Last night, Community Board 3’s land use committee came down firmly on the side of preserving the Siempre Verde Community Garden, rather than selling the city-owned site to a developer.
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) hoped to resurrect a plan first floated in 2012 to allow William Gottlieb Management to purchase 137 Attorney St. and 181 Stanton St. for a 16-unit project, including three affordable apartments. The company has owned an adjacent parcel, 139 Attorney St., for many years. Two years ago, HPD agreed to allow a community group to use the site as an interim garden under the auspices of the GreenThumb Program.
Thehbia Hiwot Walters, director of Manhattan Planning for HPD, told community board members last night that the proposed project has been very slowly working its way through the city’s “development pipeline.” She conceded that the L-shaped site has been a challenge to develop and also acknowledged that there had been “a lack of communication” from the city about the status of the parcels. Walters said her agency “understands the value of gardens,” adding, “nothing is set in stone. We do care about neighborhoods” and “I did not come here to have a fight.”
Walters said HPD’s finance team is exploring whether the project could include more than three affordable apartments, but normally subsidies are not available for small city-owned sites. She also floated the idea of using the site for both a garden and housing.
CB3 member Herman Hewitt, an affordable housing developer himself, told Walters that it’s not worth displacing a community garden for three apartments. Going forward, he vowed, “we will fight for every square foot we have for community benefit.” Bill LoSasso, a community board member and garden activist, noted that CB3’s support of the development proposal in 2012 was contingent on the city and developer returning to the board after two months with details about the project. That never occurred. Board member Enrique Cruz went a step further, asserting that the city had a choice to make between sustaining a valued community resource and “satisfying the family of a real estate billionaire.” The William Gottlieb Estate owns a large amount of property throughout Manhattan.
There was a big turnout last night, not only from members of the Siempre Verde Garden but also supporters from other Lower East Side gardens. They noted that 980 people had signed petitions to save the green space in a part of the neighborhood with very little grass and trees. Charles Krezell, head of Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens, pointed out that there are 40 gardens in the whole neighborhood, but only five in the area below East Houston Street. Referring to Mayor de Blasio’s signature initiaitive, creating more affordable housing options, Krezell said, “if you want to build affordable housing, don’t do it on the backs of community gardens.”
In the end, LoSasso proposed a resolution calling on the city to make Siempre Verde a permanent garden. Board members rejected a part of his resolution that would have also urged the city to transfer all gardens in the GreenThumb Program to the Parks Department, making them permanent as well. Board member Lisa Kaplan wanted language in the resolution asking the city to build 100% affordable housing on the parcels. This idea was also rejected.
The measure passed by the land use committee will now go to the full board. It will then be up to HPD to decide whether to relinquish the sites or to forge ahead with an unpopular development proposal. City Council member Margaret Chin said she was waiting for the community board to weigh in, but already signaled her inclination to support the preservation of the Stanton Street garden.