After waiting for 17 years, the Lower East Side got a treasured community garden back yesterday, and a controversial developer gained a little bit of local good will.
Community leaders, including City Council member Rosie Mendez, dedicated Carmen Pabon del Amanecer Garden on Avenue C in a late afternoon ribbon cutting. The occasion marked the end of one of the neighborhood’s longest running battles.
Back in 1999, developer Donald Capoccia of BFC Partners bulldozed several lots between East 7th and 8th streets to create Eastville Gardens. The mixed income project (including 20% affordable housing) spelled the demise of Esperanza Garden. In an editorial at the time, the New York Times criticized the Giuliani administration’s decision to hand the city-owned property over to a private developer. “No city ownership right can quite absolve the mayor and his administration of insensitivity in their handling of community gardens,” wrote the Times. “A patch of green or a plot of flowers can often do more for a neighborhood than new apartments and retail establishments.” Capoccia’s reputation took a beating locally during weeks of protest. Ill will towards him has persisted all of these years.
But a lot has changed in almost two decades. In her remarks yesterday, Council member Mendez went out of her way to praise Capoccia and BFC Partners, saying, “It really was working with him that we got a board together, got the board incorporated. They’re providing a trust fund for this place.” [Mendez also thanked her predecessor, Margarita Lopez, who negotiated the original agreement to restore the garden.]
Before the ribbon cutting, Capoccia made brief remarks, telling community activists gathered in the newly opened space, “It’s really the beginning of my rehabilitation” in the neighborhood. Capoccia said he’s now an, “embracer of community gardens.”
Another developer, Ron Moelis of L+M Development Partners, was also present at yesterday’s event. His firm recently purchased Eastville Gardens. L+M and BFC Partners make up two out of three developers of Essex Crossing, the large mixed-use project being built on the former Seward Park urban renewal site. So their profiles in the neighborhood continue to grow.
Pabon was on hand for the ceremony. Thirty years ago, she established the original garden, creating a vibrant community space and a refuge for the struggling Lower East Side community, including many homeless people. There’s a plaque outside the garden that refers to Pabon as “The Mother of Loisaida.” Mendez called her, “a true fighter, a true Lower East Side hero.”
The Lower East Side Biography Project told Pabon’s story a few years ago: