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Elizabeth Street Garden: New Yorkers score legal victory in a fight to protect their garden


NEW YORK
CNN

Emmanuelle Chiche remembers the first time she came across Elizabeth Street Garden, a charming green space hidden between rows of concrete buildings in lower Manhattan.

It wasn’t like any other garden in the city, she remembers thinking. It took her back to France, her native country, with its dozens of beautifully aged neoclassical sculptures and columns.

“In this place, I learned that there is such a thing as falling in love with a garden,” said Chiche, 55, as he stood on a stone balcony overlooking a blooming pink rose bush. Below, a visitor stops to bring one of the flowers to her nose. Eyes closed, she took a deep breath and basked in the smell of it.

Since 2013, Chiche and others in the Little Italy neighborhood have been concerned about city plans to replace the garden with another building. But on Tuesday, they celebrated a victory in the legal battle to protect it.

Emmanuelle Chiche and her daughter, Elsa, sit in Elizabeth Street Garden, where Chiche volunteers.

State Supreme Court Justice Debra James granted a 2019 petition by Elizabeth Street Garden Inc., the nonprofit that operates and maintains the garden, to block construction of an affordable housing complex in its place . James also ordered the City of New York, which owns the property, to conduct a full environmental impact statement before approval for the development can be granted.

“When I saw the notice, I started shaking,” said Norman Siegel, the civil rights attorney representing the nonprofit. “The law in the case says they have to look at the environmental issues thoroughly, and one of the biggest issues they have to look at is the loss of open space.”

Sitting on a bench in front of Central Park’s Upper West Side, Siegel offers a big smile. “They won,” he said, adding it would be impossible for the city to defend the development plan without showing it would have a negative impact on the environment.

The New York City Department of Housing and Development (HPD) called the judge’s decision “disappointing” and told CNN in a statement it would appeal — signaling plans for a protracted battle.

Haven Green, the project planned for the site, is a 123-unit affordable rental complex for senior citizens, according to the development’s website. It will also include a green space, retail shops and the new headquarters for Habitat for Humanity New York City.

HPD says Haven Green is needed to address New York City’s growing affordable housing problem, and was designed with the environment in mind.

“With 100,000 seniors currently waiting for access to affordable housing, we cannot allow a small number of anti-housing voices to continue to stand in the way of projects our city so desperately needs,” HPD said in ‘ said a statement to CNN.

Open New York, a grassroots group that advocates for affordable housing, echoed HPD’s position. “Housing delayed is housing denied, and we simply cannot afford to let a small number of anti-housing votes block 100 percent affordable housing in a well-resourced neighborhood,” said Executive Director Annemarie Gray.

But Joseph Reiver, executive director of Elizabeth Street Garden Inc., says it’s not that simple.

His father, Allan Reiver, was the artist who decades ago transformed an empty, rubbish-filled lot into Elizabeth Street Garden. The elder Reiver, who ran an art gallery and filled the garden with his collection of sculptures and artifacts, died in 2021, leaving the garden in the hands of his son and thousands of volunteers who have been fighting to maintain it for nearly a decade. to protect.

“This was my father’s legacy, but this is not my garden,” said Reiver, sitting on a bench in one of his very quiet corners. “It belongs to this community, the community values ​​it, and they would be devastated if they lost it.”

Norman Siegel, the attorney for Elizabeth Street Garden Inc., cheers during a press conference announcing their legal victory.

Reiver rejects allegations by HPD and Open New York that Elizabeth Street Garden Inc. if a fringe group is opposed to affordable housing.

“It’s a false choice, a divide-and-conquer tactic, to say, well, would you rather have senior affordable housing or a lush community garden? You missed the issue. We urgently need both,” Reiver said. “We have to strongly question any agency or leadership that says we can only have one or the other.”

Karen Haycox, CEO of Habitat for Humanity, New York City, argues Haven Green will provide both, as it has plans for 16,000 square feet of publicly accessible green space.

Siegel argues the green space the project promises “is not comparable to Elizabeth Street Garden” and would sacrifice the necessary amenities the garden currently offers, including adequate access to sunlight and space for large community activities.

District 1 Councilman Christopher Marte, who represents the neighborhood where the garden is growing, says the community has presented the city with several proposals “to build senior affordable housing on other sites where we can get up to four times more units than at the Elizabeth Street Garden- terrain. .”

The city rejected those proposals, he said.

Supporters of Elizabeth Street Garden are confident that an environmental impact statement will reveal that construction of Haven Green will adversely affect the environment and quality of life in the neighbourhood.

Christopher Kennedy, associate director at the Urban Systems Lab at The New School, says it’s a plausible conclusion.

“The more green space, the better,” Kennedy, who authored a study on the positive impact of green spaces in cities, told CNN. “Green spaces offer endless climate-related benefits, especially in relation to urban flooding issues. With extreme heat, which will become much more common in 50 years, the amount of vegetation cover such as trees and shrubs can significantly cool the area several degrees in an afternoon, which can be a difference of life or death.

“When you take away green spaces, you increase the vulnerability of New Yorkers,” he added.

The destruction of the garden could also have “monumental” effects on the mental health of local residents, Kennedy said. Many rely on garden events and programs – including morning yoga, summer movie nights, poetry readings and partnerships with local schools – for a sense of community.

“The garden is so unique because even though there are many public parks and larger parks, they cannot provide the same services that the garden provides,” he said. “It’s not just about getting outside for fresh air, it’s about the opportunity to connect with your neighbor and community and that leads to positive mental health impacts.”

New Yorkers gathered in Elizabeth Street Garden for afternoon music in the main green space, where public events are regularly held.

It could also affect local wildlife, supporters say. Certified by the National Wildlife Foundation, Elizabeth Street Garden is a registered staging post for endangered monarch butterflies, providing them with nectar, milkweed and shelter.

The city has pointed to other parks that provide similar services, but it’s not the same, Councilman Marte said.

The neighborhood is “definitely underserved,” he said. “Our neighborhood shows that Elizabeth Street Garden is one of the only places to bring green to Little Italy, Chinatown, SoHo and NoHo. As much as we love Washington Square Park, it’s not our neighborhood. It’s a completely different area, and most seniors can’t do that 20-minute walk to that park.”

Renée Green, a local senior and chairwoman of Elizabeth Street Garden Inc., says the garden has been vital to her health and well-being.

“Ever since I moved here 15 years ago, I’ve been riddled with arthritis,” says Green, 91. “The garden is everything to our community, and for people like me, who are just getting older, it will mean that we lose our only access to nature, to a community, and that will be devastating.”

Nicholas O’Connell (51) lives opposite the garden. He says its removal will irreparably change the community’s landscape.

“You walk around this neighborhood and there are really no trees, there is no nature, and to destroy the garden and the ecosystem that created it would be really unacceptable,” he said. “We don’t want whatever they try to bring, it will never match what we have here.”

Along with the distinctive sculptures from Allan Reiver’s collection, Elizabeth Street Garden boasts a gravel path bordered by stone balustrades designed by French Gilded Age landscape architect Jacques-Henri-Auguste Gréber.

Each corner of the sanctuary reveals another alcove, with benches hidden under canopies of colorful trees from which birds sing, offering respite from the noise of the bustling city. Those seeking sunshine have endless options for lounging among pear trees, rose beds, dahlias, asters, dianthus and geraniums.

“It’s like walking into the magical garden out of a storybook, it’s really surreal,” said Geena DiGuilio, a garden volunteer.

On a balcony across from her, a couple sits on a bench, hands intertwined, one reading a book aloud to the other. Later in the afternoon, a newlywed bride and groom will laugh as they run down the path to the garden’s entrance.

“My favorite thing is to bring my friends and look at their faces when they first walk in, that shocked ‘what is this place?’ And to see them buy into the magic,” DiGuilio said.

A woman reads on the balcony overlooking a rose bush, hydrangea tree and various flower beds in Elizabeth Street Garden.

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development remains adamant that Haven Green will not harm the community, and says it is committed to the project. “We stand by our environmental reviews, we are determined to bring Haven Green to this site, and we will pursue every means available to ensure this happens,” it said in its statement.

To counter these efforts, Reiver says the nonprofit will seek to preserve Elizabeth Street Garden as a conservation land trust, so it can continue to operate the garden and its community programs without encroachment by the city.

In the meantime, Reiver is calling on Mayor Eric Adams and other officials to visit the garden and see its impact for themselves. “Come see what’s at stake,” he said.

After last week’s legal victory, he and supporters believe anything is possible.

“So many people saw us as that little garden that would never win. But we have won, at least for now, and we will never give up,” Chiche said.

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