By Jim Fouratt
Recently, when I called attention to the possibility of “class war” over a city-owned lot on Elizabeth Street, I was half joking. In 2012, when Councilwoman Chin was being pressured by both Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Quinn to approve the massive NYU expansion in her district, Chin finally relented, after negotiating from the Bloomberg administration, that a city owned property on Elizabeth Street be designated for low income, affordable senior housing.
Chin knew that a long time resident of what had been Little Italy had gotten a sweetheart rent deal on a 20,000 square foot lot. I have been told the leaseholder was paying $4,000 rent. In 2014, he was told his lease would not be renewed but instead extended on a month-to-month basis because the de Blasio administration was going to make good on the promise of senior housing.
What did the leaseholder do? He invited some representatives of what I call THE RICH MOMS OF SOHO (RMOS) to squat on the property. With the full knowledge that the lot was going to become the site of senior housing, these women came in and squatted on public land, with the permission of the leaseholder, and built what they call a “garden.” The clock was ticking, but these women are used to getting what they want. They split into two groups and hired a famous civil rights lawyer, Norman Siegel, to represent them.
Note: I know the women are not all rich, but the attitude all of them displayed was the same: privilege. And it is sad to see that noted progressive lawyer Norman Siegel has agreed to represent the RMOS and their Versailles-like “mini-garden” on Elizabeth Street.
The de Blasio administration issued a Request of Proposal (RFP) for the senior housing design. The winning entry was submitted by Habitat for Humanity and their design reflected that they had listened to the concerns of the RMOS. Their eight story, 100% green, senior-housing building included 8000 square feet of open space for a garden.
CB2’s land-use committee scheduled an open hearing of its “Garden Working Group” with Habitat for Humanity to present their design for feedback, (first time I had heard of this “working group,” and I did not see any members of the public in support of senior housing on it!) It was to be a a community preview before the presentation to the full CB2 Board.
I went with the intent to have a few questions answered about the design. The meeting was to start at 6:30 pm in a large room NYU had donated to CB2 for this meeting. The Rich Moms of Soho and their garden militia had almost filled the whole room by 5:30 p.m.
When I saw the design, I was very impressed by Habitat’s desire to include a public garden within its design. I was also impressed that they had teamed up with first rate organization, Primrose, to manage and with SAGE to provide on-site services for LGBT elders.
The Garden rabble were not there to discuss the design. They were there to kill the whole idea of senior housing with a “let them eat cake” attitude. Speaker after speaker got up and denounced the plan, seniors and homeless be damned. Actually, not one pro-garden speaker referenced the need for housing for low-income seniors or the homeless—which, by the way, is at a critical stage. In fact, there is no low-income, senior-housing available in CB2.
At one point, CB2’s Chair replaced the chair of the land use committee as moderator with David Gruber, former CB2 Chair, without explanation. David Gruber works on the real estate side of the street. His bias for the garden was evident from the beginning. His “quips” from the podium were all pro-garden. He even gave 20 minutes to two pro-garden groups to present their opposition. He had arranged that prior to the meeting.
I rose from the floor, after being recognized, asking why pro-senior housing were not given an equal opportunity to speak. He responded by telling me to be quiet or he would have the police remove me. I said, very loudly, he was “biased.” I said, “He was acting like a bully and should step down as the moderator.” He refused to, and cheers came from the pro-garden militia. I sat down.The RMOS were prepared for battle and they had chosen gentrification and landlord tools—including endless lawsuits—to prevent housing for poor seniors and homeless in their neighborhood. They threatened to keep it in the court so that anyone my age will be dead before the issue is resolved.
The compromise that Habitat offered, with the inclusion of open space for a garden, was ignored. Instead, speaker after speaker attacked Habitat for Humanity. It was chilling! It was ugly! Where was their sense of social consciousness? Some Soho community activists were disrupted, including Sean Sweeney, with his not-in-my-backyard attitude. All they wanted to talk about was their small four-year old garden, built on, what I still call, squatted land. Seniors and homeless be damned.
What was impressive was how Habitat representatives did not take the bait and responded in a dignified, calm manner that addressed their mission: giving shelter to the homeless and poor seniors. They were supported by a number of different non-profit and city agencies who also spoke of the needs of the homeless and poor population in CB2 including the poor LGBT senior population.
The pro-garden people want the senior housing to be built on Hudson Street instead. A city representative answered that they were studying the Hudson Street property. If it was suitable, it would be seen as a second senior housing project site, not an either/or option, because the need is so great.
I have lived in Greenwich Village since 1961, in a sixth floor walk-up apartment. I found the seeming lack of any empathy for the need of affordable housing for seniors, who have grown old in this neighborhood, including LGBT seniors, and the homeless, to be stunning.
As I left the meeting, I walked down to Spring Street and discovered that the city was refurbishing a playground for the children a block and a half away. I wondered if any of the RMOS had involved themselves in the design process.