Conflicting Priorities

Less than a week after the proposed Haven Green affordable housing proposal cleared a crucial milestone — by winning the conditional approval of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer — two groups opposed to the plan have filed separate lawsuits seeking to block it.

The proposal has been controversial since its announcement by the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development in 2014, because it will require the repurposing of the Elizabeth Street Garden — a City-owned lot that connects Elizabeth and Mott Streets at mid-block, north of Spring Street, and south of Prince Street. Since 1991, this half-acre parcel has been maintained and improved as a de facto park by local residents, who have come to regard it as a treasured amenity. Critics of the plan are unappeased by a compromise vision that includes both affordable housing for seniors and a new (albeit smaller) public garden, which would shrink from approximately 20,000 square feet to roughly 6,700 square feet.

On February 25, Ms. Brewer endorsed the plan, but with several provisos. First, she wants the proposed building redesigned to yield 30 percent more open space on the site, while also maintaining the same number of housing units, and not making the structure any taller. She is also pushing for this open space to be officially designated and managed as parkland. She is additionally calling for a guarantee that all of the apartments within the structure remain affordable in perpetuity. (The current plan calls for 60 years of such protections.) Similarly, Ms. Brewer is demanding that a planned community space within the structure function to benefit the surrounding neighborhood in perpetuity.

With Ms. Brewer’s tentative support, the proposal for Haven Green (as the project is known) was slated to move next to a review by the City Planning Commission, after which the City Council and the Mayor would both have a change to approve, veto, or modify the project. But these steps appear to be on hold, pending two legal actions filed earlier this week.

A rendering from the Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden — which wants to preserve the green space in it current form_ and opposes the plan to develop the lot for senior housing — compares the amount of open space available in each option.
The first of these was started by Elizabeth Street Garden (ESG), a non-profit whose mission is to preserve the existing facility as a public community green space, and to facilitate its official, permanent takeover by the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation. (This would likely have the effect of preventing any development there in perpetuity.) ESG is represented by Norman Siegel, the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and a renowned public interest lawyer.

In a separate — but closely related — development, a second group, the Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden, has filed a second lawsuit, which similarly seeks to prevent the closure and redevelopment of the green space. This action of being spearheaded by attorney Michael Gruen, president of the City Club (which advocates for enlightened public policy), and one of the early leaders of the Historic Districts Council. Mr. Gruen recently helmed a legal victory against City plans for commercial development of parkland in Queens. This second suit has also enlisted support from two elected officials: State Assembly members Deborah Glick and Yuh-Line Niou have signed on as co-plaintiffs.

“Green space in our Downtown community that has long been considered and used as a garden is in effect a park enjoyed by the public,” said Ms. Glick. “While the pursuit of building more affordable housing and senior housing in our communities is a noble goal, the City must work with local residents in a transparent process to find equitable solutions that will produce the most good in our neighborhoods.”

“Our community stepped up and created new open space when the City would not,” Ms. Niou said. “We engaged our community to develop Elizabeth Street Garden into a jewel that meets the needs of our community. Lower Manhattan is in need of affordable housing, but we cannot pit the need for housing against the need for green space, especially when good alternatives are available. Both are vital, and both are in dire need of protection and expansion.”

The City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) entails six steps for the proposed use of publicly owned land, such as the Elizabeth Street Garden. The first three of these are certification by the City Planning Commission of the application, review by the local community board, and approval by the Borough President. Before the two lawsuits were filed this week, the Haven Green proposal had cleared these three milestones. But when — and indeed, whether — the plan can move to the next three steps (approvals from the City Planning Commission, the City Council, and the Mayor) appears, at least for now, to be up to the courts.
Matthew Fenton

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