Elizabeth Street Garden Supporters and Housing Advocates Clash at City Hall Hearing for Haven Green
Supporters rallying to save Elizabeth Street Garden lined the steps of City Hall last Thursday chanting: “No Rubber Stamp!” This was a message to Councilmembers inside who were about to hold a hearing on the controversial Haven Green project.
As part of the city’s public land-use review process (ULURP), the Haven Green development, with its 123 units of senior affordable housing, heads to a City Council vote at the end of the month.
The Council chambers were filled to the balcony as Councilwoman Chin, who originated the land-deal in 2013, kicked off the hearing with a direct plea for those she claimed where the voiceless: “The elderly who could not wait for a different time or different place for desperately needed affordable housing.” And whom, she added, did not have celebrities speaking to their cause (a thinly-veiled dig at Bette Midler’s public support of the garden).
Garden advocates remain convinced that if Chin had worked with Community Board 2 to construct this housing on vacant city-owned land on Hudson Street, seniors would already be living in affordable apartments there, and the garden would be spared.
State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, who represents Lower Manhattan, testified that Elizabeth Street Garden was already a functioning park worthy of preserving. And added that “The concept of livable communities is often lost in the equation in a favor of public policy.” District 65 Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who also opposes the project, conveyed in a public statement via staff that the inclusion of below-market, ground floor office space on the garden site was not a win-win scenario for the neighborhood.
But Councilwoman Chin made it clear to opponents that she is calling for “more city owned lots to address the [housing] crisis, not less.” In terms of compromise, she revealed her “hope” that the open space remaining at Haven Green would be “mapped as parkland.” And that the proposed community meeting room, largely seen by critics as the patio for Habitat offices, would be guaranteed as additional outdoor space for the community.
The late-stage insertion of the Parks Department into the equation speaks to the apparent lack of transparency by developers and illusive public nature of the open space. This potential move away from Pennrose Properties and Habitat NYC as co-managers of the 6,700 square-foot garden is a concession derived from a CB2 recommendation, later echoed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who argued for increased open space, as well.
Councilmember Chin did, however, challenge Haven Green on the issue of new retail space where none previously existed. She spoke to the overwhelming need to preserve small businesses, acknowledging that the neighborhood was already filled to capacity with luxury boutiques. Dylan Salmons of Pennrose Properties committed to work with HPD to find incentives that could attract more diverse retail to Little Italy.
Yet, Salmons’ statements differed from his previous responses to CB2 when questioned about the retail component of Haven Green. When asked by a local resident whether they planned on renting to yet another luxury boutique selling hundred-dollar candles, Salmons replied that even if the shops were selling “hundred-dollar hotdog flavored candles,” the rent would help sustain the deeply-affordable senior housing upstairs. But whether scented or “flavored,” the extent to which Salmons was exaggerating to make a point remains to be seen.
Notwithstanding Chin’s hopes and encouragements, Haven Green is slated for a City Council vote without any firm commitment on the commercial component.
Meanwhile, retail services essential for seniors are disappearing from the neighborhood. Residents of the LIRA building adjacent to the proposed development just learned that their 36-year-old pharmacy will be closing at the end of the month due to a twofold rent hike. While Nolita Chemist had different owners and names in the past, the Mott Street shop has served the community since the LIRA affordable housing was built in 1983.
But rent increases are not just affecting the storefront. The affordable-housing agreement for tenants of the LIRA building itself is also about to expire.
Little dissension, if any, is expected amongst the ranks of City Councilmembers as block-voting in favor of each other’s land-use deals is customary. However, residents are anxious to see how Speaker Corey Johnson reacts to the proposal considering the alternate building site is in his District.
If Mayor de Blasio signs off on the project as expected, the only thing that stands in the way of development are two separate lawsuits filed by both nonprofits protecting the site: Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden and Elizabeth Street Garden Inc., who currently runs and maintains the communal green space. On the whole, Garden supporters remain committed to derailing the project by lawsuit or continued protest.
For now, the Elizabeth Street Garden is on a month-to-month lease with HPD.