A city-backed plan to build senior affordable housing at the site of the Elizabeth Street Garden, a beloved community garden in Nolita, is expected to be voted on Thursday night by Manhattan's Community Board 2.
For at least five years, supporters of the Elizabeth Street Garden have been fighting to save the roughly half-acre plot from development. Thursday's vote, which is a recommendation that has no binding impact, moves the plan for Haven Green, a 121-unit development, one step further in a lengthy zoning approval process that will eventually be decided by the City Council. The proposal will next go before the Manhattan Borough President.
The high profile battle over the garden's fate has pit affordable housing proponents against those in favor of preserving green space, provoking a long-running debate over land use priorities.
Councilmember Margaret Chin, who represents the neighborhood, has strongly pushed for the plan, saying that it will fulfill a longstanding need for affordable housing in one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods. All of the units at Green Haven will be reserved for seniors making less than 60 percent of the area median income, which translates into $43,860 annually for an individual and $50,100 for a couple. The project is being developed by a team made up of Pennrose, Riseboro Community Partnership, and Habitat for Humanity.
The Elizabeth Street Garden was created in 1991 by Allan Reiver, an architectural salvage and antique collector who began renting the space from the city. “He took it upon himself to plant the lawn and plant the trees. He built the basis,” said his son Joseph Reiver, who now serves as the executive director of Elizabeth Street Garden, a nonprofit group created in 2016 to preserve the site.
In response to accusations by Chin that the garden’s access was closely guarded, Joseph Reiver on Wednesday said his father simply did not have the capacity to manage a public space with unfettered access. He said that beginning in 2013, his father and other volunteers began to look at ways of making the garden more open to the public.
Over the years, the garden has become one of the city’s curiosities, a green landscape flowering unexpectedly amid the city’s concrete and steel surroundings. Last month, Justin Davidson, the architectural critic for New York magazine, described it as “a lush and romantic retreat from the thronged sidewalks of Soho.”
Supporters of the Elizabeth Street Garden have argued the city’s need to build affordable housing should not come at the expense of green space and have repeatedly pointed to an empty city-owned lot at 388 Hudson Street.
Chin responded by saying that given the city’s affordable housing crisis, the Hudson Street site should not be seen as an alternative but rather another affordable housing site.
CB2 has largely been sympathetic to the garden’s supporters. In 2014 the board voted to preserve the Elizabeth Street Garden in the wake of development pressures.
On Thursday, in advance of the CB2 vote, Chin issued the following statement to Gothamist:
“There has been extensive community engagement by the City and Habitat for Humanity around the Haven Green development. While I fully respect Community Board 2’s decision, I believe there is a dire need for affordable housing for seniors right now and right here in Little Italy.”
While CB2’s vote on Thursday will no doubt send a message, the plan is still expected to win final approval when it reaches the City Council. In the past, the Council has typically deferred to the representing member of the district on land use matters.
As a result, supporters of the garden have threatened to sue. They have retained Norman Siegel, the prominent civil-rights attorney, to represent them.
“Unfortunately, the community board vote is only advisory,” Joseph Reiver said. “It’s gonna take legal action to save the garden.”