Double-Date with Destiny for Elizabeth Street Garden and SoHo/NoHo Residents

Posted on: May 2nd, 2019 at 5:00 am by

Today, the stakes are high for both Elizabeth Street Garden advocates and residents of SoHo and NoHo. Councilmember Margaret Chin has double-booked a date with destiny.

The final public hearing in the city’s land-use review process for the Haven Green senior affordable complex, set to rise seven-stories on the beloved Little Italy garden, goes before a select City Council committee today at City Hall (1:00pm).

Garden advocates – lead by two parallel nonprofit groups – are mobilizing with the community-led plan to construct the increased affordable housing on an alternate west side site while preserving the garden in its entirety. Team Haven Green maintains that there are “no alternatives.” Meanwhile, Chin and co-developer Habitat NYC are now advocating for both these city-owned lots go to affordable housing.

To date, the city has been long on promises but short on actual plans to produce an outdoor space that retains any notion of the garden’s rich history as both open space and communal, green space. Elizabeth Street Garden supporters have already taken the matter to court, since City Council is expected to block vote in favor of each other’s land-use deals.

Additionally, Councilwoman Chin is expected back at City Hall for a 6:00pm date with her SoHo and NoHo constituents, the vast majority of whom are up in arms over the potential of being “zoned-out” of their loft spaces or apartments, as the final public workshop for the “Envision SoHo/NoHo Plan” takes place.

While Councilmember Chin’s plan for 123 deeply-affordable studio apartments at Haven Green is designed to ease the housing burden for seniors, the same sentiment is not echoed with the SoHo/NoHo Plan, which has seniors pitted against big-real estate lobbying groups who want the historic neighborhoods rezoned away from its light-manufacturing status (M1-5).

A litany of questions (and criticisms) likely await Councilmember Chin response on both land-use issues Haven Green and the potential rezoning of SoHo…

Chin has spurred criticism for being largely absent from the “open space” or “public space” component of Haven Green. But despite the project going to vote at City Council, details on public accessibility remain elusive. A land disposition agreement is supposed to resolve these matters, but won’t be drafted until after the vote.

The councilwoman stood firm, yet mostly silent, while catching the wrath of more than a few seniors at recent SoHo/NoHo meetings who were overwhelmed with emotion over the disappearing way of life and an uncertain future.

As sponsors for the SoHo/NoHo Plan, Chin and Manhattan Borough presented Gale Brewer are holding their cards close to the chest while residents voice concerns in public, wondering whether these desires will be used as leverage if and when a time for compromise comes. For instance, both neighborhoods share the fear of an ever-expanding retail footprint. On Elizabeth Street, a traditional Mom-and-Pop shop block, the introduction of what could be a 4,000 square-foot luxury retail at Haven Green would irrevocably alter the equation. Nevertheless, the city and developers have maintained that the “mixed-use” complex is an antidote to gentrification.

While SoHo has long since been an international retail destination, the question of saturation, and whether retail will start occupying higher floors (at the expense of housing), remains a serious concern. NoHo has seen a dramatic increase of both luxury storefronts and condos, defying the notion that current zoning is somehow impeding development.

At the heart of debate before Chin today will be how much these communities will need to comply with market forces in order to defy market forces in terms of housing. It remains to be seen if she will be as effective in the SoHo plan as with Haven Green without having seniors on her side to spearhead a campaign for change, and if they are included in her demand for a “bold vision for a future SoHo.”

The conspicuous absence of developers or real-estate groups that have been petitioning the city has some feeling that public meetings are really just for show. Especially the contingent of seniors who founded the neighborhood as live-work artists and previously expressed that the “plan” favors the interests of real-estate businesses.

Outside influence has been palpable at public hearings for both Elizabeth Street Garden and the SoHo/NoHo Plan as pro-housing organizations like Open New York For All have been openly advocating for upzoning and increased density as a way to achieve affordability and equality city-wide. While admitting they are not residents of either neighborhood, young members of Open NY were previously seen bending the ear of Johnathan Martin, the city planner hired to produce the report that will influence any rezoning of SoHo/NoHo. The upstart nonprofit has also taken on garden faithful with their own brand of YIMBY advocacy by smearing supporters as NIMBY on social media and at ULURP hearings for Haven Green. Like Habitat NYC, the group maintains that the crisis in affordable housing overshadows localized concerns of open space. Even as Little Italy is one of the most underserved neighborhoods open space in the city.

These two tony neighborhoods were rebuilt from the bottom up by those who are now faced with the threat of top-down restructuring. Fear for both is the erasure of the past to make way for housing, offices, and retail in a future city that is not growing any new land. The tragic irony here is that the Elizabeth Street Garden, SoHo, and even Habitat for Humanity New York, all grew out of the need to renew what the city had neglected or abandoned.

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