Prospect Lefferts Gardens state Senator Jesse Hamilton has drawn up a bill to seize the ground under a neighborhood community garden, taking it back from the reputedly thieving realtors who acquired it through what gardeners believe was deed fraud. At a press conference at the Maple Street Garden on Sunday, Hamilton said that if the state could use eminent domain to hand developer Forest City Ratner blocks of property for the Atlantic Yards mega-development, it can do so to save the green space.
"How come we can have eminent domain for the Barclays Center and not have eminent domain for the constituents of the community?" he said, adding, "If we can do it for Ratner, we can do it for the Maple Street Garden."
From our report last week, brothers Michael and Joseph Makhani claim to have bought the lot at 237 Maple St.:
...for $5,000 from nephews of the deceased owners back in 2003. The house that once occupied the lot was abandoned after its owners' deaths, and burned down in 1997. The lot accumulated junk for 15 years until neighbors banded together to clean it up and turn it into a community garden—after they say a worker at the Makhanis' Housing Urban Development LLC (no relation to the federal housing agency) refused to discuss the property.
The Makhanis, both of whom have been convicted of property scams, tried to rip out the garden last summer, commencing a legal battle that is ongoing. A judge is currently considering lawyer Paula Segal's request to dismiss the company's ownership claim and the garden remains open for the time being. Meanwhile, the Makhanis have filed permits to build a five-story residential building on the site.
Garden co-founder Molly McCue said that Prospect Lefferts Gardens is experiencing a wave of development, and one more fancy building is the last thing it needs.
"That's not what this space should be used for," she said. "We have luxury apartments popping up down the road. What we need is this kind of space because it's rare in the city to have a space like this."
Hamilton submitted his eminent domain bill on Friday afternoon and it has been referred to the Senate's Rules Committee. If passed, the law would turn the plot into a state park managed by the city's Parks Department. Gov. Cuomo vetoed a similar bill seeking to seize the building that houses the Swinging Sixties Senior Center in Williamsburg from its landlord, arguing that it circumvented owner protections. Gardener Tom LaForge said he was surprised by the support at the state level.
"Two months ago, I would have said it's the biggest long shot I've ever heard, to get the state to take away private property just because we're here doing something good," he said.
Continued access to the garden isn't a sure thing. Earlier this summer, the green thumbs found themselves locked out after a judge issued a restraining order on behalf of the Makhanis, forcing the gardeners to meet on the sidewalk. An appeals court later threw the retraining order out. Segal described the property dispute as a war of attrition, and said that holding onto the garden throughout is the key objective.
"It's been a real holding of this ground in the face of a criminal conspiracy," she said, adding, "We're going to hold this space because in order to organize here and to create something lasting and beautiful for the neighborhood, we need to be in here..The resolution from the court cases isn't going to be enough."
The Makhani brothers did not immediately respond to a request for comment made on the voicemail of a number associated with one of their many LLCs. A number for a defunct Makhani LLC has been disconnected.
Update Monday, October 26th:
A spokesman for Assemblywoman Diana Richardson said she is in the process of introducing a similar eminent domain bill to the Assembly.
Additional reporting by Joanna Purpich