Council debates future of community garden

Elizabeth Street Garden is the proposed site of a 123-unit affordable housing development for seniors. Photo: Michael Garofalo

Plan for affordable senior housing development at site of Elizabeth Street Garden

By Michael Garofalo

The latest chapter in the battle over the future of Elizabeth Street Garden was waged in the City Council chambers last week. Legislators heard testimony that pitted advocates of a plan to build an affordable housing complex for seniors at the site against residents seeking to preserve the small parcel of downtown green space.

The housing development, known as Haven Green, would be a seven-story building with 123 units of affordable housing for seniors, 30 percent of which would be allocated to formerly homeless seniors. The development would help alleviate the severe shortage of affordable housing for seniors in Community District 2, where 4,600 eligible seniors are currently waitlisted and face average wait times of seven years for a unit. But Haven Green would sit on much of the space that is now Elizabeth Street Garden, a sculpture-filled strip of midblock open space that fronts on Mott and Elizabeth Streets, between Spring and Prince Streets. The loss of the garden, some residents believe, would be an unacceptable detriment to the neighborhood.

The Haven Green building would also contain retail and office space. Habitat for Humanity New York City, which is part of Haven Green’s development team along with Pennrose and RiseBoro Community Partnership, plans to move its headquarters to the building. The elevator building, Haven Green proponents say, would be a crucial amenity for seniors who are currently homeless or being pushed out by landlords, or confined to walkups without elevators.

Competing Rallies

Supporters and opponents of the Haven plan held competing rallies on the steps of City Hall prior to a May 2 Council subcommittee hearing on the proposal.

“Haven Green will be built in one of the whitest, wealthiest neighborhoods in the city — a neighborhood that rarely if ever sees new affordable housing created,” said Karen Haycox, CEO of Habitat for Humanity New York City, who called the project “a matter of social, economic and racial justice.”

Plans for the new building include roughly 6,700 square feet of open space (as compared with the 20,000 square foot area of the existing garden), which will be accessible to the public. “We’re committed to making the green spaces accessible to everyone in the neighborhood to the greatest degree possible,” Haycox said.

Council Member Margaret Chin, whose district includes the site, is a proponent of the Haven Green proposal. “This project is a win-win,” she said before the hearing. “We’re going to have 123 units of housing for seniors and public open space.”

Chin’s support bodes well for the plan’s prospects for approval in the City Council, which generally defers to the preference of the local council member on questions of land use. The subcommittee on landmarks, public siting and maritime uses did not hold a vote to advance the project after the May 2 hearing, and the Council has not yet indicated when it will do so. Council approval is the last major hurdle for the project before it clears the city’s land use process.

“Two Neighborhood Needs”

The issue has illustrated the challenges of balancing the competing interests of affordable housing and open space in a community in which both are at a premium.

“It’s unfortunate that two neighborhood needs are in direct conflict with each other, but affordable housing for low-income seniors takes priority over open space when allocating public benefits,” said Steve Herrick, executive director of the Cooper Square Committee, a downtown housing advocacy nonprofit.

Community Board 2 passed a resolution earlier this year stating its opposition to the Haven Green project, and instead proposed an alternate senior housing development at another city-owned site three-quarters of a mile away at 388 Hudson Street.

Assembly Member Deborah Glick, a notable supporter of efforts to preserve Elizabeth Street Garden, testified before the Council in support of the Hudson Street alternative. “The proposed destruction of the Elizabeth Street Garden site, despite affordable housing being a public benefit, is emblematic of the constant and pernicious way in which the city pits two scarce resources like affordable housing and open space against each other,” Glick said.

Since 1991, the Elizabeth Street Garden site has been leased from the city by Allan Reiver, the owner of a neighboring gallery who rents the city-owned land on a month-to-month basis and displays sculptures from his gallery in the garden.

Reiver’s son, Joseph Reiver, is the executive director of the nonprofit that manages the garden and has organized efforts to preserve the space. “They’re using misrepresentation and lack of transparency to achieve privatization of public land,” Reiver said before the Council hearing.

Critics of Haven Green also note that the proposal requires housing units to remain affordable for 60 years rather than in perpetuity (the deal includes financial incentives for the development team to extend the agreement beyond 60 years).

Reiver’s nonprofit is one of two local groups that have filed pending lawsuits against the city as part of an effort to block the Haven Green plan and preserve the garden.