Dogs pull on their leashes to reach various patches of nature that hug the Elizabeth Street Garden. Two children park their scooters against a stone wall to explore the different flowers and grass. Elderly residents sit and watch everything unfold before them.
It’s an early fall day, and a moment in the life of a garden. But change may come to this one, because the Elizabeth Street Garden lot is now designated space for affordable housing. The plan is to slice the garden into 5,000 square feet, compared to its original 20,000.
Assembly Member Deborah Glick said that shutting down the garden was decided during the Community Board 3 rezoning plan, even though the Elizabeth Street Garden falls under Community Board 2. She said this decision was made without the community knowing or consenting.
“They’re not listening,” Glick said. “The city is a people. We’re going to do whatever of the people, by the people and for the people. Not for real estate developers.”
Glick said that a broad range of people enjoy the garden, since this is one of the few green spots within the Nolita and Little Italy areas. So to try dissuading the city government from converting it to affordable housing, the community searched for and found a different area to build the unit—with five times more space – at a Hudson and Clarkson water tunnel site.
Whenever new affordable housing is built, 50 percent of the space is saved for community members within the neighborhood the structure was built. That means the same population that could apply to the affordable housing envisioned for the Elizabeth Street Garden location could also apply for the reserved space at th Hudson and Clarkson site.
However, Glick said that rather than compromising between green space and affordable housing, government officials have suggested using both lots for affordable housing.
“That is the height of arrogance,” Glick said. “That is the height of disrespect for communities, and somebody has to say that the administration is supposed to be turning a page on a prior administration that is so disrespectful of neighborhoods. They are not looking for creative solutions.”
Council Member Margaret Chin represents the area in which Elizabeth Street Park is located. In a statement, Chin said that the government is taking an important step as a community to create affordable housing for seniors.
“With thousands of seniors on waitlists for affordable, safe and age-appropriate housing, the need for these senior housing units in the heart of Little Italy is overwhelming,” Chin said. “I thank Mayor de Blasio and HPD for partnering with me to help address this crisis of affordability that threatens the health and well-being of too many elderly New Yorkers.”
She said that as the process continues, she looks forward to working with the Community Board and the gardeners to recreate an open space that will be available and open to the public for decades to come. The Housing Preservation Department has now issued a Request for Proposal that asks for possible solutions incorporating affordable housing and green space.
Jennifer Romine, a resident in the affordable housing unit adjacent to the Elizabeth Street Park, said that to split the Elizabeth Street Garden’s area between affordable housing and green space is ridiculous because of how little green space will be left.
“Retail space here is like Madison Avenue, and this building that I saw had an immense amount of retail space,” Romine said. “There are numerous sites in this area they could build over—34 Spring Street and a number of parking lots just within five blocks of here—but they might not be profitable, and they might not be as sexy.”
She volunteers with the garden regularly, and Romine said that many children, families and older people oftentimes do not voice their discontent with the planned development. She also said that there’s a myth that this park is just for rich people.
“This 21 Spring Street,” Romine said while gesticulating south, “is for low-income families. Ninety-five percent of the tenants signed a petition that was sent to the councilwoman and the mayor and everybody, saying that we need this green space.”
Esther Katz, a resident of the area, wrote letters to the government to advocate for keeping the garden. She said that the lot has really transformed since its early transition days from a trash dump to a garden.
“It was kind of like a graveyard of statues,” Katz said. “But it’s unbelievable. It now feels like a respite from the rest of the city, and it just feels like I’m in a different environment.”
While watering some of the greenery on the north side, a gardener pointed out some rosemary that had just grown in, and Katz said that she and her dog enjoy the smell of the garden’s dahlias.
“Sometimes it feels like I almost can’t breathe with the smells of garbage in the city that are truly disgusting some days,” Katz said. “I think they should do everything they can to keep this open, because it’s a lifesaver. So whatever anyone can do would be helpful.”