By Jaden Satenstein
Affordable housing activists celebrated a victory last week after City Council members voted unanimously, with one abstention, to green light the Haven Green project, a development of low-income, LGBTQ friendly senior housing in Little Italy.
“We’re very encouraged by the Council’s unanimous support of the project,” said Karen Haycox, CEO of Habitat for Humanity New York City, which has partnered with RiseBoro Community Partnership and Pennrose to develop the project. “It’s been a long and collaborative process to get us here.”
The project features 123 units for extremely-low to low-income seniors, including 37 units dedicated to formerly homeless seniors. The building will also include retail stores and Habitat for Humanity offices on the street level. Haycox stated that cash earned from retail rents will be used to subsidize the housing in the building and maintain affordability for residents. In addition, plans call for 8,000 square feet of open space, accessible to the public.
“I’m very happy that decision was made, having lived here awhile and knowing just the level of need for housing and affordable housing, and neighbors we’ve lost because of the lack of it, and because of a lot of folks moving into the neighborhood,” said Kathleen Webster, a Little Italy resident and president of the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Coalition.
A Little Piece of SanctuaryHowever, not everyone in the community views the Council’s decision as a triumph.
The Haven Green project is set to replace the Elizabeth Street Garden, a half-acre sculpture garden that is open to the public during set hours each season. The garden also hosts year-round public programming. The space was created in 1991 when the city leased the land to Allan Reiver, owner of Elizabeth Street Gallery.
“Unfortunately, this vote was expected,” Joseph Reiver, son of Allan Reiver and executive director of the Elizabeth Street Garden, wrote in a statement to Our Town Downtown. “The council members lived up to their reputation of deference.”
Many visitors to the garden shared Reiver’s disappointment on Thursday, June 27, the day after the Council made its decision. “This is kind of the only little piece of sanctuary you get in such a busy city where you can pop out for a phone call or have lunch in a nice patch of grass,” said Madeleine Winter, who works in the area and was eating lunch in the garden. “I feel like it’s really limited in Manhattan, so for this to no longer be that space feels really sad and like a missed opportunity for the community.”
Although most of the visitors that day were at least somewhat aware of the garden being at risk of closing, many were surprised to learn that the space would be used for affordable housing.
Much Needed Housing Evan Dempsey researched the situation online after seeing flyers about it hung around the garden. “I thought it was like, ‘Oh, there’s some rich new condominium.’ But once I found out it was affordable housing I was like, ‘Oh, that’s probably more important than people enjoying their lunch and the park,’” Dempsey said while eating lunch in the garden on Thursday.
Unlike Dempsey, many garden supporters want the housing project go elsewhere, specifically, to a vacant, city-owned lot at 388 Hudson Street. “They’ve chosen to ignore a more viable solution that achieves more affordable housing and saves the garden entirely,” Reiver wrote. “If the city had actually considered the 388 Hudson site, we could’ve already had up to [five times] the housing built for those in need.”
Supporters of the project claim that the space currently occupied by the Elizabeth Street Garden is the only possible location at this time. They note that, while 388 Hudson is owned by the city, it’s currently under the control of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), not the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Haycox hopes that the 388 Hudson site can also be developed into affordable housing in the future.
Still, garden supporters feel that the Council ignored the opinions of many community members. In January, Community Board 2 voted in favor of keeping the Elizabeth Street Garden and finding an alternative site for Haven Green. In its resolution, the board said that the garden is “a heavily used and unique public green open space in a neighborhood the city defines as ‘underserved’ by open space.”
“It’s egregious also to pit affordable housing against green space, especially when we have alternatives that could work much better in regard to the amount of people it could house and not taking down green space,” said Patricia Squillari, volunteer coordinator for the garden.
Former professional landscaper Chris Goode, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1977, suggested that garden activists put their efforts into supporting an improvement of green space at nearby Sara D. Roosevelt Park, or the opening of new gardens. One idea he has is to close Elizabeth Street to cars and turn it into a garden.
“It’s lovely to have green space in the city, but the garden needs to be refurbished anyway, and I think it would be much better to have housing and put the garden somewhere else,” Goode said. “So there’s this argument from them that the city is somehow pitting housing against gardens, which I think is just factually untrue ... I really love gardens, it’s a passion of mine. But people can’t sleep in a garden, unfortunately.”
Visitors to the garden made clear that it has been an important part of their community and will be sorely missed. Garden supporters have not lost hope, however. The Elizabeth Street Garden and the non-profit Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden filed lawsuits against the city to block the Haven Green project in March.