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Future of Elizabeth Street Garden in Little Italy dims with latest court ruling


The saga of Little Italy’s Elizabeth Street Garden, stuck in the legal weeds for years, inched closer to a resolution this month, but the ultimate fate of the urban oasis remains uncertain.

The green space sits at the center of dueling court cases between those trying to save the garden and those who want to see the city build senior apartments on the lot, and has become a flashpoint of New Yorker’s larger housing crisis.

A civil court judge ruled in the city’s favor on a 2021 eviction case on May 8 but stayed execution of the warrant until Sept. 10 at the earliest to allow time for the garden to relocate. Judge Richard Tsai also ordered the nonprofit-run Elizabeth Street Garden to pay nearly $95,500 plus interest in back rent.

The garden’s legal team appealed the decision last week.

“This decision is a huge win for all New Yorkers,” Adolfo Carrión Jr., commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), said in a statement. “The fight over this land highlights how difficult it can be to build affordable housing, especially in neighborhoods that offer strong economic opportunities, we are undeterred.”

The fate of the sculpture-filled lot, owned by the city but leased out since 1991, has been in dispute since HPD introduced plans to build a 123-unit affordable apartment complex geared toward LGBTQ seniors dubbed Haven Green.

A rendering of the 123-unit affordable apartment complex geared toward LGBTQ seniors dubbed Haven Green. (Image courtesy of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, LLP)
A rendering of the 123-unit affordable apartment complex geared toward LGBTQ seniors dubbed Haven Green. (Image courtesy of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, LLP)

The plans have pitted housing advocates and two successive administrations against Little Italy locals and preservationists. Haven Green’s backers point to the need for new affordable housing, particularly for vulnerable groups like seniors, and say the garden provides a rare opportunity for the city to develop on its own land.

Executive director of the garden Joseph Reiver and his group of advocates are suing the city try to save the Elizabeth Street Garden from development. New York, November 17, 2018 (Kevin C. Downs/For New York Daily News).
Executive director of the garden, Joseph Reiver, is pictured at the Elizabeth Street Garden in Manhattan on Nov. 17, 2018. (Kevin C. Downs for New York Daily News)

The garden’s supporters say it is a unique and badly needed green space in an otherwise dense neighborhood, and that its loss would be a blow to the environment.

“It’s a false choice to say we have to destroy a garden in order to solve the housing crisis,” said Joseph Reiver, executive director of Elizabeth Street Garden, which was started by his late father Allan.

“The garden is open to everyone. It’s free, it’s public, there’s hundreds of free programs,” he said. “It’s the definition of the opposite of ‘not in my backyard.’ It’s literally for everyone.”

A rendering of the 123-unit affordable apartment complex geared toward LGBTQ seniors dubbed Haven Green. (Image courtesy of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, LLP)
A rendering of the 123-unit affordable apartment complex geared toward LGBTQ seniors dubbed Haven Green. (Image courtesy of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, LLP)

A letter-writing campaign to Mayor Adams asking for the eviction to be halted has hit more than 85,000 signatures since launching last Wednesday.

While the eviction case is “concerning,” Reiver and garden supporters also are focused on a long-running suit they recently argued in front of the state’s highest court, claiming the city failed to carry out a proper environmental review for the project and fully take into account the climate change implications.

The city has countered that Haven Green would not have a significant impact on the environment and would include its own, albeit smaller, open space.

A rendering of the 123-unit affordable apartment complex geared toward LGBTQ seniors dubbed Haven Green. (Image courtesy of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, LLP)
A rendering of the 123-unit affordable apartment complex geared toward LGBTQ seniors dubbed Haven Green. (Image courtesy of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, LLP)

In court last week, a lawyer for the city said no matter how the environmental suit plays out, the garden “is going to be evicted regardless” because of the housing case ruling.

Norman Siegel, who represents the garden, said that given the legal snarls, the space could get stuck in limbo.

“It could turn out that the city could go ahead with the eviction and that you couldn’t have the garden, but they might not be able to build the project that they want there,” he said. “Then you don’t have a garden and you don’t have the project for affordable housing.”

The Elizabeth Street Garden in Manhattan on Nov. 17, 2018. (Kevin C. Downs for New York Daily News)
The Elizabeth Street Garden in Manhattan on Nov. 17, 2018. (Kevin C. Downs for New York Daily News)

Siegel predicted the Court of Appeals would make a decision some time in July; an inquest in the eviction case is set for June 11.

The battle comes as New York is facing its lowest rental vacancy in decades, with affordable apartments particularly hard to come by. Leaders and advocates have been pushing for new development to offset the crisis and say Haven Green is too valuable an opportunity to squander.

The Elizabeth Street Garden serves about 200,000 visitors a year since 1991, according to Reiver. The 20,000-square-foot park between Mott and Elizabeth Streets is known for its eclectic statue collection and has long been a favorite among locals, including the late David Bowie.

The Elizabeth Street Garden in Manhattan on Nov. 17, 2018. (Kevin C. Downs for New York Daily News)
The Elizabeth Street Garden in Manhattan on Nov. 17, 2018. (Kevin C. Downs for New York Daily News)

 

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