Volume 75, Number 6 | June 29 - July 5, 2005

Liz Christy Garden is being pushed to the edge

By Albert Amateau

The fate of at least eight trees, including a rare 50-foot-tall blue Atlas cedar, hinges on whether the developer of a Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area project will excavate 3 feet into the Liz Christy Garden on E. Houston St.

Gardeners, some of whom have nurtured the Liz Christy Garden for decades, met with the developer, AvalonBay Communities, last week but reached no agreement and the issue is to be decided soon by the Bloomberg administration.

“It’s a question of money,” said Elizabeth DeGaetano, treasurer of the garden group, which contends that AvalonBay can build the mixed-use residential project just north of the north wall of the garden without encroaching on their zealously defended turf.

The gardeners say they’ve come up with an alternative to invading the garden that would cost AvalonBay an additional $98,000 in construction costs. The developer, however, said the alternative would add between $500,000 and $l million to the cost of the project and a redesign would reduce parking and retail space in the project.

“The garden is a major asset for us,” said Maria Masi, AvalonBay development manager. “The last thing we want to do is destroy the garden,” Masi said. But she said there was no guarantee that even an excavation that didn’t encroach on the garden would not damage the towering blue Atlas cedar planted 20 years ago.

Fred Harris, AvalonBay senior vice president, offered on June 23 to pay for the replacement of trees and plants destroyed by the excavation, Masi said.

Gardeners, however, refused.

“AvalonBay should live up to the promise it made to the community and do everything possible to preserve the garden,” said Desiree Rodriguez, a Liz Christy Garden member.

AvalonBay has been working with gardeners to minimize disruption to the garden during the recent demolition of the former Church of All Nations, which will be replaced by the new project, Masi said. Demolition is finishing on the last old building on the site, the former McGurk’s Suicide Parlor, a onetime Bowery saloon and brothel.

But the gardeners say the care that was taken during the demolition would go for naught if AvalonBay destroys a 3-foot strip totaling 200 square feet of the north side of the garden. The majestic blue Atlas cedar is 4 feet from the north wall of the garden and an excavation 1 foot away would destroy it, the gardeners say. If AvalonBay does not dig closer than 3 feet from the trunk, the roots could be carefully severed and the tree would be more likely to survive, according to the advice the gardeners received from an arborist.

Shoring for the new building’s foundation, which requires the garden invasion, might not be necessary if an existing building — instead of the garden — were adjacent to the location. But the site on the north of Liz Christy needs shoring to prevent a major collapse of the garden area into the excavation for the new building, Masi explained.

Steve Herrick, executive director of the Cooper Square Community Association, a sponsor of the urban renewal area, said he thought AvalonBay should spend the money to insure the integrity of the garden.

“AvalonBay can’t look at this solely in terms of finances,” Herrick said. “They should be willing to bear the additional cost considering the increase in the value of property over the bid they made five years ago,” he added.

The urban renewal area involves three sites between Bowery and Second Ave. from E. First St. to the south side of Houston St. AvalonBay won the right to develop the current site on the north side of E. Houston St. where the garden is located for $13.5 million, Herrick said.

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development has jurisdiction over the urban renewal area and the Department of Parks and Recreation is the legal owner of the Liz Christy Garden, which is cultivated by neighborhood volunteers. Parks and Housing spokespersons said on Monday that both agencies are working on the issue and expect to make a decision soon.

Rodriguez, one of the gardeners who attended a meeting with the developers and the city last week, said on Monday, “We’ve been told that the decision will be made by the mayor sometime this week.”

In addition, according to the gardeners, for 16 months after August, when construction is slated to start, Liz Christy will only be open to gardeners on weeknights and weekends to maintain the garden.

Liz Christy Garden is named after the late urban gardening pioneer who was a founder of the Green Guerillas, an organization advocating for and assisting community gardens.

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