The de Blasio administration is ending 2015 by addressing a long-standing controversy over the fate of 43 community gardens on city-owned land with a decision that has prompted mixed reactions among New Yorkers close to the divisive issue.
The administration is preparing to build more than 800 below-market-rate apartments on nine gardens — including two unused ones —while preserving another 34 gardens, according to several sources briefed on the plans.
City officials gathered representatives of the gardens at a meeting in City Hall on Wednesday afternoon to reveal the plans and distribute a list of which spaces will be preserved and which would be turned into development sites.
The city promised that when it builds on current gardens, it will create a new gardening space within a quarter of a mile of the original, but it is unclear whether the new spots would be the same size.
The two sites already being prepared for low- to moderate-income housing are Sparrow’s Nest Community Garden in Queens and A Small Green Patch in Brooklyn. The other seven include one on East 111th Street, another in Coney Island, the Pleasant Village Community Garden II, Jackie Robinson Tenant Association, Mandela Community Garden, New Harvest Garden and space at Van Siclen Warwick, according to a list distributed at the City Hall meeting and obtained by POLITICO New York.
The city is promising that all apartments built on these sites will be entirely below-market rents.
Reactions to the news were predictably mixed: Those whose gardens are being saved by being given to the parks department for its GreenThumb Program were pleased, while those whose green spaces will be developed on land owned by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development were upset.
“They just walked in with a list of nine gardens that they were going to close and 34 that they were going to save. We don’t really know how that translates in terms of acreage,” Rene Calvo, leader of the Mandela Community Garden in Harlem, said in an interview after leaving the meeting.
He said city officials promised more engagment with community gardeners through the process. “Basically what they said is we’re taking this land back from the community and we’re going to hold your hand while we’re doing it,” Calvo added. “That’s how they’re better than the other administration.”
The Mandela Community Garden is about 10,000 square feet behind the famed Apollo Theater and has been in existence for a year. Calvo said the community was hoping to make it a permanent space through the parks department.
City Councilman Robert Cornegy, who has several community gardens in his district whose fates were in question, was pleased by the news.
“Preserving community gardens and increasing affordable home ownership opportunities are both priorities for Central Brooklyn’s rapidly changing communities and the two need not be in conflict,” he said in a prepared statement after the meeting. “Today’s decision is what I have asked for — that a balance be struck between those goals.”
He said six of the seven gardens threatened in his district will be preserved and the seventh, located on the largest space, “will be used to develop new affordable units, accessible to families eager to secure their roots in a community where homeownership is highly prized.”
Under the city’s housing department, which owns the land housing the gardens, home ownership is offered through a program for certain tenants.
Corney also said he was pleads that the city used “objective criteria to reach this decision.”
When asked how the administration determined which spaces to develop, a city official speaking on background said the housing agency assessed the popularity of each garden and the size of the space on a case-by-case basis.
Councilman Mark Treyger, who represents Coney Island, said he is awaiting further information from City Hall about plans for his district, where a garden is on the shorter list for sites to be turned into housing.
He said the garden serves as a popular gathering spot for local residents, but emphasized a pressing need for more commercial tenants along the nearby Mermaid Avenue as well.
“I understand that the mayor and this administration have a housing plan but my job and the job of local members is to represent and fight for the needs of our local districts and for me, Coney Island has many, many pressing needs,” he said.
Treyger said he was informed in recent days about the decision by a member of the mayor’s staff, and was told he would meet with city officials in the next week.
Community gardens have long been subject to emotional debates in New York City.
Controversy ensued when the Giuliani administration tried to build housing on these city-owned lots. During Michael Bloomberg’s first year in office, after then-attorney general Eliot Spitzer sued to preserve the gardens from being auctioned off to the highest bidder, the mayor agreed to preserve about 500 of them and use the others to build more than 2,000 apartments.
Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a public request last year for developers to submit ideas about building affordable homes on the gardens and other city-owned lots.
The bid spurred a protest, with some gardening aficionados in sunflower costumes. One person demonstrated on the steps of City Hall dressed as a human carrot.
A former parks commissioner under Bloomberg, Adrian Benepe, who now works at the Trust for Public Land, applauded the latest news.
“It sounds like a good Christmas present for the community gardening people,” Benepe said in an interview.
And in a prepared statement, housing commissioner Vicki Been described the move as a balance between finding space to build affordable housing in a city whose government owns a diminishing amount of land and a desire to protect open space.
“In trying to strike the right balance, HPD with the parks department crafted a plan that protects a tremendous number of gardens in perpetuity and provides support to gardeners, while ensuring that working families can afford to stay in their neighborhoods,” she said.
Not everyone shared her view.
“The gardens are what creates a community. Parks don’t create a community,” Calvo said. “The people who know each other in the neighborhood, the majority of them meet through the garden.”