New Rules Worry Community Garden Advocates

New York Times
JULY 6, 2010, 11:00 AM
New Rules Worry Community Garden Advocates

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times Tremont Community Garden in the Bronx in 2008. New rules are being written for the city’s community gardens.

Updated, 5:18 p.m. | New rules being drafted by the city may omit some protections and assurances accorded nearly a decade ago to hundreds of community gardens scattered across the five boroughs.

The proposed rules, which are not finalized but are being written by the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, are meant to replace a 2002 agreement between the city and the New York State attorney general’s office that helped bring an end to years of contentious court battles and public protests revolving around the future of the gardens.

That agreement, which is set to expire in September, ended a lawsuit in which the attorney general’s office sought to stop the Giuliani administration from selling city-owned gardens to developers and led to the preservation of hundreds of gardens.

Several drafts of the new rules describe a process to develop gardens that is similar to the process in the existing agreement. But the drafts and the current agreement also differ significantly. The drafts, for example, do not contain language guaranteeing the continuation of gardens preserved by the existing agreement. And while the existing agreement states that “the city represents that it has no present intention of selling or developing” other gardens, such assurances do not appear in the drafts.

Consequently, some gardeners said, the draft rules would appear to make all gardens equally eligible for development, regardless of current status.

“This would be a policy change from preservation to the ability to develop,” said Aresh Javadi of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, who said he was planning to meet with officials to ask that the city make all GreenThumb gardens permanent. “We want to work with them to achieve a fruitful agreement that gives Parks gardens a safe and protected environment.”

Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, said that in drawing up new rules, the city had to consider the interests of both gardeners and non-gardeners. There were no plans to develop parks department gardens, he said, but he noted that community gardens were always considered temporary.

“The gardens have really thrived over the last eight years, but the city has to maintain its options,” he said, adding: “There is a great deal of support that the city provides to the gardens and the gardeners and we are going to continue that.”

In an e-mail message, Eric Bederman, the press secretary for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development wrote that the agency had been working “to draft new rules with the aim of closely mirroring the original settlement agreement, which balanced the dual needs for affordable housing and community gardens.”

Gardeners said they expected the proposed rules to be published soon in the City Record, with a public hearing to follow.

Under the 2002 agreement, the city preserved 198 community gardens in the parks department’s GreenThumb program, increased the protection of 197 other gardens and agreed not to develop 100 gardens maintained by the Department of Education. About 150 gardens were designated for sale and development as part of the deal.

The agreement helped heal rifts resulting from a rancorous series of events that unfolded after the city transferred control of hundreds of gardens to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in 1998 and placed many on the auction block. Denunciations, demonstrations and arrests followed.

City officials said it was necessary to build on the garden sites to help ease a housing shortage. Gardeners and their allies disagreed, saying that plenty of unused lots were available for construction and that the verdant gardens, run by volunteers and open to the public, provided a valuable refuge.

Perhaps the most intense clash came in February 2000 when city workers bulldozed the Esperanza Garden on East Seventh Street while lawyers for the attorney general’s office were arguing in court that the garden should remain untouched. More than 100 people hoping to stave off the bulldozer barricaded themselves in the garden overnight, but the police dismantled their defenses, arrested some and dispersed others.

At the time, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said the site would be used for moderately priced housing. The company that got the lot built a development there called Eastville Gardens, where some apartments have been listed at more than $3,000 per month.

Given the history, some gardeners said they felt uncertain about the future because there was little in the drafts to prevent lots from being sold.

“They’re greasing the wheels for development,” said Harry Bubbins, a Bronx gardener, who said he and others had outlined legislation that they hoped would be sponsored by City Council members and would designate gardens as parkland and forbid building upon them.

Peter Cramer, a founder of the Petit Versailles garden on East Houston Street, said he was concerned that the new rules might open the door to build upon the lot, near Avenue C, where he and others hauled away garbage and auto parts in 1996, which they replaced with trees and flowering plants.

“Are we preserved,” he wondered on Monday. “Or are we not preserved?”

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