Elizabeth Street Gardens: A Classic Double-Cross?

Children and mothers vs. Senior HOUSING: A prolonged battle between saving the Elizabeth Street Garden for families’ seasonal recreation vs. apartments continues. Credit: Brian J. Pape, AIA.

By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

Neighbors of the Elizabeth Street Garden (ESG), in the NOHO and Special Little Italy District (SLID), have expressed their concern that years of promises and being ignored have brought about a fiasco of controversy. CB2 joined in recapping the disingenuous way the city has mistreated this district at its public board meeting on January 24th.

To focus on the current status of this beautifully decorated lot, privately rented from the city by the antique store next door to it and managed by ESG Inc., a non-profit group that offers free year-round public programs, really misses the point.

The ESG site was part of the Free School Society’s P.S. 5, built in 1822, then donated to the city in 1853 for other educational use according to the deed restrictions. The 1940 tax photos show the ornate P.S. 21 school, rebuilt in 1903, with a basketball court fenced next to 209 Elizabeth Street. The city demolished the school in 1971, and the double-cross began.

In 1981 the city sold the southern part of the school site, which was then used for a 151-unit Section 8 affordable housing building at 21 Spring Street, reserving the northern part (the ESG site) “exclusively for recreational use.” Why was there no controversy in changing from educational to residential use? Well, in those days, neglect and crime tested the resolve of all who lived there.

Instead of abiding by the deed restrictions, or even abiding by its obligation to keep the lot as recreation space, the city allowed the site to deteriorate, trying to pass off the use of the site to the 21 Spring Street tenants who could not afford to maintain it. Into this morass stepped a neighborhood business, Elizabeth Street Gallery, a store selling antiques and architectural decorations (and some large sculptures too), that rented the weedy, fenced lot from the city. The city made the Gallery owner promise to clean up the garbage and he did that and so much more. Since 2013, the lot has been opened by neighbors, similar to many other downtown open garden plots. For the seniors living at 21 Spring Street, and all the other neighbors, the Garden is a godsend, as they have repeatedly testified at hearings.

The double-cross isn’t over yet. In 2012, the councilperson for the Essex Crossing Redevelopment area, in a different district, made a backroom deal ear-marking the ESG site for affordable housing. The neighbors and CB2 were not informed about this until a year after the deed was done. Once this double-cross was discovered a concerted effort was made to return it to “exclusively for recreational use.”

For WestView News readers, several previous articles have presented opposing viewpoints about this site. At numerous public meetings advocates have presented impassioned pleas for their causes. Mayor de Blasio is looking for more affordable housing, emphasizing that the need is great—especially for the local senior population—and no one disagrees with that.

The community board has studied the various issues for years, reported their findings at the open meetings, and strongly advocated for much-needed park space as well as more consideration of better sites for affordable housing blocks close to community and recreational centers, public libraries and parks, but their findings seem to go unheeded. Friends of ESG want the park-like atmosphere preserved as a public neighborhood park forever, as promised by the city.

This impasse seems to beg the question: can we get both affordable housing and more park space, rather than either/or? The city needs both to survive.

The Haven Green proposal is an affordable senior housing development for this site. In November 2018, the public got its first preview of a potential development plan from Philip Habib & Associates for Penrose LLC and the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). The Environmental Assessment Statement (EAS) responds to a Request for Proposals (RFP) from the HPD. The proposed work requires the City Planning Commission (CPC) to approve the real estate disposition, as well as multiple other approvals.

The proposed development is a seven-story, 74-foot tall, 92,761 GSF (gross square feet) mixed-use building containing 123 units of affordable senior housing, 4,454 GSF of ground floor local retail, 12,885 GSF of community facility space for Habitat for Humanity offices, and 6,700 GSF of publicly accessible private open space—out of the entire site’s 20,265 square foot area.

At this stage of the double-cross, the city and mayor have ignored pleas to consider better sites, and the developers have not bothered to engage with the community in any meaningful way nor integrated any of the community’s recommendations to improve the proposal (according to meeting comments).

Nevertheless, here are some of the public comments and concerns regarding how it can be improved, mainly based on the premise the city may still build here.

Loss of park space: This RFP requires that public open space should, to the greatest extent possible, re-create current features such as lawns, trees, and seating areas with a variety of sun and shade conditions, and provide for continuation of current educational and recreational programs and events. Since all the mature trees will be dug up for building, none will remain, and the small remnant of land will not accommodate the educational and recreational programs and events required. Thus, the ground floor building coverage needs to be much smaller.

Loss of daylight in the park: concerns were raised that the seven-story development, and the seven-story adjacent building, would cast shadows over the remaining sliver of the park for most of the day.

Lack of accessibility: if the open space is to serve the community, then an easement for the entire open area will need to be given to the Parks Department for the purpose of building a public park—to be overseen by the Parks Department, not the developers.

Design of apartment sizes: the design of the units is inefficient use of space—comprised of only small efficiency studios—with no accommodation for pets, companions, or care-givers. At least 30% of the units should be one-bedroom apartments.

Lack of neighborhood character: The design of the building’s facade needs to be modified in recognition of the historic district’s goal of retaining neighborhood character within the NOHO and SLID boundaries and in accordance with the values and standards of the National Register of Historic Places.

Lack of true community space and essential amenities: concern that the large amount of square footage being turned over to one of the development partners, Habitat for Humanity, will limit the providing of residential amenities.

Lack of thorough planning for alternatives: those who want to save the open space for the public point to other neighborhood sites that have greater potential to provide more affordable units; they reported that some previous potentially affordable sites have already missed the opportunity for development.

The public is welcome at these public meetings, and we will continue to report noteworthy news about developments.

Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP, is an architectural consultant in private practice.

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