Gardeners say city’s new rules will sow disaster
By Lesley Sussman
A handful of protesters briefly disrupted a public hearing held Tuesday by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development on the agencies’ new rules for regulation of community gardens throughout the city.
The revised rules are scheduled to go into effect in September, and will replace the 2002 Community Garden Agreement that was signed by then-state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the City of New York.
That agreement offered various protections against the large-scale development of the more than 300 community gardens currently owned by the city. But the new rules have many garden advocates worried that these protections are being watered down.
The 11 a.m. hearing, held in the Chelsea Recreation Center gym, 430 W. 25th St., had just gotten underway when a group of unidentified protesters — one of them wearing a Superman costume — suddenly marched to the front of the gym waving placards and chanting, “More gardens, less hearings.”
The protesters lambasted Parks Department representatives for keeping dozens of community garden advocates waiting outside the center while the hearing proceeded.
“This meeting is illegal,” one demonstrator shouted, “because there are hundreds of people outside not being allowed to have their say. Don’t let them divide and conquer us.”
The situation resulted after gardeners and garden advocates quickly filled the gym to capacity. Many of them had earlier that morning attended a festive pre-hearing pep rally at the Elliott-Chelsea Green Grounds located just across the street.
Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers would not allow anyone else into the gymnasium, citing Fire Department regulations posted in the building that limited the number of people who could gather there at one time.
The meeting was moderated by Laura LaVelle, an associate counsel for the Parks Department, along with Alessandro Olivero, another legal counsel, and Michael Schnell, a Parks government affairs expert. They patiently tried to explain to the demonstrators that more people would be allowed in as space became available. The protesters, however, were not listening.
They continued to chant, “More gardens, less hearings,” and the chant was picked up by many of the more than 200 people who packed the space. The chants continued as PEP officers peacefully escorted the protesters out of the building.
Once the demonstrators were removed, LaVelle continued to call the names of people who had signed up to speak at the hearing. Each time someone failed to answer to their name, dozens of garden advocates chanted, “They’re outside, they’re outside.”
But dozens of community gardeners and green advocates from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn and Queens did have a chance to testify, and most of them pleaded with Parks officials to safeguard community gardens in the years to come against private developers.
The green and gardening groups were joined at the hearing by Councilmember Rosie Mendez and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, both of whom agreed that the proposed new rules did not go far enough to provide lasting protection for the dozens of community gardens throughout the city -- especially those not owned by a land trust or the Parks Department.
Mendez told the Parks officials that there were 35 community gardens in her East Village and Lower East Side district.
“What we want to see is a path to permanency for these gardens,” Mendez said. “We want our gardens to be permanent open space.” She added that the new rules “only give us some of the things that we want.”
Quinn, meanwhile, told Parks representatives that “much more needed to be done to ensure the long-term protection of community gardens.” She said that that “even the best rules are impermanent, and what is needed instead of rules is administrative action to make sure the gardens are permanently protected.”
State Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, who spoke in a telephone interview after the hearing, said he planned to look into what can be done on the state level to preserve many of the city’s community gardens.
“We’re trying to sort out what the state implications are for what the city is trying to do,” he said. One option, he added, was to offer some community gardens the same protection that parklands have.
“We’re looking at what level of protection for the gardens is appropriate, and what state law may have to say about that,” he said.
The possibility of state regulation of community gardens was also raised by a representative of New Yorkers for Parks, a citywide advocacy group that advocates for more and better maintained parks.
“Community gardens should be treated as parkland, but they’re not,” she said. “Instead of new rules, legislation should be written because legislation is not time-bound.”
Also testifying was Karen Washington, president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition. Her nonprofit group recently organized a pro-gardens rally and press conference on the steps of City Hall, and also organized Tuesday’s pre-hearing rally.
“The mayor must protect the city’s gardens so that they can’t be auctioned off to the highest bidder,” Washington declared.
Her sentiments were echoed by Namita Luthra, a civil rights attorney who said she lived near a community garden on E. Seventh St.
“People who live in the East Village don’t have Central Park,” she said. “All we have are small and precious little gardens. They’re a true green oasis for me and my family and must be permanently protected.”
The hearing also heard from former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, who said he was opposed to the mayor having “sole authority” over the future of community gardens.
“Community gardens need a different sort of protection,” he asserted. “They need to be strengthened and not interfered with.”
West Villager Ron Helpern, a regular at the LaGuardia Corner Gardens community garden on the corner of LaGuardia Place and Bleecker St., said he got up early to attend the rally.
“Gardens like this one must stay preserved,” he said of his Village green oasis.