Volume 74, Number 34 | December 29 - January 04, 2004


Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

The Liz Christy Garden on E. Houston is home to a number of large trees, some of which will be destroyed if a developer is allowed to dig into the garden’s northern edge to do shoring work for a new building’s foundation.

Border war pits garden vs. developer

By Hemmy So

In the continuing effort to revitalize the Lower East Side, AvalonBay Communities plans to begin construction in the near future of a new residential building on the north side of E. Houston St. near the Bowery. However, the feared impact of the forthcoming demolition of the existing Church of All Nations building on the adjacent Liz Christy Bowery Houston Community Garden, a community garden established in 1973, has the gardeners up in arms and they are demanding that AvalonBay modify their plans.

On Dec. 8, Green Guerillas, the leading community gardening advocacy group, distributed a letter asking the public to write letters to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Mayor Michael Bloomberg regarding the protection of the garden’s northern property line, along which numerous trees grow.

“AvalonBay insists that it must excavate into the garden all along the north wall, thereby destroying all the trees and the fish pond near the property line,” the letter states. Green Guerillas also expressed concern over a large window planned for the ground floor of the new building, which would look directly into the garden.

Such issues became urgent after an October meeting involving the Liz Christy gardeners, AvalonBay, the Parks Department and Department of Housing Preservation and Development. During that meeting, AvalonBay informed the gardeners that demolition of the adjacent building would begin after Jan. 1.

As phase one of its development of the remaining Cooper Sq. Urban Renewal Area properties, AvalonBay is currently completing a new residential building across the street on the south side of Houston St., to include a community center and Whole Foods supermarket.

The gardeners are most concerned over the 3-foot excavation into their garden. “They really didn’t give us much reason, they just said it had to be done,” said Liz DeGaetano, Liz Christy Garden treasurer. “It’s to save money, because they can easily respect our property line by building their foundation in a certain way. But it’s quicker and cheaper to excavate and then pour their foundation.”

Bob Paley, AvalonBay senior development director, said, however, that the developer is currently investigating other construction methods. “We’re in the middle of a process, and really it has come down to literally inches on how you build a building. The main thing here is that if there were a building instead of a garden, the [new] building would [already] have a foundation wall.”

Paley explained that pouring a foundation for the new building demands “shoring,” a process in which a temporary wall is erected around the building site to support the walls of the foundation. Because new buildings are typically constructed next to existing buildings in New York City, shoring is unnecessary. But in this instance, Paley explained, lack of shoring may cause the Liz Christy Garden to collapse into the hole left open for the building foundation.

Paley said that AvalonBay had discussed shoring with relevant groups, including the gardeners, two years ago. “There may have been a misunderstanding as to what it was that we meant, whereas people in construction would have known. It was discussed two years ago, but probably not with same degree of focus,” he said.

The Liz Christy gardeners insist, however, that less intrusive options are available. Penny Jones, a 12-year garden member, said that an architectural adviser to the Liz Christy Garden proposed at least four alternatives at the October meeting. “This architect explained to them several methods by which they could do it, with all the technical terms,” she said. “There are different ways of doing the shoring where they don’t have to come within an inch of our property line.”

Should AvalonBay’s plan proceed, the Liz Christy gardeners say that several trees along the northern garden boundary would be destroyed. Among the trees affected are the garden’s signature 50-foot-tall blue Atlas cedar, four apricot trees and a variety of fruit-bearing trees, DeGaetano said. Although the gardeners have already started transplanting some of the plants along the northern wall, the trees cannot be transplanted or replaced, she said.

Jones also brought up a provision in the land distribution agreement between the city and AvalonBay that only allowed destruction of plants attached to the northern wall. The gardeners view this to mean only the vines on the wall, not the trees. Paley, however, believes because the trees’ roots are intertwined with the wall, they may be damaged as part of the demolition process.

Paley insists that AvalonBay has worked tirelessly to resolve the gardeners’ concerns and that the developer continues to work through their issues. But he pointed out the uphill battle of addressing what he considers small details amid the broad range of issues associated with urban renewal development. “Put this in perspective of the overall project, the affordable housing, amenities and community center,” he said.

With respect to the large ground-floor viewing window to which the Liz Christy gardeners object, Paley said that although the land distribution agreement between the city and AvalonBay allows the new building to have such windows, the company decided to change its design after listening to the gardeners’ concerns.

Similarly, a few years ago, after gardeners objected to AvalonBay’s plan to bisect the garden with a path to the new building, the developer dropped that idea.

Though the Liz Christy gardeners have more worries about the preservation of their community garden, the two groups have not yet scheduled another meeting. At the October meeting, the Parks Department requested that each group put together documents explaining their viewpoints, something the gardeners have already submitted. In addition to the excavation and window issues, the garden group also fears the garden will suffer from less sunlight as a result of an overshadowing new building and excessive use by building residents who will use the garden passively, as opposed to contributing to its upkeep.

Jones remarked that garden members have already seen construction workers clearing out the adjacent building and performing asbestos work, sure precursors to a looming demolition. But Paley assured that AvalonBay would not perform the demolition without first speaking with community members. “We want to do everything to protect the garden, and I can’t emphasize that enough,” he said.

In the meantime, people have already begun sending their letters to city officials thanks to the Green Guerillas’ efforts to preserve the garden. “The Liz Christy Garden is our birthplace — our organization was founded at that site. Our job is to support them,” said the Guerillas’ executive director, Steve Frillmann. “People are writing letters and sending e-mails to their local elected officials and also the mayor and Parks commissioner. We don’t have the exact number, but we know people are doing that. So there are a good number of people showing their support.”

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