Elizabeth Street Garden-compressed Photo: Brent Lomas

Time is running out on Little Italy residents’ plan to prevent a local community garden from being re-developed into affordable housing.

The Elizabeth Street Garden is made up of 20,000 square feet of curated private/public garden space between Prince and Spring streets. The area was vacant until it was leased from the City in 1991 by the Elizabeth Street Gallery, who cleaned up the site and turned it into a green space. In 2013, volunteers began programming the space and opening it up to the public.

However, the space was identified in 2013 as a potential site for affordable housing by the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Since then residents have been working to dissuade the City from developing housing, launching petitions, logging volunteer hours and even creating a short film explaining their cause.

Patricia Squillari is a retired Department of Education employee who has lived in the area since the 1970s, when the site first emerged after the old PS 21 was demolished. Squillari now volunteers for the Save Our Garden effort.

“It’s a beautiful place and it’s nature, and New York doesn’t have very much of it. It’s a place that is very important to the community. Many people connect [here] and it’s very rare especially in this congested, built-up area,” she said.

She points to numerous community events along with yoga classes and film screenings as evidence of the park’s impact.

Anne Hamburger is the founder of En Garde Arts, the nonprofit immersive theatre company responsible for BASETRACK: LIVE at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as well as an upcoming site-specific theatre festival in New York in October. Her company held a free, public festival preview at the Elizabeth Street Gardens.

“Numerous studies show that people who experience nature and are part of nature are able to be more content and even fight depression. We need our green spaces in New York City. We shouldn’t be closing them,” she said.

The fight to preserve green space is one that is often at odds with developers of low and mixed-income housing who find more and more New Yorkers struggling with the rising cost of living and lack of space. Almost half of New Yorkers are living near the poverty line and more than more than half of renters are considered rent-burdened, which means they spent more than a third of their income on paying their rent. There are currently over 300,000 families on waiting lists for low-income housing in New York City.

Mayor de Blasio has consistently pushed housing issues, recently touting the City’s creation of 20,300 affordable apartments. His administration has set a goal of 200,000 new affordable apartments by 2025.

The local volunteers’ claim to the land may not be strong enough to fight the political power behind building affordable housing. Elizabeth Street Gardens was not a community garden until just over a year ago. Volunteers also never sought HPD or Parks Department permission to use the space.

The Save Our Garden organization’s change.org petition to Community Board 2 and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development notes the distinction between protecting green space and being anti-affordable housing. “We support affordable housing in New York, but building over our much-needed open green space isn’t in the best interest of our community,” the petition reads.

But Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents Lower Manhattan, sees the need for affordable housing as superseding this particular green space’s impact. She serves as Chair of the Council’s Committee on Aging and is consistently vocal about housing issues.

“If you want to help an aging population, you can’t just pump in new senior funding one year and leave it starving the next. That’s not how aging works — our residents aren’t going to stop getting older,” she said. She believes the area is about to reach a housing shortage of crisis levels — all the more need to redevelop Elizabeth Street.

The city has applied for $6 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to plan and start construction in the fall. A public hearing will take place Thursday, September 17th at 4:30pm at the Borough of Manhattan Community College Fiterman Hall at 245 Greenwich Street between Barclay Street and Park Place.

Watch the Save Our Elizabeth Street Garden video below:

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