The Elizabeth Street Garden Fight Is Not Over After All

Photo: Wojciech Migda / Alamy Stock Photo

A State Supreme Court judge ruled last week that the affordable senior-housing development slated for the Elizabeth Street Garden site did not go through an appropriate environmental-review process, stalling the project yet again. The ruling is the latest chapter in a long-running battle over the city-owned site in Little Italy that dates back to 2012, when the city earmarked the site for affordable housing and moved to end its decades-long lease with the art dealer who had transformed it into a sculpture-studded garden.

The ruling will likely mean delay, not death, for the affordable-housing development — which was approved by the City Council in 2019 and is slated to have 123 deeply affordable studio apartments — as the city has a history of prevailing in environmental-review appeals. But supporters of the garden seem to believe that the ruling may open the door for negotiations with the Eric Adams administration over their preferred plan to build affordable housing about a mile away at 388 Hudson Street, another city-owned lot. (Never mind that 388 Hudson is already slated for 100 units of affordable housing.)

The battle over Elizabeth Street Garden started a decade ago, when the city first tried to end its month-to-month lease with Allan Reiver, the antiques dealer who had been renting the lot since 1991. Reiver, who died last year, was described by the New York Times as a “cantankerous guardsman of the park,” deciding “who gained access through his adjoining shop, Elizabeth Street Gallery.” (His son, Joseph Reiver, the executive director of the nonprofit overseeing the garden, has carried on the fight in his stead.) After the city moved to take back the garden for affordable housing, Reiver started opening it up for more public events, like readings and yoga classes, and formed a nonprofit in 2016. In 2019, however, the City Council voted to allow the 123-unit deeply affordable senior-housing project — for people earning $18,744 to $37,548 a year — to move forward. Margaret Chin, the district’s City Councilmember at the time (she’s since been term-limited out), staked her election on the issue. And won. “In my City Council district, there are over 5,000 seniors on waiting lists for senior housing, and citywide there are over 200,000 waiting for senior housing,” Chin told Curbed at the time. “When we look at [388 Hudson], that is not an alternative site; it’s an additional site. If we can build affordable housing on that site, we should build it, because there’s such a tremendous need. It’s not one or the other.” Chin also said her constituents told her that the garden was never a public space until it was threatened with eviction — that the gallery owner would let you in, through his shop, if he liked you.

The Elizabeth Street Garden filed numerous appeals, including one challenging the environmental-review process; rather than carrying out a full review, the city filed what is called a negative declaration — asserting that the project would have no negative impact on the surrounding area’s environmental and cultural resources. Then, last fall, it moved to evict the garden so that Pennrose, the developer it’s partnering with, could secure financing and break ground.

But the long-pending ruling — Debra Jones, the judge in the case, took two years to reach a decision for reasons that remain unclear — stalled the project. And now, of course, it has been stalled again, indefinitely.

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development said that it will appeal the ruling: “This decision is disappointing and we will be appealing it … With 100,000 seniors currently waiting for access to affordable homes, we cannot allow a small number of anti-housing voices to continue standing in the way of projects our city so desperately needs. We stand by our environmental reviews, we are determined to bring Haven Green to this site, and we will pursue every avenue available to ensure that happens,” HPD wrote in a statement to Curbed. But it’s anyone’s guess how long the appeal might take to wend its way through the courts. And there’s another danger: If the city doesn’t win its appeal, the court could decide that amending the environmental-impact statement means the project needs to be reapproved by the City Council. And Chin, the affordable-housing project’s champion, has been replaced by Christopher Marte, a longtime supporter of the garden.

The environmental-review process has frequently been weaponized to stop development and other changes to the urban landscape, blocking or at least stalling everything from bike lanes to housing. Marte is also suing, along with several neighborhood groups, to stop three luxury towers from going up in Two Bridges, arguing that the construction of the towers would violate New Yorkers’ newly established right (passed via a ballot proposal last year) to clean air and a healthful environment, and calling for the project’s environmental-review statement to be updated to take the impact of the pandemic into account.

For supporters of the garden, yet another delay means more time to enjoy a lovely greensward. For low-income local seniors, it’s another story. Last month, senior-advocacy group LiveOn NY testified before the City Council about the city’s need for more senior affordable housing. Its research found that there are more than 200,000 older adults languishing on waiting lists for affordable housing through the HUD 202 program, each waiting for seven to ten years on average for a unit to become available. And while some can continue to make their current living situations work for the decade it takes to get housing, others aren’t so lucky: “Roughly 2,000 older New Yorkers are living in homeless shelters, a number that is expected to triple by 2030 without significant intervention.”