-Eric Uhlfelder

25 Nov 2022 Demolition of the Elizabeth Street Garden has been put on hold.

The City of New York has been hellbent on destroying this remarkable community garden, located just north of Little Italy. It owns the land and had cut a deal with a developer to build 123 senior citizen units at the site between Spring and Prince Streets.

But early in November, State Supreme Court Judge Debra James said not so fast. In an area with limited open space, the city inanely argued that destroying the mature one-acre community garden would “have no significant effect on the quality of the envi-ronment.”

Elizabeth Street Garden. Photo Credit: Eric Uhlfelder 


As a result, the city never bothered to prepare an in depth study that would attest to this claim. This is especially odd considering the parcel is within the Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District, which is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

The judge is requiring the city to prepare an environmental impact statement. If the city proves the development’s negative environ-mental effects can be sufficiently mitigated, then the city may be able to move ahead.

Norman Siegel, the civil rights lawyer who represents the non-profit Elizabeth Street Garden, Inc, which has nurtured and main-tained this space, explains, “The law in the case says (the city) has to take a hard look at the environmental issues, and one of the biggest issues they have to look at is the loss of open space.”

This decision was certainly a win for the garden. But it hardly assures its survival.

The city, with the private developer, can write the EIS and undoubtedly find all the good the new housing will do for the city and downplay any negative impacts. And then the municipal review process will undoubtedly sign off on these findings.

ESG and Siegel can argue the merits of the findings. But at the end of the day, it will take remarkable fortitude and invention to stop the city after it establishes proof of its negative declaration.

Even before work on an EIS begins, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the agency that’s driving the project, is appealing the judge’s ruling. Despite the soundness of this decision, an appeals court judge could reverse the decision. ESG would then likely appeal that ruling.

But the city has deeper pockets than ESG, allowing it to recklessly pursue a policy that makes no sense environmentally, socially, and economically. Here is a rare, organic space that the city doesn’t even pay to maintain. ESG does that. The garden has enhanced the attractiveness and value of all properties around it, a selling point for anyone consider-ing buying a home near the space, while gen-erating fees from TV and film shoot.

Then there’s the issue of Covid-19, which will be with us for a long time, further beg-ging the need for quality open space that can be enjoyed year-round.

Joseph Reiver, executive director of the ESG, Inc., explains the city is making this a binary matter — housing or a park. He be-lieves that’s wrong. “It’s a false choice, a di-vide and conquer tactic,” he explains, “to say, well, would you rather have senior affordable housing or a lush community garden? We are in dire need of both.” Reiver questions why any city agency or leader would make it sound like “we can only have one or the oth-er.”

Attracting the attention of major news outlets, CNN recently spoke with Commu-nity District 1 Councilmember Christopher Marte, who represents the garden’s neighbor-hood. Marte says there are alternative sites in which could “build senior affordable housing, where we can get up to four times more units than at the Elizabeth Street Garden site.” But, he says, the city has rejected each pro-posal.

We’re stuck with broken politics in Wash-ington because republicans and democrats rarely communicate and compromise. It’s even more frustrating to see this breakdown in a city as progressive and as wealthy as New York, which assuredly can afford to host both a community garden and subsidized senior housing.

To see the decision, click: https://casetext. com/case/elizabeth-st-garden-inc-v-the-city-of-new-york Elizabeth Street Garden.


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