SoHo/NoHo rezoning puts Elizabeth Street Garden on rockier footing

Gone With The Garden?

SoHo/NoHo rezoning puts Elizabeth Street Garden on rockier footing

Looking down Broadway in SoHo, and the neighborhood’s famed cast cast-iron buildings.(Zeke Goodyear/Unsplash)

If there is one predictable constant among the many recent transformations of New York City’s built environment, it is the remarkable speed with which a rezoning scheme can change a neighborhood.

The former industrial zones of Long Island City and West Chelsea both underwent rezoning processes that pushed for thousands of new residential units at the beginning of the 21st century, and both neighborhoods are virtually unrecognizable twenty years later. Long Island City is now defined by a skyline of highrise condominiums rivaling that of Jersey City or Downtown Brooklyn, while Chelsea hosts some of the city’s most exclusive luxury apartment buildings and high-end boutique stores.

Photo of a squat box building among skyscrapers
The tall towers of Long Island City, almost none of which stood there before a 2001 rezoning. (Paul Warchol)

This month’s passage of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial SoHo/NoHo Rezoning Plan by the New York City Council is likely to spur significant changes to a part of Manhattan that has grown increasingly white and wealthy since the 1980s. Famous for its historic cast-iron factory architecture, light-filled lofts, and storefronts displaying luxury goods, the area in question is largely inaccessible to low- and middle-income families in search of homes.

The updates to the neighborhood’s zoning rules, which have remained largely unchanged since the 1970s, will enable property developers to build as many as 3,500 new housing units in the area, 900 of which will be designated as permanently affordable housing. While city leaders emphasized the urgency of the affordable housing crisis in New York, detractors argued that the plan will primarily attract luxury development, uproot lower-income members of the community, and destroy the architectural and cultural character of the neighborhood in coming years.

For Elizabeth Street Garden, the existential threat posed by the rezoning scheme may be more immediate. Rented as a vacant lot in 1991 by the late Allan Reiver, the former proprietor of an adjacent antique shop, the garden was officially opened to the public in 2005. But since the property is city-owned and centrally located, it has been designated by authorities as the site of the new, 123-unit Haven Green affordable housing project for senior citizens. 

(Courtesy Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden)
Elizabeth Street Garden. (Courtesy Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden)

While the garden is technically situated in Nolita and falls under the jurisdiction of the Special Little Italy District (SLID) zoning regulations, a 22-item “Points of Agreement” addendum to the SoHo/NoHo scheme includes plans to develop affordable housing in neighborhoods surrounding the impacted area. 

The sites outside of SoHo and NoHo that are slated for housing development include an NYPD parking lot at 324 East 5th Street and an empty, city-owned lot at 388 Hudson Street. In advocating for the preservation of the garden as an open green space in a part of Manhattan that sorely lacks such amenities, supporters had long pushed the latter site as an alternative location for Haven Green.

According to Curbed, City Councilmember Margaret Chin decried the characterization of 388 Hudson as a substitute for the lot on which Elizabeth Street Garden sits: “It’s always been an additional, not an alternative site. We want to develop affordable housing anywhere we can.” 

Councilmember Margaret Chin at a 2018 rally in support of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. (Village Preservation (Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation)/Via Flickr/Accessed under CC BY 2.0)

Chin, whose district includes SoHo, NoHo, and Little Italy, ran much of her hard-fought 2017 campaign on the issue of replacing the garden with low-income senior housing. She praised plans by the project’s lead developer, Pennrose, to incorporate small-scale, publicly accessible green spaces and criticized what she called “a well-funded misinformation campaign that sought to tell us that now was not the time, and this was not the place for affordable housing.”

The councilmember’s arguments are reflective of broader efforts by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to jumpstart affordable housing development in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, which under the previous Bloomberg administration often saw systematic de-densification in the interest of well-off property owners. According to the nonprofit housing policy platform Local Housing Solutions, research has revealed the many benefits of situating affordable housing in resource-rich neighborhoods, where lower-income families have greater access to well-funded public services, healthy food, and outdoor play spaces. 

The proposed Haven Green development led by Pennrose. (Courtesy Pennrose and Haven Green)

On The Ezra Klein Show in October, Mayor-elect Eric Adams seemed to support rezonings that aim to integrate or diversify wealthier areas: “We need to look at those sacred cows like SoHo and other parts of the city where we used these methods to keep out groups.”

But preservationists, some neighborhood activists, and supporters of the garden warn that the SoHo/NoHo rezoning is simply a Trojan horse for the oft-maligned luxury development that has quickly eroded many neighborhoods’ cultural and architectural idiosyncrasies. 

Joseph Reiver, son of Allan Reiver and current executive director of the Elizabeth Street Garden, told AN that “The ‘100 units’ mentioned [by the City Council for 388 Hudson] is a low amount considering the possibility to build higher. Elizabeth Street Garden has advocated that up to 5 times the amount of housing be built at the site as an alternative to destroying the garden since 2015. If this alternative plan was seriously considered back then, the housing could have already been built for those in need.”

An empty lot in soho, site of a proposed building swap for the elizabeth street garden
The empty lot at 388 Hudson Street where affordable housing will now be developed. (Google Maps)

Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), an education and advocacy organization that has partnered with the Elizabeth Street Garden, compared the site to the Liz Christy Community Garden, a green space on the Lower East Side that is officially recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s the vision of one person who saw potential in a disused site and transformed it into a community asset,” Birnbaum told AN, describing the Elizabeth Street Garden as “quirky, idiosyncratic, thoroughly original, beloved, [and] also much needed.”

But while the Liz Christy Community Garden was oriented towards its neighborhood since its inception in the 1970s, Councilmember Chin has pointed to inconsistencies in the Elizabeth Street Garden’s history as a public asset. According to Curbed, Chin has stressed that the garden “was never, never open to the general public” before the city expressed interest in developing the lot as affordable housing.

Elizabeth street garden, with stone walls and gravel
Elizabeth Street Garden in 2021. (Aaron Smithson)

Joseph Reiver acknowledges that the accessibility of the garden to the sidewalk has changed over time, telling AN that community members “came together [after learning about the city’s development deal in 2013] and figured out how to make the garden more accessible to show the space’s true potential.”

In October, the Department of Housing Preservation served the Elizabeth Street Garden an eviction notice, casting its future into further uncertainty. With its legal case against the city still pending in the New York State Supreme Court, though, the garden has continued to operate as normal. Over 28,000 people have signed letters urging the local government to reconsider the site’s redevelopment through the Elizabeth Street Garden’s website.

Locked in a battle that is endemic in contemporary New York’s courts of law and public opinion, municipal officials and local residents with outwardly similar objectives seem irrevocably at odds. No stakeholders openly question the need for more affordable housing. Some, though, vociferously challenged the de Blasio administration’s approach to altering the city’s physical and social fabric in the name of diversification–an agenda that, according to Birnbaum, “forces false choices between housing and cherished public open spaces.”