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Not All Sunshine and Roses: When Community Gardens and Affordable Housing Butt Heads

Real Estate Developments, Real Property

In a recent push for development, two “forces for good” now find themselves at odds.  New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the chief agency in charge of affordable housing in the city, has recently selected seven development companies to construct 800 units of affordable housing across 67 city-owned lots in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.  However, nine of these sites currently contain community gardens, and proponents of these green spaces are pushing back.

Scattered across New York City are roughly 1,000 city-owned vacant lots.  Of these, 74 have been converted, largely by area residents, into community gardens.  Certain nonprofits and government agencies (such as the Parks Department, which runs a “GreenThumb” initiative to help gardeners negotiate leases and other deals) can lend varying degrees of protection to these gardens, but that is not guaranteed.  In the absence of this help, regulation of community gardens falls to other government agencies, often the HPD.  These gardeners know they could lose their space at any time.  When a garden is constructed in a vacant lot, the owner must sign a contract with the city promising to act as a steward of the lot – essentially, to make it look attractive and help the public – until the city has a better use for it.

On the other side of this issue is the HPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio.  The current push for development is part of Mayor de Blasio’s ongoing campaign to create 200,000 affordable housing units by the year 2024.  The choice of locations has been a strategic effort to maximize land use potential.  The developers for these buildings have already been chosen: Bronx Pro, East Brooklyn Congregations, Fifth Avenue Committee and Habitat for Humanity, JMR and Alembic Community Development, Lemor Realty and Iris Development, MHANY, and Shelter Rock Builders.  Of these seven, six are nonprofits and two are woman or minority-owned.

Advocates of community gardens have been speaking out against the choices made by Mayor de Blasio and the HPD.  René Calvo, founder of Mandela Garden, has publically argued that the city has plenty of other vacant lots to choose from, not to mention an estimated 2,300 vacant apartments owned by the New York City Housing Authority.  He also pointed out that it would cost tens of millions of dollars to build a new community garden.  Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden is currently fundraising on Spotfund for a legal campaign to save its garden.  The head of this organization, Jeannine Kiely, has recommended the city instead develop a vacant lot at 388 Hudson Street, which, if rezoned, would provide even more room for development and better access to amenities.  However, District 1 City Councilmember Margaret Chin, an opponent of Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden’s preservation efforts, has wholeheartedly embraced the building of affordable housing in that spot.  Finally, Aresh Javadi, member of the board of the New York City Community Garden Coalition and director of More Gardens, has argued that development should proceed as long as the city funds one new garden for every 500 units of affordable housing it builds.

In a recent article on this subject, the Commercial Observer recommends one possible strategy the gardeners can use to avoid total loss of their green spaces: negotiating with the developers, themselves.  In one recent case, four gardens on city-owned lots on East 111th Street were to be redeveloped into apartments.  However, the gardeners reached an agreement with the developer to incorporate a new garden into the design of the building-to-be, Sendero Verde.

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