Volume 75, Number 14 | August 24 - 30, 2005

Villager photo by Jennifer Bodrow

Ayo Harrington, in front of a 50-foot-tall tree in Orchard Alley on E. Third St., is leading the fight to save the community garden from demolition.

Horticulture versus health as gardeners battle clinic

By Vanessa Romo

Sixteen years ago, the empty lot at 321-325 E. Third St. was a squatters settlement and dumping ground used by neighboring residents and businesses, strewn with discarded mattresses and infested with rats. Today, it is half of Orchard Alley, one of the largest community gardens in the city and one of the prettier sites on the gritty Lower East Side block between Avenues C and D. But it might not stay that way much longer.

Plans for developing the two-lot property into medical administrative offices and subsidized housing for mentally-disabled adults are underway, pitting garden activists responsible for transforming the abandoned lot into a neighborhood gem against the Ryan-NENA Community Health Center, which owns the property and provides residents with much-needed healthcare services.

Tensions between the two groups culminated in legal action on Aug. 17 when Orchard Alley and All the Way East Fourth St. Block Association filed a lawsuit in Civil Court and won a temporary restraining order against Ryan-NENA to stop the healthcare organization from moving forward with its plans.

The lawsuit seeks to enjoin Ryan-NENA from preventing the community from using the lot, which the block association and Orchard Alley claimed Ryan-Nena planned to do by installing a fence separating the Fourth St. half of the garden from the Third St. entrance “on or about Aug. 17,” according to a notice by Ryan-NENA. The motion also asks the court to declare that title to the lot belongs to the block association under adverse possession, which under New York State law is defined as: “A means of acquiring title where an occupant has been in actual, open, notorious, exclusive and continuous occupancy of property under a claim of right for the required statutory 10-year period.” Or, the suit asks, if they are not declared rightful property owners, that they be granted continued access to the land.

The groups have been at an impasse since February 2005 after Ryan-NENA and Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which is partnering with the health center and will operate the housing portion of the new building, went before the Community Board 3 Housing and Zoning Committee to unveil plans for the new facility. And residents have been caught in the middle, choosing between two valuable and uncommon resources ever since.

“This is really hard because I believe in both,” said Patty Whaley, an E. Third St. resident. “I believe in social services and I believe in green space. They’re both important to a community.”

Kathy Gruber, executive director of Ryan-NENA, has been working for the center since 1988, when the William F. Ryan Community Center was asked to take over NENA by the attorney general’s office after an investigation revealed the group was near bankruptcy. “We don’t like for people to be in this position,” Gruber said, “to have to choose between healthcare and a garden.”

But Gruber stressed the health center’s need for expansion. The building at 279 E. Third St. provides general care, women’s health, pediatric care, adult medicine, geriatric health, mental health and dental care services and covers uninsured residents of the neighborhood. Last year, the health center served about 13,000 patients, said Gruber.

“If we didn’t have people showing up at our door, then we wouldn’t have a need for the space. But they are showing up and we don’t have enough room for them,” she said. “They have to wait a really long time to see their doctors because we just don’t have the space.”

On a recent visit to the clinic, which is currently under renovation, stacks of boxes, computer desks and office chairs lined the hallways of nearly every floor of the seven-story health center. “We’re renovating to maximize every inch of space in the building,” said Gruber walking through several waiting rooms teeming with patients.

Ayo Harrington, chairperson of Orchard Alley and president of All the Way East Block Association, who is leading the fight against Ryan-NENA, echoed similar feelings of distress about the divisiveness of the battle over the land. “Lots of good people and good organizations are fighting each other,” she said. “There is no question that NENA helps a lot of people and has really good programs.”

Yet Harrington, who was instrumental in expanding the garden from E. Third to E. Fourth Sts. when it was still an abandoned lot, said Ryan-NENA gained possession of the land through “mysterious” means.

For years, Harrington and other residents worked at clearing the lot of garbage soliciting the help of city agencies to find the owners of the property but received little help, she said. “Had we known who the owners were, we would have held them responsible. Now here we are all these years later and thousands of hours have been spent working to develop Orchard Alley,” she said.

Gruber takes exception to Harrington’s claim that Ryan-NENA acquired the property through questionable means and said the health center has been straightforward with the community. “We’re very disappointed that they decided to bring this lawsuit but this is our property,” she said. “We obtained it legally.”

The organization purchased the land from the city in December 2004, after negotiating a deal with the former owners in which they paid $900,000 in back real estate taxes.

“We notified Ayo when we were planning on buying the land and we went to [C.B. 3] even though we didn’t have to because that’s how we operate. We don’t operate behind closed doors,” said Gruber.

Still, some longtime residents feel that the neighborhood has reached a tipping point and that there is an overabundance of housing and social services on the block. Third St. is home to several community organizations, including a women’s shelter, a residence for children with mental disabilities, senior housing and a center that provides families with pre- and post-prison services. A drug rehab center is just around the corner on Avenue D.

Robert Goldman, an Orchard Alley volunteer and Lower East Side resident for more than 25 years, said, “I think we’re doing our share here,” referring to the number of social resources the community provides. “The city should have an urban planning process for deciding where to put these facilities and they shouldn’t all be on one block,” he said.

“The garden is a greater valuable asset to the community than a third housing facility for the mentally disabled,” said Goldman.

Initial plans for the new facility envision a multistory building with community health education services and administrative offices for Ryan-NENA staff on the first and second floors and supportive housing managed by Met Council above.

“When we realized we were running out of space, we started looking for a partner,” said Gruber. “You just can’t build something small anymore. That’s just not economical.”

Met Council plans on building 50 housing units that will be funded by the State Office of Mental Health, said Peter Brest, director of housing for Met Council.

“The fact is that the Ryan-NENA group did purchase the lot and if they hadn’t someone else would have come along and probably made it into luxury housing,” said Brest. “We think what we’re doing is a better alternative for the community.”

Brest also said that Met Council was unaware of a unified community response against the proposed building after the initial meeting with C.B. 3. “So far, it seems to be the response of only four or five people,” he said.

When asked about the imminent closure of the southern half of Orchard Alley and the subsequent extension of Ryan-NENA on a recent afternoon, neighbors seemed oblivious to the events and were even confused about the garden in question.

In addition to Orchard Alley, there are four other gardens in the neighborhood. The All People’s Garden is halfway between Ryan-NENA and Orchard Alley on E. Third St. and the Secret Garden is on the corner of Fourth St. and Avenue C. Both are open everyday from morning to dusk. Parque de Tranquilidad, on the south side of E. Fourth St., is open Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays for a few hours a day. And the vegetable garden section of El Jardín del Paraíso, which spans the block from E. Fourth to E. Fifth Sts., is open everyday.

The posted hours of operation for Orchard Alley are Sundays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., the minimum number of hours a garden must be open to the public to receive city funds. But several members said it opens almost everyday, an average of 30 hours per week.

“To have to lose a garden is not a cool thing,” said Annalee Sinclair, a former member of Orchard Alley and 20-year member of El Jardín. But Sinclair, who visits Ryan-NENA every two months for WIC services, concedes that additional health center facilities would benefit patients. “They are a small facility and they do take care of a lot of people,” she said. “[When] I take the elevator up and the doors open up, the waiting rooms are always crowded.”

After a hearing at which both parties presented oral arguments, Civil Court Justice Walter Tolub denied Orchard Alley’s motion for an injunction on Aug. 23 to prevent Ryan-NENA from installing the fence, but kept a temporary injunction in place until the morning of Aug. 25, giving Orchard Alley and the block association an opportunity to appeal his decision.

Ken Friedman, an attorney with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the firm representing Ryan-NENA, said, “As of noon on Thursday we can do whatever we want.”

Friedman filed a motion to dismiss the case on Aug. 22. Orchard Alley has until Monday to respond.

“We expect a decision by next week or the week after that,” said Friedman.

In the meantime, Gruber has yet to hire a company to install the fence but said putting up a fence is a necessary precaution that the health center needs to take. “We realized we own this property and we’re liable if anything happens. We need to put up a fence to demarcate the property,” she said.

“Ryan’s interest in this is the interest in the community. We’re not interested in making a profit,” said Gruber. “This community needs our services and we’re doing this not because we want to make money, but because it’s our mission.”

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