December 1, 2022

McKenzielee Blog

Wicked Clever House Experts

They Had a Plan to Save Their SoHo Garden. It Backfired.

5 min read

When New York City officials announced that the city was going to demolish Elizabeth Street Garden in SoHo to build low-income housing for older renters, supporters of the cherished green space desperately scrambled to find an alternative site for the building.

The garden’s supporters suggested a vacant lot nearly a mile away on Hudson Street. Margaret Chin, the City Council member who represents the neighborhood, and other officials listened — but in an unanticipated way.

The city agreed to build 100 new apartments on the Hudson Street lot recommended by the advocates. But in a move that has upset many local residents, the city still plans to destroy the garden that serves residents of SoHo and Little Italy and build 123 apartments for older residents in its place.

The details are tucked into a contentious rezoning plan for SoHo and NoHo that the City Council approved on Wednesday. The plan could pave the way for more commercial and residential development, including low-income housing that Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration say will help integrate a mostly white, affluent neighborhood that has long been resistant to new affordable housing.

But some local officials and activists say the rezoning plan contains hollow pledges and loopholes that will allow developers to avoid creating affordable units.

Ms. Chin rejected their criticism. “They are never going to be happy, but we need more affordable housing,” she said in an interview last week, adding that she negotiated the deal alongside Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “Right now, it’s very expensive to find a space to live in SoHo. So if we can create more affordable housing, we are creating more opportunities to enjoy this neighborhood.”

Garden supporters said the city created a false choice between affordable housing and green space. The garden is on land leased from the city. It became a symbol of residents’ fight against the rezoning, which many argue will change the character of a neighborhood that has evolved from an artists’ enclave into a chic shopping district. The rezoning will crowd the skyline with more luxury high-rises, many residents say.

The supporters saw the end coming in October when the group that runs the garden received an eviction notice from the city. The death in May of Allan Reiver, the founder of the garden, also dampened hopes that the garden would be saved.

But the city has not yet attempted to remove the limestone lion statues, granite balustrades and rose beds that characterize the space, and a lawsuit continues, arguing that the city violated its zoning laws and failed to adequately consider the potential adverse environmental impact of its redevelopment plan for the garden.

“They do not have to destroy the iconic Elizabeth Street Garden to build senior affordable housing,” said Norman Siegel, a well-known civil rights attorney and the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who represents the nonprofit that runs the garden.

Mr. Siegel said the city’s decision to build on the vacant lot on Hudson Street, owned by the Department of Environmental Protection, shows that officials could have found other sites to develop.

“It appears that the city is adopting our position that affordable housing can be built in other locations,” he said.

Ms. Chin said she was looking to build on all possible sites. The agreement that gives final approval for the housing on the garden site, which will be called Haven Green, and the lot owned by the environmental agency also includes plans to turn a New York Police Department parking lot into affordable housing.

Haven Green has been long stalled by the debate over the garden and the overall rezoning of Soho and NoHo. Some local residents eagerly await its construction alongside the new affordable housing planned for Hudson Street.

“I would like to see the neighborhood more diverse,” said Kathleen Webster, 68, who lives near the garden. “The opposition pushed leaders to make the affordable housing plan better. Now we have to move forward.”

Ms. Chin began asking the city to end its monthly lease with the garden in 2012 so that developers could start construction; the eviction notice was not delivered until October this year.

Pressure built as the end of Ms. Chin’s tenure as a council member approached. Under term limits, she will leave office at the end of the month. The mayor is also leaving office, and the creation of affordable housing as part of his promise to address inequality is a priority.

“No administration in history has built more affordable housing than this one, and we’ve done that by using every tool at our disposal,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a statement. “That includes developing 100 percent affordable projects on city-owned land.”

Mr. de Blasio has argued that his rezoning plans will secure affordable housing so that more Black and Latino residents can live in some of the city’s whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods.

Last month, for example, lawmakers passed a development plan for the affluent Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus, which calls for an estimated 8,000 housing units with roughly 3,000 considered “affordable.” The SoHo rezoning plan would add 3,200 apartments over the next 10 years and include approximately 900 subsidized units in an area that had fewer than 8,000 residents in the 2010 census.

Developers will be required to reserve about 20 percent of new housing for New Yorkers earning about $42,000 for a family of three, or provide units for mixed income brackets with 25 percent of apartments going to households of three making about $64,000 a year and another 10 percent of units going to those earning $42,000.

The rezoning of wealthier parts of the city is likely to continue under Eric Adams, who has supported the Gowanus and SoHo plans while opposing some rezonings in Brooklyn. “We need to look at those sacred cows like SoHo and other parts of the city where we used these methods to keep out groups,” Mr. Adams said in October on “The Ezra Klein Show.”

Still, there are several grassroots community groups that insist these new rezoning plans will out-price longtime residents and fuel real-estate speculation.

“If they really cared about affordable housing, why not stop the SoHo plan and preserve the existing units?” asked Zishun Ning, an organizer with the Chinatown Working Group, which would like to see more community input in the decision-making process.

“It’s very obvious that lawmakers are not considering other views.” Mr. Ning said. “They only listen to the developers who want to build tall and build luxury.”