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Opinion: There is no false choice — Haven Green needs to be built

BY AUSTIN CELESTIN | There are three constants in life: death, taxes and affordable housing projects mired in controversy. Haven Green is no exception.

Meant to replace the Elizabeth Street Garden, the proposal ran into resistance when plans were announced in 2012. Supporters of the Little Italy garden argued that the city-owned lot was no place to build and that the city’s negative declaration was inadequate for a project of that scope. Judge Debra Jones ruled in favor of the garden, putting the prospects of Haven Green in jeopardy.

Joseph Reiver, the Elizabeth Street Garden’s director, spoke at a town hall in June about how the space could become a self-funded and self-perpetuating conservation land trust, or CLT, at zero financial cost to the city. The garden has no trouble fundraising, he noted. (Photo by The Village Sun)

The ruling is a loss for the city. It delivers a needless blow to an already long-delayed, desperately needed affordable housing development while spelling trouble for our ability to meet the growing demand for housing.

This isn’t a supertall skyscraper or a massive neighborhood rezoning. This is a seven-story, 100 percent deeply affordable project proposed for a district that has built less affordable housing than this project will offer. One hundred twenty-three units for extremely low-income and formerly homeless L.G.B.T.Q.+ seniors in an area with a median income of more than $100,000 is a proposal unheard of in the city. It checks all the boxes of what this city desperately needs and what advocates of all stripes have been clamoring for for years — more pressing now than ever with hundreds of thousands of seniors on housing wait lists.

The garden is stunning, the writer says. (Photo by The Village Sun)

The garden itself is stunning. It’s an amalgamation of 30 years of work by the Reiver family, and it shows. But there’s more than meets the eye about the garden, and calling it public is somewhat misleading. Ignore, for a moment, that Reiver is leasing city-owned land. For most of its life, the garden was only accessible through Allan Reiver’s art gallery. The space became public in 2013, coincidentally after former Councilmember Margaret Chin announced preliminary plans to build on the site. Even then, many neighbors testified that the public entrance wasn’t always open.

Garden supporters’ suggestion of using alternative sites for the development is ridiculous. With our housing crisis, we cannot afford to juggle affordable housing proposals across the limited number of public lots the city has available. Chin’s logic is spot-on: There are no alternative sites for affordable housing — only additional ones. Any opportunity we have to build affordable housing is an opportunity we must take. There’s no picking and choosing.

Local politicians, including Assemblymember Deborah Glick, have rallied to the LIttle Italy garden’s defense. (Photo by The Village Sun)

But even if it were a sensible idea, many of these sites already have preliminary commitments. As part of the Soho/Noho neighborhood plan, the city committed to building 100 units of affordable housing at 388 Hudson St., the most commonly cited alternative to the Elizabeth Street Garden, along with 75 units on the open-air parking lot at 324 E. Fifth St. The city also promised to work with Washington, D.C., to build on federally owned sites: The property at 2 Howard St., an F.B.I. parking garage (often touted as an alternative by opponents of the Soho rezoning), would be one of those sites.

Valerio Orselli, the leader of the This Land Is Ours Community Land Trust, spoke outside the Ninth Precinct parking lot on E. Fifth Street during a Nov. 12 march that called on that site and a public housing property on E. Sixth Street to be developed as affordable housing. The Fifth Street site would have underground parking in the proposed plan. (Photo by Wendy E. Brawer)

Suggesting that we build Haven Green on one of those sites reduces the amount of housing that gets built, an outcome everyone should condemn. We would also have to restart the review process, something else we cannot afford to do. We would only waste additional time and money while delaying badly needed housing. Meanwhile, more New Yorkers will continue to fill our housing wait lists or fall into homelessness. And let’s not pretend that moving Haven Green to one of these alternative sites would go smoothly — the E. Fifth Street proposal has already encountered resistance.

Musicians, including the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, performed during the Nov. 12 East Village march for affordable housing. (Photo by Wendy E. Brawer)

While it’s somewhat disingenuous to frame this as a battle between green space and affordable housing (since Haven Green will have green space), the concern about inadequate green space is very legitimate. However, that debate shouldn’t rest solely on the garden. With or without it, the area doesn’t have enough green space, and we should push for more. Fortunately, we can be creative with it, and there are models for what we can do. Look at Allen Street’s malls: Widening the medians on two-way streets while providing greenery, tables, benches, bike lanes and pedestrian paths is a fantastic way of adding green space. Bowery, for example, would benefit from those additions. We could also apply these tactics to nearby cobblestone streets. Wooster, Greene, Mercer and Crosby Streets would reap similar benefits. While not as robust as the garden, these concepts would be equally worthwhile and don’t limit our affordable housing options.

The time to build Haven Green was years ago. Opportunities for projects like this are virtually nonexistent, and we must take them when we can. However, as desperately needed as this project is, it represents a tiny fraction of what this city needs to build. That begs the question: If we are incapable of following through on something so small, what does that say about our ability to build the hundreds of thousands of units this city needs to meet demand?

Celestin is a junior at New York University studying urban design and journalism and a member of Open New York.

30 Comments

  1. carl rosenstein carl rosenstein December 18, 2022

    Yes, we need more taxpayer-subsidizing housing for rich, sanctimonious, future real estate weasels from NYU and only if your are from the alphabet world.

    • Susan Simon Susan Simon December 18, 2022

      Perhaps the author needs a little more experience in life so that he understands that the biggest reason affordable housing isn’t being built in NY is because big real estate has a penchant and profit motive for only building luxury housing — when this is not what the market in this city needs or demands. Much of it sits empty along with our office towers. Or haven’t you heard that? Developers build on every inch of space they can gobble up, in many cases demolishing the formerly affordable housing that was there and displacing its residents — some of them onto the streets. No matter. Collateral damage.
      Why haven’t you focused on the affordable housing which could have been built in Hudson Yards or on the public land at the World Trade Center area or on the Upper West Side where it hasn’t been built! But hundreds of thousands of square feet of luxury housing has been. Oh, right. But why not focus on one small bit of green space in an area with almost none? As if human beings don’t require light and air and the sight of a few green bits of earth. If I live long enough, I believe developers will be building in Central Park and Prospect Park too. Your ire is sadly misplaced.

      • JOHN BUCKHOLZ JOHN BUCKHOLZ December 19, 2022

        I’ve lived in New York for 40 years and own a single-family home. I hope that this tenure insulates me from your ageist and offensive comments. The author of the article is absolutely correct. We are in the throes of a massive housing shortage that has been exacerbated by a policy regime of gross welfare and favoritism to already comfortable folks like me. Housing is expensive because supply is constrained. Prioritizing a garden over the needs of the unhoused is a sad affront to the spirit of our city.

        • Sean Sweeney Sean Sweeney December 19, 2022

          Aren’t you the same John Buckholz who lives a few blocks from the 526 acres of Prospect Park and within walking distance of the 52 acres of Brooklyn Botanic Gardens in a beautiful, tree-lined, low-rise block with one of the lowest population densities in the city, but who considers himself a YIMBY crusader seeking high-rise buildings in other people’s backyard?

          • JOHN BUCKHOLZ JOHN BUCKHOLZ December 19, 2022

            I am. I would love more buildings in my neighborhood. And am willing to sit through the foolery of CB8 and CB9 meetings to testify to that effect. Crown Heights is underbuilt, Prospect Heights is underbuilt, Park Slope is underbuilt, Brooklyn Heights is underbuilt. What’s your point exactly?

        • Gojira Gojira December 22, 2022

          “Crown Heights is underbuilt, Prospect Heights is underbuilt, Park Slope is underbuilt, Brooklyn Heights is underbuilt.” — So then why is this project not being considered for one of those neighborhoods, rather than here is Manhattan, which is anything *but* underbuilt? And given the fact that there is — or at least was — a larger nearby space that could also have been built on, which Margaret Chin repeatedly blocked for consideration because she was in the pocket of any developer waving a big check with her name on it, there is no reason that project has to be erected on this small swath of nature in the middle of many city blocks of brick, asphalt, concrete, glass and steel, with nary another green space in sight.

      • Stewart Nolita Stewart Nolita December 19, 2022

        As a longtime Nolita resident and homeowner, I am very happy about the decision to leave the garden intact. It is a little sanctuary providing much-needed open space in a city with few precious areas such as the garden. It is open to the public, enjoyed by all. We visit the garden often as a family, and have enjoyed the family events offered there, such as the bulb planting in the spring and the Halloween event in October. In my opinion the Garden serves all the community, not just the select few. Why should current members of the community be forced to lose the garden in favor of another subsidized project? Nolita has enough of it already. As other commenters have pointed out, there are far better choices for subsidized housing in the city. And as for Mr. Bucksolz, exactly what policy regime has favored you and the “comfortable”? This is one of the most liberal cities on the planet. NYC and its liberal policies and handouts are part of what attracts low-income earners, which then further exacerbates the housing shortage. I assume by your logic you’d suggest the city pave over every inch of Central Park and create millions of free units for all?

    • bowery boy bowery boy December 19, 2022

      Because of the local AMI allowable income, rich people will be able to live here — that’s just not right. And by the time new places like this get built, everything changes, and it ends up helping no one in need. Chin did the same thing with 135 Bowery — it was gonna be so great for lower-income people. Not!

      • Jan Jan December 19, 2022

        Qualifying annual income levels for apartments at Haven Green range from just under $19,000 to $37,500. And that is a good thing.

    • Sean Sweeney Sean Sweeney December 20, 2022

      My point is you should practice what you preach.

      You interlope to deprive others of the single acre that is Elizabeth Street Garden, while your backyard is Prospect Park.

      You crusade for high-rise, high-density, crowded, barren neighborhoods for others, while you choose to live in a quasi-suburban enclave.

      You sound a tad hypocritical.

  2. fuelgrannie fuelgrannie December 18, 2022

    Propaganda from Open New York, a real estate development lobbying group: its founder, steel money scion and real estate developer Ben Carlos Thypin, has long coveted the city lease for the Elizabeth Street Garden because public land is so especially cheap for greedy developers like himself.

    Haven Green’s bare “affordability” will expire after one generation’s time and the project will become luxury housing, a hard fact about which Open New York has publicly giggled and dismissed as frivolous truth.

    The author of this piece, Austin Celestin, also works for REBNY, the Real Estate Board of New York; guess he didn’t want that frivolous truth in his bio.

    Open New York, its leadership and membership, cannot be trusted: the people of this city have been watching their antics for years now and we see through their false narrative and shady agenda http://fuelgrannie.com/2022/08/27/ben-carlos-thypin-is-down-with-ppp/

    • JS JS December 19, 2022

      And just what is being done to those landlords that are warehousing 60,000 rent-stabilized apartments? Also, Governor Hochul’s proposal to demolish the Penn Station neighborhood to make way for the development of massive skyscrpapers. The demolition of the Penn Station affordable housing is a great loss. The proposed senior housing can be developed elsewhere, which was proposed, only to be turned down by then-Councilmember Chin. To destroy this invaluable garden is a travesty.

  3. Pedestrian Pedestrian December 19, 2022

    The author of the piece works for REBNY…..that’s it for me. They will get the land and the “affordability” will be economically infeasible and the city will say…ok market price it is.

    • The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | December 19, 2022

      According to his LinkedIn page, the author was a “policy intern” for REBNY last summer. He’s currently a student at NYU.

  4. johnanimallawyer johnanimallawyer December 19, 2022

    There is never a good reason to destroy green space. Elizabeth St. Garden must live and the YIMBYs behind Haven Pipe(D)Green should be placed upon recycling duty. F—ing “policy interns” for REBNY should not be given platforms for what is certainly not journalism, but is close to an advertorial for YIMBY Open NY.

    • The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | December 19, 2022

      It’s clearly marked as an “Opinion” piece.

  5. B B December 19, 2022

    Hi Austin.

    Thank you for writing this piece. I live in this neighborhood, in one of the tenements. Several of my elderly neighbors are trapped in their apartments with age, as they cannot manage the steep and uneven stairwell anymore. The building was built circa 1910. I would like them to have a modern senior living building with an elevator in it – this is what I voted for.

    Additionally, there is plenty of park space at Sara Delano Roosevelt, including at M’Finda Kalunga Memorial Garden, which I believe is systematically neglected due in part to the wealthy folk of Nolita hijacking public land for their own private park, and not needing to put the effort in to care about the working-class neighborhood park.

    It makes me sad when tourists donate to the anti-city lawsuit, without appreciating the socioeconomic nuance and inequality of the neighborhood. I wish that my wealthier neighbors could find it within themselves to make a small sacrifice for the benefit of their elderly neighbors, and re-devote themselves to the existing park SDR. I would be happy to chat more about this.

    Best,
    B

    • Lora Tenenbaum Lora Tenenbaum December 19, 2022

      So many seniors who live in the neighborhood have been staunch advocates for keeping the garden. This includes friends of mine who live in walk-ups. These seniors understand the need for green open space as important as a need for affordable living for seniors. There has never been a good reason to pit both needs against each other since there are far far better sites within the community for senior housing. Perhaps they’ll even make units large enough that couples can live in them, which would not be the case here.

      Additionally, many seniors who use the garden have to walk 10 or 15 minutes east to get to it. To suggest they can easily walk another 5 to 10 minutes to SDR & the memorial garden is heartless.

    • The facts, ma’am, just the facts. The facts, ma’am, just the facts. December 19, 2022

      Get real. Sara Delano Roosevelt Park witnessed at least two murders this year. Junkies abound. If you’re looking for used needles lying on the ground, SDR is the place to go.

      The reason for the park’s decline is not because of your neighbors (and stop with the class warfare). It is because Margaret Chin, who pioneered the destruction of Elizabeth Street Garden, did not put a dime into it in her twelve years in office.

      Vent your rage at the right people, REBNY’s favorite elected official, Chin, not your own neighbors.

  6. DuchessofNYC DuchessofNYC December 19, 2022

    Did the Rude Mechanical Orchestra actually perform at a rally or march in support of the development of the Elizabeth Street Garden? You say it was a march for affordable housing in the East Village, but was this march also in support of the Haven Green project? If not, you should clarify or remove that photo as it does not illustrate this fight.

    • The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | December 19, 2022

      No, that march just concerned the two East Village sites, as stated in the caption for the photo with Val Orselli. Elizabeth Street Garden is in Little Italy. The op-ed does also mention the debate over these two East Village sites, so the photos illustrate that. Not that complicated.

  7. brooklynsandy brooklynsandy December 19, 2022

    The astroturfing (literally) in this opinion piece leverages the go-to virtue signalling of “affordable housing” as a so-called public good. The phrase “affordable housing” needs to be wiped off NYC’s lexicon as the bait and switch it has proven to be.

    The hypocrisy is right out of the REBNY playbook and parallels the eco-snake-oil salesmen’s rationale of pillaging communities of green space even as arboricide — street tree chops and damage next to construction projects — et al, are being…wink-wink- monetized by NYC government, the Dept of Parks and any number of lackey Council Members (with Marte a rare and welcome exception).
    Follow the money…and there one will find drooling Big Real Estate right there with their partners — namely. the self-dealing nonprofit “affordable housing” organizations — where BIG SALARIES, ungodly deals and self-righteousness prevail.
    The sanctimony would be laughable were it not so readily accommodated by the willing lackeys who readily drink the KoolAid.

  8. Wendy E. Brawer Wendy E. Brawer December 19, 2022

    I’m surprised to see my photos used in this Opinion piece. Let’s build affordable housing on parking lots, not on gardens!

  9. Lucy Lucy December 19, 2022

    How typical to name a development site Haven Green that is placed on top of land that is actually green. Calling it Haven Cement, Steel and Glass doesn’t have the same ring to it. Nothing is more precious now than open space that allows light, air, nature and beauty to penetrate into the dark shadows of New York City. Typical shameless real estate tactic to play off affordable housing against real open space.

  10. A Planner A Planner December 19, 2022

    Clearly, though he cites it as a success, this student has not visited the shambles that is the Allen Street Mall. Planting (and not maintaining) some shrubs along an active bike path (that pedestrians must risk their lives to cross and which sits in the middle of what is essentially a 4–lane highway) is not the same as creating quality open space. Also, his suggestion for creating green space among landmarked Soho’s cobblestone streets is equally uninformed. There are plenty of larger vacant sites for housing that the city could have acted on back in 2013, but it hasn’t. Write about that.

  11. Alec Pruchnicki Alec Pruchnicki December 25, 2022

    If the opponents of housing would work with Green Haven and the city instead of suing them, there can be more open space and better access and also housing. The 1/3 of the remaining garden can be extended with an agreement with LIRA Housing right next door, and with a rooftop patio. This would require some work and negotiations but it’s not impossible. If the remaining “new” Elizabeth Street Garden could be turned over to the the staff at Green Haven or even to the NYC Parks Department, it could be kept open much longer (like the newly established parks on D.E.P. watershaft lots on Grand and Lafayette or 4th Streets) rather than depend on volunteers. Other city parks (Central, Washington Square, High Line, etc) have conservancies or friends groups and don’t require the privatization that the garden’s advocates are demanding. At the assisted-living where I work, refugees from Little Italy, Soho and the Village have to leave their lifelong communities and move Uptown because there is little affordable modern (with an elevator) housing in these neighborhoods. The mistakes and distortions given by BANANA opponents (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody) are so extensive that I wrote an entire series in another community paper pointing them out (“Kill the Zombie Park Already,” Parts I to VI). Build housing in Little Italy, already!

    • Jan Jan January 6, 2023

      Many of your suggestions are already a part of the Haven Green agreement, which would create 16,000 sq ft of green space available to the public 7 days a week.

  12. S.S. S.S. December 25, 2022

    Readers:
    This Alec Pruchnicki, Far West Village resident,opposes affordable housing being built on the barren, unused, unsightly DEP water shaft lot on Houston and Hudson Streets, in HIS BACKYARD, despite universal support for affordable housing there from EVERY elected official, as well as the community board.

    He says affordable housing there will — get this — lower property values for the adjacent luxury residences and lead to overcrowding of his precious, little neighborhood!!
    https://westviewnews.org/2017/07/05/kill-zombie-park-already-part-ii-fake-alternative/gcapsis/

    Yet he has the beautiful Hudson River Park as well as Abingdon Square Park and Walker Playground in his backyard.

    Nevertheless, he hypocritically advocates constantly and obsessively for destroying a beautiful oasis in other people’s community, the Elizabeth Street Garden, in overcrowded, dense, park-starved Little Italy.

    So typical of the YIMBYs, or should we call them, for these hypocrites really are: YIYBYs = Yes, In YOUR Back Yard — but not mine.

    • lynn pacifico lynn pacifico January 13, 2023

      The Hudson River “park” in the West Village is a narrow lawn next to a large highway & the only time it is quiet there is when the lights are red and the traffic is stopped. Abington Sq “park” has a tiny lawn with a thick black chain around it to keep people off of it. JJ Walker is field-turfed — so no nature anywhere & is only for ball players — not the community. We need the water tunnel site for an actual park, with grass that can be accessed. Don’t bargain away a chance for us to have a real neighborhood park in order to save your park. Both of our neighborhoods need real green space but the WV has had a surge in new high-rise apartments in recent years, creating a sharp rise in population. We need more park, too.

  13. Steven Steven January 5, 2023

    I’m glad to read people who actually live in the community making it loud and clear that they want to preserve one of the few, if only, genuine green spaces and gardens in an area that is highly dense and congested with tourists. Residents should not be left with the “hope” that an open street — which is not an equivalent — will ever serve as a substitute. The sidewalks are already crowded with few places to sit. And the rivers are a 15-to-20-minute walk away. The development should be shifted to another site that does not destroy one of the last remaining gardens and open sites in this neighborhood.

    -Soho resident

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