As New York City Council Member Chris Marte and his team await the verdict in the Democratic primary for his Lower Manhattan seat, they’ll have at least one loss to grapple with when the dust settles. A state appellate court gave the city the all clear Tuesday morning to move forward with its plans to build an affordable housing development for seniors on the site of Elizabeth Street Garden – a controversial proposal that has long united a legion of the garden’s neighborhood defenders behind Marte.
The council member had a lot going on already. He is facing two credible challengers in today’s primary: grant writer Susan Lee and education advocate Ursila Jung, who have cross-endorsed each other. Both of them told the Elizabeth Street Garden they would commit to saving the garden in perpetuity, rather than support building housing on the lot. However it’s Marte who filed a brief in support of the garden’s lawsuit trying to block development. City & State wrote in 2017 that the nonprofit managing the garden was so openly supportive of his first City Council campaign that it appeared to be violating rules governing political activity.
A tranquil one-acre patch of greenspace in Nolita, Elizabeth Street Garden has been at the heart of a highly charged debate for a decade – one that’s pitted the city’s hunt for affordable housing with the fate of a cherished community oasis. The city currently owns the land, but privately leases it to the Elizabeth Street Garden nonprofit.
Marte’s longtime support for protecting the garden helped build his political base. He’s even credited the activism around saving Elizabeth Street Garden as one of the reasons he got into politics. Elizabeth Street Garden Executive Director Joseph Reiver in turn has tweeted out his support for the council member, urging residents to vote. Its website includes a questionnaire with Marte attesting that he supports saving Elizabeth Street Garden as a Conservation Land Trust – and building even more affordable housing at a different site.
While opposition to the project strikes many of the same notes that have defined other contentious land use fights, the project wouldn’t infuse the neighborhood with luxury apartments that threaten to drive up prices and drive longtime residents out. Rather, the 123-unit development known as Haven Green – backed by Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofit groups – would bring affordable housing slated for LGBTQ+ seniors to one of the most affluent parts of the city. The garden’s robust roster of defenders meanwhile argue that the city has presented a false choice between affordable housing and green spaces. Manhattan Community Board 2, which represents the surrounding area, has also presented alternative sites for affordable housing. The city is now developing housing on at least one of those lots, at 388 Hudson, as well.
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development first cleared the way for the development in November 2018 after formally determining that building affordable housing on the garden site wouldn’t significantly impact the amount of open space in the city. Labeling the review’s findings as “arbitrary and capricious,” Elizabeth Street Garden Inc. and Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden both sued the city in 2019. Last November, supporters scored what appeared to be a big victory when a state Supreme Court judge sided with their petition and threw out the determination that the development wouldn’t have a negative effect, ordering the city to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement. That victory was short-lived. The appellate court unanimously rejected arguments that the city’s environmental review process was flawed, clearing the way for the project to proceed.