Haven Green’s New Deal for Elizabeth Street Garden Site Throws Shade at the Community

Posted on: October 31st, 2019 at 5:02 am by

While City Council over the summer approved Haven Green, an affordable housing development set to rise atop the Elizabeth Street Garden, nonprofit groups continue to fight for the beloved, Little Italy green space.

Last Saturday, the endangered garden received an outpouring of support from the local community as over 2,300 people attended the annual “Harvest Fest.” The event has become a seasonal tradition, both to enjoy food donated by local restaurants, and to rally around the community-led effort to rescue the garden.

Photo: Eddie Panta

“This was our biggest turnout yet,” said Joe Reiver, Executive Director of ESG. Inc., one of two nonprofit groups fighting against the city’s plan for redevelopment.

Both nonprofits protecting the garden are also pushing ahead with a lawsuit against the city. ESG Inc. and Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden will have their first day in court on November 15. The legal actions are challenging the accuracy of the Environmental Assessment Statement (EAS) that HPD used to kick off the Uniform Land-Use Process (ULURP).

Adjacent LIRA courtyard, Photo: Eddie Panta

At a City Council Land-Use Committee hearing conducted last June as part of the ULURP, Councilmember Chin left the community with the “hope” that the Parks Department would be involved in the creation and management of the remaining open green space at Haven Green. But later, at the full City Council vote, a last-minute deal emerged from Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s office to expand the boundaries of Haven Green’s open space into the existing courtyard of the neighboring building. As the ULURP concluded its stay in City Council, the public review process had ended the same way it began, with an alleged side deal outside of public purview.

Under this new plan, Haven Green would increase the footprint of its “green space,” not by sacrificing office or retail space, but by annexing the courtyard of the Little Italy Restoration Apartments – a HUD subsidized affordable housing complex at 21 Spring Street. The revised proposal passed the City Planning Commission without any real blueprint for the “public space” component of Haven Green. In the end, the community was left with more questions than answers.

Press statements from City Council and HPD boasted that the deal to incorporate the existing LIRA courtyard would increase Haven Green’s publicly-accessible open space to 20,000 square-feet (the same size the garden is now). But Garden advocates argue the city’s new, “win-win solution” doesn’t represent any real net gain of open space in Little Italy – a neighborhood long described as “park-starved” and in “desperate need of open space.”

Angeli with daughter at the Harvest Fest, the mother of two young girls who grew up in, and still live in the LIRA building

A newsletter from Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden described the plans as “putting lipstick on a pig” and asserts that only a portion of the LIRA area is useable as publicly-accessible space, mainly because it’s surrounded by ground-floor apartment windows.  And even though the new deal increases Haven Green’s footprint of open, green space, it paradoxically increases the need for more, as the LIRA apartments house over 500 tenants. A Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) between the developers (Pennrose Property, Habitat NYC, and Riseboro) and HPD remains undefined. And the deal with the De Matteis organization, who owns the LIRA building, exists only as a memorandum of understanding.

Speaker Johnson’s last-minute, master plan for Haven Green was especially disappointing to garden supporters because the alternative site offered up by Community Board 2 is still a vacant, city-owned lot in Johnson’s District.

Back in 2015, then-Councilmember Corey Johnson pulled off exactly the same type of housing-for-park swap in Chelsea that garden advocates were seeking in Little Italy.  As The Villager reported, Johnson had struck a deal with the Mayor’s office to place affordable-housing on West 40th Street instead of an empty lot on West 20th Street and 6th Avenue that local residents campaigned to keep as a park since 2010.

When David Gruber, Chair of Community Board 2’s Elizabeth Street Garden Working Group, attempted to explain the Hudson Street site as a viable alternative during the Community Board hearing for the ULURP process, he was interrupted by a housing advocate in the audience who yelled out: “We’ll take that for housing too!” But Gruber calmly and confidently replied: “No you won’t” and continued his speech.

While Speaker Johnson steered clear of the controversy over the alternative site throughout the six-year campaign to save Elizabeth Street Garden, said housing advocate was echoing a call from Councilmember Chin, who insisted that the Hudson Street site should go to housing. Joe Reiver says that despite repeated invitations, neither Speaker Johnson nor Councilmember Chin, visited the garden. Whether Haven Green’s new deal constitutes a “win-win for the community” or a winner take all, still really depends on this empty lot in Speaker Corey Johnson’s District.

Despite potential increases in open space, Haven Green remains an all-in-one idea that has never been accomplished in the city before. And even if the deal to expand its boundaries and “re-mass” the building is finalized as planned, garden advocates still believe the Haven Green project would “100% destroy the garden.”

It remains to be seen if the Haven Green expansion into a privately-owned courtyard creates usable publicly-accessible space or if it is, as critics maintain, a purely political solution. For now, the fate of Elizabeth Street Garden appears to be in the hands of the court system. Unless increased community pressure could somehow rescue the garden from redevelopment.

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