oh, and I don't have "resources, money, time, and slack", but I made time to attend because the lot means that much. To assume otherwise is more than a bit insulting.

        What I don't get is why this space has anything to do with SPURA. If you're so passionate about new housing, why aren't you demanding it where it was supposed to be before our councilmember sold us out?

  6. Oh and Tobi, I live in CB 2 right around the block from this site. For several decades now. But yes I am a community organizer too, often in CB 3.

  7. It is not now, or has ever been a community garden. It's a showroom for the Elizabeth St Gallery. Years ago, when Allan Reiver and business partner, Gil, split up, Urban Archeology moved from the Puck building to Tribeca. Allan opened the Elizabeth St Gallery and the open space became a showroom for sculpture and garden artifacts that very few of us reading this could ever afford or know what to do with. Now, suddenly, it's a community garden? I don't see anything growing there besides grass. His website still advertises renting the space for weddings and parties (http://www.elizabethstreetgallery.com/).
    I'd be happy to see a real community garden there. But what is Allan Reiver's status with the space now? I still see his merchandise there.
    I'm hopeful (and doubtful) that real affordable housing might end up there – (Go De Blasio!) But I also don't believe for a moment that the alternative is a real community garden. I'd love to know what the current relationship is now with the city and Elizabeth St Gallery.

    • Alan Reiver has a month to month lease with the city, as he's had since 1992. All involved in trying to save this very special open space understand that the current lease & relationship will need to be revised.

  8. Resident, Shop Owner

    While NYC can certainly use more affordable housing, this proposed space on Elizabeth is a very poor location to build on. Because of the height restriction, the maximum number of units in the building will be 60 units. Only 50% are required to be "affordable", which will mean 30 units and "affordable" is based upon the going rate for space in Soho with reductions up to 70%, but possibly only 30%. that equates to rents for spaces of around 1000sf each at thousands of dollars each. Unfortunately, most of the older residents won't be able to afford this "affordable" housing.
    Regarding the space belonging to the gallery, even when it was not open to the public, it was the only space nearby to see green and hear birds. Most of the other parks within walking distance are situated in busy intersections and are not at all peaceful. Now that it is open, I think we are lucky to be provided by someone paying rent for the space to the city with such a beautifully curated space at no cost to the city. How much would it cost to start from scratch to replant? And certainly a new park would not have all of the architectural relics and statues and mature trees that make this space so special.

  9. Many of the commentators against preserving this gem of a garden seem to assume that it is either destroying the garden or no affordable housing. We need to learn some facts about whether that is actually true. We have heard precious little about alternative sites for affordable housing. And even if there are no other sites in the immediate vicinity, we haven't heard clear arguments for why this particular neighborhood – as opposed to some other a little farther uptown or downtown – needs affordable housing. CB2 – and the city leadership that will ultimately decide the fate of Elizabeth Street Garden – needs to weigh the advantages of building on this exact site against the loss of a truly magnificent community green space that will affect the whole neighborhood. It goes without saying, as others pointed it out that once it is gone there is no way to replace it in the future (no eggs can be made out of an omlette). Destroying the garden will surely damage the quality of day to day living for everyone living in a wide radius from Elizabeth Street garden. Affordable housing will help those in need of it but the argument cannot be that therefore we need to build everywhere physically possible without regard to the detriment to the city in terms of overcrowding and loss of quality of live. No one considers turning Central Park – or any other or the established parks – into affordable housing, and whatever the undeniable merits of creating more affordable housing, there is a reason for why the law protects the parks. The city would become unviable as a whole without them. It is not merely a need of the affluent to have parks. It is the need of every human being.

    As for why the garden has not been open: have the people criticizing the fact that it only truly opened to the public once its existence became endangered considered what exactly it needs (in terms of maintenance and security) to operate a park? Allen Reiver could not have been expected to pony up the resources as a gift to the community. Neither did the city offer any assistance all those years even though as everybody knows the neighborhood desperately needs green, open space. Why did the community come together only at the moment of a threat to the garden? You figure it out for yourself. I suspect it was not due to a lack of real appreciation of this beautiful space. It was because volunteering is very time consuming, and it is hard to jump-start and coordinate. And the fact that there is a strong and healthy volunteer organization in place now is a convincing proof of how very important this place is for a lot of people.

    • It was announced at the Monday CB2 hearing that the current rent for the garden site is $4,000 per month. That is the payment under the lease negotiated by the City. That lease also allows Reiver to use the space in line with allowable uses under NYC zoning regulations. There was no information given by the City or others that Reiver has performed in a way that does not comply with the lease.

  10. As a (CB2) resident of Elizabeth Street from 1986 to 2006, and Mott Street from 2006 to the present I was amazed to hear that the private event space, private parking place and industrial artefacts showroom of the Elizabeth St. Gallery had suddenly been designated a "garden." For many years I walked past this padlocked space with its unleashed guard dogs roaming within, watched as movies and commercials paying hefty location fees shot there, listened to the loud music as private events partied there, dodged the minefield of its unmaintained sidewalk as I walked my children past to school, and wondered how much was being paid for the industrial artefacts being sold and/or rented within. In the meantime the community squeezed itself into the playground on Mulberry Street or came to the welcoming and inclusive M'Finda Kalunga Community Garden in CB3, where the gardeners arranged children's events, workshops, performances and festivals that celebrated the diversity of the neighborhood.
    That CB2 is seriously considering the pretense that this private space is a garden that is open to the community at all is frankly insulting to CB2 residents. This private gallery is open to a few of Allen Reiver's friends, who may or may not have planted a couple of basil plants there. The aggressive gentrification of this neighborhood has severely impacted the availability of affordable housing for our community. Many friends and neighbors have been driven out so that buildings can become NYU dorms, or high-rent apartments available only to the wealthy, and neither of these groups are interested in investing in our community.

    • What part of "It is now a community garden, open to all and will continue to be in future" don't these folk understand?

      Let's compromise. Since SPURA is in CB3 and its so-called "affordable housing" component (affordable to those Yuppies who can earn as much as $125,000 per year) is predicated on building on parkland, let's build it on YOUR precious little M'Finda Kalunga Community Garden over on Forsyth Street in CB3, created in 1982 by a group dedicated to "affordable housing".

      Fair enough? Put your money where your mouth is, or STFU.

  11. I moved to this area in 1976, when there was far more open space and much less traffic. Families used to picnic on the grass near Silver Towers, and played baseball in an open area at Mercer and Houston. That area became the Coles Center, and NYU agreed to provide recreational space, including a water park where my two children played during the summers. We used another the key park between Bleecker and West 3rd until a system enforced by a NYU security guard chased us away. The small parks around Coles that were promised to the community by NYU have been padlocked and abandoned for years and years. And Ms. Chin supports the huge NYU development as well.
    Recently, I had DEP measure the noise level in my loft, which was over 60 decibels. 40 is permissible. We are bounded on four sides by ferocious traffic: Houston, Broadway, Bowery and Broome and Canal. The sidewalks are congested. It is nearly impossible to walk on Broadway. The city’s idea of repose for us seems to be benches in the middle of six lanes of traffic on Houston.

  12. The person in this comment section waging class warfare against her neighbors must be one of the most despicable human beings south of 14th Street.

  13. While it is sad that the Nolita residents who have worked to change the gallery lot from a private, money making venture into a public green space may have come to the cause late in the game, we need to break it down to the basic decision that the city is now facing regarding the outcome of this lot – it is essentially a “need” versus “want” issue. Housing is a need, and a basic right. The newly formed Community Garden’s desire to “preserve” something that is less than a year old is commendable, but not workable, particularly in this economic climate.

    In areas all over the city with little to no green space to speak of (just like Nolita) community gardens with long, deep roots within their communities have been replaced by housing – affordable or senior housing in some cases; luxury housing in others. This is not a new conflict, and in this case it seems that the need for housing trumps the desire for a new community garden. The 1,500 visitors who came for the Harvest Fest and the visitors to the garden since this past summer owe the volunteers a sincere “thanks” for the work that was done on behalf of opening up the space.

    The ESG volunteer community has recently won funding to renovate the vital DeSalvio playground. This presents a wonderful opportunity to design the space for the community from the ground up, creating a mixed-use and green space. Alternatively, as others have suggested, a few blocks away are other gardens and parks that provide respite from the concrete jungle.

    However, the most disturbing element of all this is that the discussion has devolved into personal attacks and vitriol. People have different ideas about many things, and the reasoned discussion of ideas versus the attacks on the people speak volumes about the writer. It’s easy to hide behind anonymity if your commentary relies on name-calling.

    • DeSalvio is a Playground, and must be designed as such. NYC has distinct differences for Playgrounds & Parks.

  14. It's very unfortunate that some are turning the debate into a pro garden or pro housing debate. We need green space AND we need affordable housing. That's how we sustain a viable community. The good news is that we can have both — and more. But we need to be both realistic, pragmatic and creative. Here are some realities:
    1) The amount of space you can build in Nolita is minimal due to the height restrictions. A similar lot outside the parameters of Nolita could yield 100%+ more housing units. For that reason alone, this site is not an ideal housing site.
    2)Most likely scenario is that the site would be developed by a private developer who would be allowed to keep 50% of the units to rent at market rate. This reduces the number of CB2 available subsidized units to about 13-14. One have to ask whether it's worth giving up a public garden for 13-14 units of CB2 housing units?
    3) The city needs high income tax payers to sustain its public housing programs. Call them high maintenance and demanding if you want, but these high income earners will eventually leave the city if they don't deem it liveable. It's public gardens like this one that makes that difference.
    4) A truly public garden — and yes, my expectations are that this will become a completely public park as opposed to sculpture gallery open to the public — will make the area more attractive to all. It will insensitive private developers to build other new buildings along the Bowery and other underutilized near-by areas… These areas don't have height restrictions. This is where the city can and should strike deals with private developers to build private/public housing partnerships.

  15. Georgette Fleischer

    No need to build what we already have, and no need to disenfranchise our elderly either. Councilmember Chin would do Little Italy a real service by turning out all the illegal airbnb hotel renters, many of rent-stabilized apartments, and repurposing that housing for seniors who, in deference to their mobility limitations, could be given first rights to ground-floor apartments.
    We cannot forget that Councilmember Chin bears some responsibility for any dearth in affordable senior housing, because she gave away 50% of SPURA’s residential units to market-rate development. It would not be fair to now ask us to relinquish more of our ever-depleting open space in order to compensate for a hardship that was self-created by Councilmember Chin in her handling of SPURA: furthermore, it would add insult to injury for her use this dearth to rationalize signing a second valentine to developers.
    In all cordiality and good will, let’s invite Councilmember Chin to make a fresh start in her new four-year term: no NYU 2031-like “compromise” on the Elizabeth Street Garden. Except for a handful, most from one family, a community groundswell spoke in a resoundingly clear and unified voice at the CB2 forum: the open green space of the Elizabeth Street Garden is not just something we want, but what we need.
    Georgette Fleischer
    Founder, Friends of Petrosino Square

  16. It is ridiculous to be fighting over a for profit space when we need affordable housing in our community, the web page is still advertising for wedding parties, who does that benefit surely not the community. The people at the CB2 meeting feel entitled. I would love to see affordable housing once again in a community that has always serve people from all walks of life oppose to fighting over land that the city will either build what the community want or decide what the city think is best, let's be a part of the solution an come up with a plan that will benefit the community at large. I agree we need green space but we need housing more an if you are so in need of greenery you should not live in NYC.

    • "If you are so in need of greenery you should not live in NYC"???

      It's NYC policy that each and every community should have adequate open green space. CB2 is notoriously under-served. To ask that the City provide adequate amount of green space is in no way any sort of mis-placed entitlement, but rather is in line with what has been determined to be in the best interest of all NYers.

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