Calling NYRP: SOS!

The Villager
Gardeners cultivate support to save E. 1st St. oasis
By Melanie Wallis

With green space fast disappearing in Manhattan, co-op residents at 50 E. First St. are celebrating after successfully saving their garden from being auctioned off by the city.

This is the fifth time over the space of 21 years that the 24-ft.-by-100-ft. plot of land, located between First and Second Aves., has been saved from the grasp of developers.

Aaron Muntz, 28, and his wife Candis moved into the 20-apartment co-op two years ago. They were among the key activists who saved the garden in a neighborhood where there are six new development projects in process: at Houston and Chrystie Sts., Bowery and Bond Sts., Second St. and Second Ave., Third St. and Bowery, Stanton St. and Bowery, and Astor Pl. and Lafayette St.

“We’re thrilled there is a garden here. There’s need of green space,” Aaron said. “There’s a staggering amount of development happening in this area.”

The residents were made aware that the property was up for auction after receiving a letter on June 30 from the City Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which invited the co-op to bid on the “vacant lot.” Currently, the residents pay $400 a month to rent the garden from D-CAS. The minimum selling price to buy the lot at auction was $562,000, but Karen Boothe, a longtime resident of the co-op and supervisor of the garden since 1981, speculates that the plot would more realistically fetch nearly $1 million.

In two weeks, the building residents collected 575 signatures on a petition supporting the removal of the garden from the August auction list, as well as wrote letters to Community Board 3 members, city councilmembers — including local City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who played a key role — the mayor, the Parks Department, State Senate, D-CAS and the Manhattan borough president. On July 23, the First St. Garden was removed from auction.

D-CAS spokesperson Warner Johnston said it was due to the residents’ efforts that the garden was pulled from auction. “Mindful of community concern, D-CAS Commissioner Martha Hirst declared to remove the property for further review,” Johnston said. In the five boroughs, D-CAS currently has 3,000 lots in its property portfolio. Over time, the property is either transferred to other city agencies, such as the Department of Housing Preservation and Development or Economic Development Corporation or sold to companies and individuals via auction.

Despite the residents’ victory, they realize the garden is far from safe. While D-CAS has ownership, the garden is still vulnerable to being sold via auction. Boothe and Candis are pushing for the garden to be transferred to the city Parks Department jurisdiction and become a Green Thumb garden. Being a Green Thumb project would mean that anyone from the community could volunteer to participate in the garden’s activities. “It means there would be a broader community involvement. It would truly become a community garden,” Boothe said.

The other option would be for the garden to be bought by a nonprofit organization such as Trust for Public Land or Bette Midler’s New York Restoration organization. Boothe, however, says it is unlikely that this would happen, because the price of the garden is so high.

Boothe said she has been in extensive talks with the Trust for Public Land and was told the garden was too expensive for T.P.L. to buy. However, Susan Clark, director of public affairs at T.P.L., said they do not make their decisions based on the price of a piece of land.

And yet, the relatively small garden, which boasts several large trees, a paved walkway between grass patches, a variety of flowers and a brightly colored mural painted on the back wall does not have full support of the local residents.

As well as developers, Candis says opposition has come from some in the neighborhood who favor more housing. She does say, however, that such resistance is declining. “There’s not so much opposition now because the housing [being built] is not affordable,” Candis said. Candis thinks it is highly probable that the garden would be developed into high-end housing if auctioned, due to the plot’s small size. “Because of its size, construction costs would be expensive, making the proposed housing unaffordable,” she said. “Low-income housing needs low construction costs,” Candis added.

The other complaint Candis has heard from neighbors is that the garden is not open frequently enough. Because of insurance requirements, the garden can only be opened when supervised by people from the co-op building. Currently, the garden is open six hours every weekend, with Boothe and Candis sharing the supervision responsibility. Candis is confident that this would change if the garden was transferred to become a Green Thumb project. Green Thumb requires the garden to be open at least 10 hours a week and to post its opening hours.

Boothe has big plans for this little oasis on E. First. Some of the immediate ones include building a large fishpond and putting in bird-feeding tables. But as any gardener knows, there’s always more work to be done.

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