Haven Green is Not up for the Challenge in Little Italy [OP-ED]

Posted on: December 5th, 2018 at 12:15 pm by

The debate over whether to bulldoze Elizabeth Street Garden in Little Italy for the Haven Green senior affordable housing continues tonight courtesy of Community Board 2. Co-developers of the seven-story mixed-use project – Pennrose Properties, Habitat NYC, and RiseBoro – are expected to present the “Final Design” at this public hearing.

CB2 is anticipating a large, albeit divided, turnout and secured the auditorium of PS130 for the occasion (143 Baxter Street, 630pm). No doubt, another round of raucous debating between garden advocates and housing supporters, not to mention REBNY lobbyists, will surely ensue. And it’s happening merely a few weeks after the Department of City Planning certified plans to proceed with the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP).

Team Haven Green is expected to come armed with the results of its own online community survey as well as the feedback from three participatory design meetings.

Garden advocates who attended the meetings reported sparse attendance numbers. Elizabeth Street Garden, Inc. executive director Joe Reiver reported that no more than 18-20 residents were present at all three meetings combined, with seniors being the most unrepresented. As it turns out, the nearby Mott Street Senior Center, which services Little Italy and Chinatown, revealed that no overtures were reportedly conducted. Moreover, trumpeting the online survey data is also faulty, as many seniors in vicinity of the garden do not have internet access.

While HPD and architects for Haven Green insist that the community will have influence on the “public space” component, no amount of public participation can fix the fact that the building is not designed to weight equal importance to this open space. Indeed, the 6,700 square-feet of garden space exists because zoning restrictions in the Special Little Italy District prevent building on more than 60% of the lot.

Debate over environmental and open space concerns even found its way into Haven Green public design meetings, but consistently devolved into a nasty back-and-forth. But it’s Haven Green that has benefited, as it distracts from the overall lack of compromise in their plans. The exterior open space (privately owned publicly-accessible space) should be able to stand on its own merits whether affordable housing or luxury condos are being built. Haven Green does not appear up for the challenge.

Ronna Texidor, a senior supporting the garden, stands outside 32 Waverly hoping to greet developers

Basic information, such as hours of operation, was not subject to community input at the participatory meetings. Architects had mentioned that the fate of the five trees on the perimeter would be part of public discourse, yet was not a consideration. Now, new statements from Haven Green hint that the trees would be recycled into furniture for the facility.

Haven Green’s participatory engagements could only be described as an ideological-driven design process, where a system of beliefs governs the design and function of an open space, instead of known principles of urban design. Not to mention science and math, and that the sun sets in the west – shadow surveys were conducted but results not shown, and pedestrian surveys not considered. Architects had presented fearful statistics about the need for affordable housing, instead of presenting samples of their previous low-income housing projects. Overall, these meetings, which were billed as “dream sharing” sessions, felt more like some B-movie version of Inception.

More importantly, both Haven Green architects and HPD have ignored repeated requests to cite examples of other similar complexes that marry public space with a privately owned residential building previously built or commissioned by the city.

Habitat NYC CEO Karen Haycox is now bearing the brunt of the backlash against the project as lead spokesperson. In a CityLimits Op-Ed that reads like a polite manifesto, Haycox claimed the moral high-ground and now looks down on the neighborhood through the lens of a single issue – a crisis state in housing that we can only build our way out of.

But Habitat NYC’s track record on creating affordable housing stock is far from perfect.

As ProPublica reported in 2016, Habitat NYC’s acquisition of apartment buildings in Bed-Stuy from 2010-2011 resulted in the displacement of low-income families due to demands that the buildings that they were purchasing with federal stimulus dollars be delivered vacant. Some of these landlords proved unscrupulous and pushed out legacy tenants with a variety of schemes and fake incentives. The article illustrates how Habitat NYC then promoted these buildings as “long-vacant” in its newsletter. Then later denied knowledge of the landlord’s shady dealings, even though leaked emails revealed a different story.

In this city, when one affordable housing door opens … another closes.

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