The Villager – Could gay seniors tip battle over Elizabeth St. Garden?

Jim Fouratt with Councilmember Margaret Chin and others supporters of a senior affordable-housing project slated for the Elizabeth St. Garden at a City Hall steps rally last week. Photo by Sarah Ferguson

BY SARAH FERGUSON | The de Blasio administration just brought a new constituency into the battle over the Elizabeth Street Garden: gay seniors.

Ever since the city targeted the garden for affordable housing five years ago, the fight over this quirky Little Italy statuary has pitted the needs of low-income seniors against the need for green space in this dense pocket of Lower Manhattan.

But in the new plans for the site unveiled two weeks ago, the city went out of its way to cast the proposed 121-unit residence as affordable, “L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly” senior housing.

SAGE — the nation’s largest and oldest advocacy group for L.G.B.T seniors — would have an office and provide on-site services for residents in the proposed complex, as would the housing group Habitat for Humanity, which would move its New York City headquarters there.

No doubt, the Mayor’s Office is hoping that the inclusion of such groups — along with its pledge to preserve about one-third of the site as green space — will tip public opinion in favor of the proposed “Haven Green” development.

At a rally on Tues., Dec. 12, in support of the project, Councilmember Margaret Chin, the project’s lead sponsor, was quick to champion the needs of gay seniors.

“We have an opportunity before us to do the right thing for our seniors, including L.G.B.T.Q. seniors of the Stonewall generation, the pioneers who fought in the face of insurmountable odds to make our city a place that welcomes all of us,” Chin told the crowd of about 30 supporters who gathered beneath the portico at City Hall to shelter from the rain.

Behind her, a supporter held a sign that proclaimed: “Housing for L.G.B.T. Seniors is a RIGHT!”

Given the legacy of gay-rights activism in Lower Manhattan, it’s clear that Chin — who nearly lost her Council seat amid the fury over this project — just gained some powerful allies.

Whether the inclusion of SAGE and its community of advocates will sway those who support preserving the garden — including nearly every other elected official in Lower Manhattan — remains to be seen.

Far from bending to the project’s critics, the city appears to making the Elizabeth St. site a showpiece for its new “Housing New York 2.0” agenda (which includes fast-tracking the creation of senior housing on “underutilized public lots”).

“We are building a movement,” declared Michael Adams, SAGE’s executive director, speaking out at the rally with Chin. “This is how we are going to make our city a city of equity,” Adams said of the Elizabeth St. project. (SAGE is currently building the city’s first L.G.B.T residences in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and Crotona Park in the Bronx.)

Jim Fouratt, who has been a fixture in the Downtown gay community for decades, congratulated Chin for standing up to opponents of the project.

“I’m part of the creative community that came to the Village in the ’50s and ’60s,” said Fouratt, who took part in the Stonewall uprising and later co-founded the club Danceteria.

“I live in a six-floor walkup, and for the past year and a half, I’ve been in court with my new landlord. I’m putting in for this lottery!” he shouted, raising his fists.

Also lining up alongside Chin were the heads of several nonprofit groups serving seniors, including LiveOn NY and Vision Urbana Inc., the latter which serves primarily low-income Latinos on the Lower East Side.

All spoke to the pent-up demand for affordable housing. Jackie Wong, director of operations at Chun Pak LDC, a rental building for low-income seniors in Chinatown, said when his company opened the waiting list for apartments there last August, it received more than 7,000 applications.

The day before the Chin-led rally for the housing project, Downtowners — joined by Comptroller Scott Stringer, left, and other local politicians — joined in greater numbers at a rally in support of saving the Elizabeth St. Garden. Photo by Tequila Minsky

Clearly the need for more senior housing is urgent. The question, of course, is whether such housing should be built atop what is now a much loved, community-run park.

“This is a false choice,” declared City Comptroller Scott Stringer, speaking out at a rally called the previous day by the two nonprofit groups fighting to preserve the Elizabeth St. Garden. “Affordable housing cannot come at the expense of green public space,” Stringer told the crowd of about 75 garden supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall.

“I’ve tried to struggle with why this is happening,” Stringer continued, remarking on the city’s insistence on destroying the Little Italy garden in the face of broad opposition from local residents and the repeated condemnation of Community Board 2.

“We have to go back to being a city that does community-based planning,” Stringer said, taking a swipe at the top-down way the de Blasio administration tends to go about siting new developments. “We are not accounting for the numbers of amazing children that are coming to Lower Manhattan,” Stringer said. “These kids need a place to play.”

Public Advocate Letitia James was equally emphatic.

“It is a false choice, it is a Hobson’s choice and it’s a false dichotomy. We can do affordable housing — in fact, we can do more affordable housing,” she declared, referring to the call by C.B. 2 to shift the project to an empty, city-owned lot on Hudson and Clarkson Sts. in Hudson Square, where they say five times as much housing could be built.

Considering that, a month ago, James was rallying at City Hall for Chin’s re-election, her divergence from Chin on this issue is significant.

“I’ve been to that garden and it is a peaceful place,” James told the crowd. “And I say, the fight is not over. Mr. Mayor, when I tell you the fight is not over, you know I mean it!”

Also speaking against the city’s plan was state Senator Brian Kavanagh, who said he had learned to value the importance of community gardens while serving as the assemblyperson for the adjoining district covering the East Village / Lower East Side. Also there was Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, who said the Little Italy area was already woefully underserved for open space.

“Everyone supports affordable housing,” Niou said. “But we can’t be always asking for affordable housing to the point that we make it unlivable.”

Niou also faulted the project for not being permanently affordable.

Of course, none of the politicians now standing on the side of the gardeners will get to vote on the project as it goes through the city’s Uniform Land-Use Review Process, or ULURP. To move forward, the project must be approved by the City Planning Commission and the City Council, which tends to follow the lead of the councilmember in whose district the project falls — in this case, Chin.

The community board and Manhattan borough president have only advisory votes, although the borough president can force a supermajority vote if she votes “no.”  Thus far, Manhattan Beep Gale Brewer — who’s been a steadfast ally of Chin on other issues — has been noncommittal on the Elizabeth St. site.

The city says its plan can deliver both housing and green space. In a press release, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development pledged to “recreate many of the existing features and layout of the site, including passive spaces, sculptures and art pieces, lawns, diverse plantings, space for gardening, and open seating.”

But garden advocates say the current proposal, which places the seven-story residential complex on the Elizabeth St. side of the garden and shifts the open space to the Mott St. side, would result in a public lawn that’s mostly in shadow.

“There will not be one blade of grass in the garden that’s proposed, so this is a sham” scoffed Kent Barwick, the former president of the Municipal Art Society, who lives on Mott St.

“It’s another concrete slab with benches,” charged local mom Emily Hellstrom, one of the founders of Friends of Elizabeth St. Garden. “We’ve found a gravel-strewn lot could provide five times as much housing. Why are we being cast as the villains?” she demanded, prompting the crowd gathered at City Hall to break into chants of “We want both!”

But so, apparently, does Chin. When asked why she can’t get behind the community’s push to shift the project to the vacant lot on Hudson St., Chin said she would happily support more senior housing there.

“That’s not an alternative site, but an additional one,” she said. “The need for senior housing is so great. We need both.”