By Jeannine Kiely
The City wants to destroy a park used by thousands of downtown residents and visitors in order to build a small number of affordable housing units.
The Elizabeth Street Garden, which hosts hundreds of free community events, including movie nights, yoga, children’s crafts and story time, and an annual Harvest Festival, is a neighborhood melting pot. Senior citizens, families, children, young adults, new residents, and old-timers flock to this magnificent green oasis, consistently ranked as one of the top 10 most beautiful parks in the City. The postage stamp-sized garden is part of the only area in Downtown Manhattan that the NYC Department of Parks Recreation (NYC Parks) identifies as “underserved” by open space. Little Italy and SoHo have only three square feet of park space per person (the size of a subway seat!) compared to the City planning goal of 109 square feet per person.
The initiative to save the garden is supported by Community Board 2 (CB2), 18 parks and community organizations, former NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, and nearly every local elected official, including: Representative Jerrold Nadler; State Senators Daniel Squadron and Brad Hoylman; Assembly Members Yuh-Line Niou and Deborah Glick; NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer; Public Advocate Letitia James; and District Leaders Paul Newell and Vittoria Fariello.
Only District 1 Council Member Margaret Chin wants to develop housing on the Elizabeth Street Garden, even though CB2 has identified an alternative City-owned site at 388 Hudson Street that will provide up to five times as much senior affordable housing.
Chin has dug in her heels to develop the garden, pushing a secret deal she made without any public review or discussion, and without even contacting CB2, which is where the garden is located.
Chin stubbornly refuses to consider alternatives even though CB2 held four public hearings where overwhelming support was expressed for saving the garden. She continues to ignore her constituents who have written nearly 5,700 letters in support of saving the garden.
This calls into question Chin’s real commitment to affordable housing. She says that the alternative site is not in her district but the preference given to local residents for 50% of affordable housing units is determined by community board, not council district, boundaries. Therefore, Chin’s constituents would have a greater chance of getting an affordable unit if more housing were built at 388 Hudson Street.
Chin has failed to protect her community. She dropped the ball on Rivington House, allowing the largest nursing home in her district to be flipped for luxury housing; she also killed landmark designations on the Bowery. Meanwhile, five super tall skyscrapers are being built on the Lower East Side, some without a single unit of affordable housing. Chin feigns disgust but did nothing to tighten zoning restrictions during her eight years in office.
The Alternative Site at 388 Hudson Street
388 Hudson Street is a viable site for affordable housing. The City-owned site is currently a vacant, gravel-filled, 25,000- square-foot lot. In 2015, CB2 held a public hearing and passed a resolution in support of building affordable housing here “only if” the Elizabeth Street Garden is preserved in its entirety as a public park. The 388 Hudson Street site would be developed as both housing and public open space, with housing built on the Clarkson Street side to comply with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection’s need for a permanent easement on the Houston Street side.
Mayor de Blasio recently announced a win-win park and housing deal in Chelsea. He allocated $4.3 million for a new park on West 20th Street and will build 234 units of affordable housing on a larger City-owned site two miles north.
He says that this is good planning and good governance, and many agree. But, instead of doing the same thing in CB2, the Mayor does not want to override Chin. This is pure politics!
Planning vs. Politics
In a New York Magazine article dated September 24, 2015, Chin said that a park is like a “living room” where neighbors “talk to their friends because they don’t have space in their own home.” But Chin would rather save face than save open space and build more affordable housing at the same time. Elizabeth Street Garden supporters call on Council Member Chin to prioritize planning over politics and work with her constituents to save the Elizabeth Street Garden in its entirety as a NYC park, and to build senior housing at 388 Hudson Street.
Jeannine Kiely is President of Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden. (Kiely is also a member of Community Board 2 but is not writing on behalf of CB2.)