Let’s Find the Political Will to Save Elizabeth Street Garden and Build More Housing in CB2 [OP-ED]

Posted on: November 2nd, 2015 at 9:28 am by
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Take a look at a m​ap​ of Little Italy and SoHo. There is not a single garden or green park from Bowery to the Hudson River, from Canal to Houston Street, except Elizabeth Street Garden, ​a heavily-­used green oasis in our dense urban neighborhood. Our local community would like to preserve Elizabeth Street Garden as a New York City Park, while housing advocates would like to build more accessible apartments for seniors. Instead of pitting these two worthy causes against each other, we believe that the robust public discussion of these two options has provided the unique opportunity to do both. Challenged to find alternatives, our local community has identified two housing sites, both of which could provide more units to seniors than the Garden location.

Given the passion of Garden supporters, the support of Manhattan Community Board 2 (CB 2) and the political will of our elected officials, now is the time to build more senior housing in this community a​nd​preserve Elizabeth Street Garden. Instead of battling, let’s take the easier path. We can do both and better.

Need for Open Space

Many long­time residents remember when there was more open space in the neighborhood. Paul Fernandez at Met Foods grew up in Little Italy and ran around in empty lots and played stickball on closed streets. The site of the current Garden, P.S. 21, built in 1903, provided a public outdoor space,​ playground​, and place for children to plant seeds.​ You can still see the outlines of handball courts on the north wall of the Garden! After the school was torn down in the 1970s, the City announced a plan to “R​evive and Refurbish Little Italy”​ that included a new school and affordable housing on the old school site, but only housing was built. The current Garden site was to be maintained ”​exclusively” for “recreational use,”​ but instead it sat vacant and derelict until 1991 when the City leased it to Elizabeth Street Gallery.

Currently, there is virtually no open space in the neighborhood. As recently covered by W​NYC,​ the best measure of park space is not just how close you live to a park but how many neighbors you share it with. Elizabeth Street Garden is located in a neighborhood with ​only 3 square feet of open space per resident,​including the planted medians on Houston Street. This is about the size of a NYC subway seat and translates to an open space ratio of 0.07 acre per 1,000 residents, as compared with New York City’s planning goal of 2.5 acres per 1,000 residents (or 109 square feet per person). Additionally, the Garden is part of the o​nly downtown Manhattan neighborhood​ that the New York City Parks Department identifies as “underserved” by open space.​

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Photo: Elizabeth Street Garden

Tremendous Base of Community Support

Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden has grown a base of 4,900 email subscribers and 400­-plus volunteers who open the Garden to the public year round — more than 40 hours a week during warm­ weather months — and staff 150 free public events annually. Our volunteers have transformed the Garden into a 21st­century community center. This is our community’s living room — where neighbors gather to relax, volunteer, exercise, explore nature and enjoy community events — a place where an 84­year­old woman can sit on a bench and chat with her 4­-year-­old neighbor. It is more than just a beautiful lawn or space to garden; Elizabeth Street Garden has become the soul of our neighborhood.

In recognition of this tremendous base of local support , CB2 passed two resolution s ​supporting the permanent preservation of Elizabeth Street Garden as a New York City Park. This past September, in less than two weeks, supporters wrote more than 1,500 letters in favor of saving the Garden and against a funding proposal from Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) for affordable housing that would destroy it. Additionally, the Garden received support from A​ssemblymember Deborah Glick​and S​enator Daniel Squadron, 1​6 park and community organizations, including New Yorkers for Parks, former NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, and an e​ditorial in T​he Villager.​

Affordable Housing Alternatives

In just three years, Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden has created a movement around this Garden. But this does not mean that we are against affordable housing. Garden volunteer C.J. Guinness said it best at the LMDC hearing when he shared that throughout the evening he was applauding both sides. Why are we limiting ourselves? Why can’t we have both green space and affordable housing, especially since both go a long way to caring for our seniors?

Let’s work with CB 2 and our elected officials on an alternative site on H​udson Street​ between West Houston and Clarkson, where five times more housing can be built without destroying Elizabeth Street Garden. Let’s also revisit 2​ Howard Street.​ While not low­-hanging fruit,­ it would require the relocation of U.S. Department of Homeland Security parking, this is a great location for senior housing since it’s outside of the height­-restricted S​pecial Little Italy District​and near the eelevator-­accessible​ Canal Street subway station and C​harles B. Wang Community Health Center​on Canal Street.

Political Will to do Both

We must not waste this opportunity! If we need political will and political capital, what better way to get it than to turn more than 1,500 Garden supporters into senior housing advocates? Creative thinking and political agitation gave us not only Central Park and the High Line, but also Mitchell ­Lama, Via Verde and Westbeth. Our neighborhood desperately needs both Elizabeth Street Garden and more senior housing. We must seize the moment and use this political momentum to do both, and to do both better.

By Emily Hellstrom and Jeannine Kiely. Emily leads the Garden’s volunteer initiative, and Jeannine serves as president of Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden.

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