The plan to use a City-owned lot to create 123 permanently affordable housing for low-income seniors on the site of a public garden in Little Italy took a major step forward on Tuesday, when Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer endorsed the plan, with some conditions.
The proposal has been controversial since its announcement 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 one-acre parcel has been maintained and improved as an 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 senior housing and a new (albeit smaller) 6,700-square-foot public garden.
In January, Community Board 2 voted to annul the entire project, move the planned affordable housing for seniors to a site at Hudson and Clarkson Streets, and keep the Elizabeth Street Garden in its current form, while officially transforming it into a public park. This measure is advisory, however, and does not carry the force of law.
For several years, the leading advocate for this plan has been City Council member Margaret Chin. She was joined this week by Ms. Brewer, who signed off on the plan, but with several provisos. First, Ms. Brewer 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 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.
“Given the needs for both accessible green open space and affordable housing, it is imperative that we seek solutions that will address both issues,” Ms. Brewer says. “The Elizabeth Street Garden has become a cherished community resource as an accessible open green space. However, there is a growing need for affordable housing throughout the City and especially within Community Board 2, which has only seen 93 units of affordable housing built since 2014. While it is not ideal, we must compromise and find a solution that addresses the need for affordable housing while preserving as much public open space as possible.”
“There have been other City-owned sites offered up as alternates to the Elizabeth Street Garden site,” Ms. Brewer acknowledged, in a nod to the counter-proposal to build a similar facility on Hudson Street. “Unfortunately, our housing crisis and growing senior population do not allow for an either/or scenario: We must build permanently affordable housing wherever feasible, while also maximizing open space on these sites for additional public benefit.”
In 2015, when the controversy of building housing for seniors on the site of the Elizabeth Street Garden first began to take shape, Ms. Chin observed, “if we are truly committed to ensuring that all New Yorkers can afford to have a safe, clean place to live and to ensuring that seniors don’t have to choose between paying for rent or paying for medication, we can’t afford to say, ‘I like affordable housing, but can’t you build it somewhere else?’ We have to start standing up for what we believe in, and build affordable housing for seniors where we can.”
The current version of the plan, announced by City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in 2017, includes (in addition to the 123 units of senior housing and smaller public garden) a headquarters for Habitat for Humanity New York City, and a flexible community activity space. The “deeply affordable” apartments (with monthly rents ranging from $331 to $761) will be set aside for seniors earning between $20,040 and $40,080 per year, with about 30 percent of the apartments reserved for seniors who were once homeless.
In recent years, the lack of affordable housing for the elderly has burgeoned into a slow-motion crisis in New York City, where one in five seniors lives below the poverty line. There are more than 100,000 elders on waiting lists for senior housing, and the average wait for a home on these lists is seven years. Many die before reaching the head of the line.
The new building will also be constructed to “passive house” standards, which will significantly reduce the building’s energy consumption. (The project is expected to use 60 to 70 percent less energy than a standard building of its kind.) The structure and the public open space will also be designed to manage and reuse storm water, relying on a rooftop rainwater harvesting system and permeable surfaces covering the majority of the open space.
With Ms. Brewer’s conditional support, HPD’s proposal for Haven Green (as the project is known) will next move to a review by the City Planning Commission, after which the City Council and the Mayor will both have a change to approve, veto, or modify the project.
In the meantime, the controversy continues. The Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden, an advocacy group, has hired land-use attorney Michael Gruen to challenge the project in court.