Diverse scenes unfold simultaneously in the treasured Elizabeth Street Garden, a rare public green space nestled among Nolita’s low rise apartment buildings.
Artist Hannes Bend teaches Tibetan breathing to half a dozen practitioners while children navigate their scooters around puddles of mud, the aftermath of a mid-November snowstorm. A young woman who walked from Williamsburg to Lower Manhattan introduces a tourist friend to her sanctuary — a place adored by ordinary New Yorkers and celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Patti Smith and David Bowie.
But all that activity could soon be wiped away as city officials move forward with a project to replace the beloved open space with affordable housing for seniors.
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) recently issued environmental approvals for a project, called Haven Green, to break ground at the Elizabeth Street Garden during the summer of 2019. The first units would become available for lease in the summer of 2021, according to Haven Green’s website.
Garden advocates, who say the certification was improperly issued, are raising funds to mount a legal campaign as part of a last ditch effort to save the beloved garden.
“It’s like a running train,” Joseph Reiver, executive director of Elizabeth Street Garden Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the public garden, said of the application process.
The city-owned garden, which occupies a 1-acre plot on Elizabeth St. between Prince and Spring Sts., has a long and storied history as a public space. Almost 200 years ago, it served as a public school’s recreation space, before the school closed and businesses took over the lot.
The garden has served as a whimsical backdrop for weddings, fashion shows, and art installations. It is equally prized as an everyday refuge thanks to a team of dedicated volunteers who keep the garden open year round.
Fashion designer Stella McCartney twice rented the garden to host “Garden Party”-themed fashion shows in 2014 and 2015.
“I wanted to highlight these precious pockets in NY. They exist but they’re in danger and they need to be supported and they need to be recognized,” she told i-D magazine.
Reiver recalls sharing the space with David Bowie, who was known to sit and reflect in the garden.
“He lived around the corner and people knew who he was, but he had this amazing ability to blend in,” Reiver said of his 2014 sighting of Bowie.
HPD earlier this month conducted an Environmental Assessment Statement and issued a so-called negative declaration statement, excusing the department from completing a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement. The project now must now go through a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure application process and is all but guaranteed to pass.
ESG Inc. has retained lawyer Norman Siegel, who is preparing to file a lawsuit against the city on the grounds that it improperly certified the application.
The Nov. 9 ruling requires that the garden be designated as an Urban Development Action Area — meaning it “constitutes a serious and growing menace, is injurious to the public safety, health, morals and welfare, contributes increasingly to the spread of crime, juvenile delinquency and disease, necessitates excessive and disproportionate expenditures of public funds for all forms of public service and maintenance and constitutes a negative influence on adjacent properties impairing their economic soundness and stability, thereby threatening the source of public revenues.”
“This is clearly not an urban development action area,” Siegel said. “They are intentionally denigrating the existing conditions at the garden when it is a vibrant, landscaped treasure to the community.”
Advocates for the green space also argue that there are other alternative sites, including a much larger lot located at 388 Hudson St., that don’t pit affordable housing against preserving open space.
A spokesperson with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, when asked about the project, acknowledged the “many calls to abandon plans to develop the site as affordable housing and preserve the existing garden.”
“While we appreciate the attachment many feel to the garden, long before the space was open to the public, the City made a commitment to dedicate the site for affordable housing,” press secretary Juliet Pierre-Antoine said.
Haven Green is billed as a deeply affordable, LGBTQ-friendly housing complex for seniors. Lead developer Pennrose Properties, LLC partnered with RiseBoro Community Partnerships, Inc. and Habitat for Humanity New York City — which will get 11,200 square feet of below-market-rate office space from the deal.
The project’s origins can be traced back to 2012, when City Council Member Margaret Chin included the site as an addition to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area on the Lower East Side. “She has been the project’s main advocate. She designated this piece of land, slipping it into another development within a different community board so there was no review,” Reiver said. “A year later, when we found out, we came together to rally against it and make it more accessible.”
Chin’s efforts are backed by Mayor Bill de Blasio who in March 2017 said he would stand by the city’s plan. “The whole site was slated for affordable housing and there was no public space. You had an active public space in the interim — and a very good use, obviously,” he said of the garden. “The decision I came to was to do a split — where there would still be public space and there would be space for activities, but we could also put in affordable housing for seniors,” he said at a town hall meeting.
Chin’s office issued a statement highlighting the plight of marginalized seniors.
“Haven Green will create green space that will be open to the public on a consistent basis with access from Elizabeth and Mott streets. It will also create more than 100 units of desperately needed housing for the over 200,000 seniors who are currently languishing on waitlists. Additionally, the more than 100 units will be marketed, with the assistance of Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders (SAGE), specifically towards LGBTIQ seniors.”
Chin’s office has rejected plans to locate the site elsewhere, arguing that affordable housing is needed in every New York City neighborhood.
The seeds for the garden in its current form were planted in 1991, when Elizabeth Street resident Allan Reiver (Joseph’s father) began leasing the parcel in an attempt to clean up the block. The former real estate developer and private statuary collector had recently moved to New York and was called on by neighbors to help beautify the area.
“I built the garden because it was a vacant, overgrown lot that was full of trash. Neighbors came to me when they heard the city was going to sell it as a parking lot and asked me if I would turn it into a garden. So I went before the community board and they approved my leasing it from the city,” he told the Daily News.
Proponents of the planned housing development say that Allan Reiver, who now owns the Elizabeth Street Gallery located next door to the garden, benefits financially from using it to display his private statuary collection.
Allan Reiver says he entered into the lease before he ever owned the gallery, and has — over more than 20 years at the site — sold just one sculpture from the garden.
“I did what I did as a developer, which was change the character of the neighborhood, improve the character of the neighborhood and do something that no one had thought of doing,” he said. “All of a sudden the neighborhood changed. What was a totally industrial block became one of the nicest blocks in all of little Italy. The garden makes it quiet.”
Allan Reiver has spent more than $1 million on the 27-year-long month-to-month lease on the garden.
His commitment to the garden has never wavered. In 2012, when he learned it was slated for development, he opened the garden’s gates and enlisted volunteers so that patrons would not have to walk through his gallery to enjoy the space.
He isn’t alone — more than 9,000 people have signed a petition to save the garden, and 5,500 people have sent letters to Habitat for Humanity executives urging them to reconsider the development.
Habitat New York City CEO Karen Haycox said the organization has weighed input from concerned residents.
“While the development team is being asked to go build elsewhere without compromise, we are asking those committed to the garden to come create the space with us,” Haycox told the Daily News.
She said Habitat NYC also needs “an affordable place to call home,” and that it will move closer to “extensive projects in construction and preservation services.”
It does not dispute the city’s environmental assessment of the site.
Renee Green, President of Elizabeth Street Garden Inc., is skeptical of Habitat’s involvement, and is calling on the organization to drop the project.
“I was shocked to learn that Habitat for Humanity was taking part in this development because that seems so contrary to what I always believed Habitat stood for,” the 87-year-old said. “I think the developer was really shrewd in asking them to come on board because that gave legitimacy to them destroying the garden.”
Even the youngest community members are doing their part to save the garden. Sisters Nova, 6 and Luna, 9, spend many of their weekend and after-school hours picking and selling berries for a dollar apiece to raise money for the legal fight ahead.