Emmanuelle Chiche remembers the first time she encountered Elizabeth Street Gardens, a charming green space hidden among rows of concrete buildings in lower Manhattan.
It wasn’t like any other garden in the city, she remembers thinking. He returned to France, his native country, with dozens of aged neoclassical sculptures and columns.
“In this place, I learned that there is such a thing as falling in love with a garden,” said Chiche, 55, as she stood on a stone balcony with a blooming pink rose. Below, a visitor stops to bring one of the flowers to his nose. Closing his eyes, he inhales deeply and enjoys her scent.
Since 2013, Chiche and others in the Little Italy neighborhood have been concerned about the city’s plans to replace the garden with another building. But on Tuesday, they celebrated victory in the legal battle to protect him.
State Supreme Court Justice Debra James granted a 2019 petition by Elizabeth Street Garden Inc., the nonprofit that operates and maintains the garden, to block affordable housing from being built in its place. James also ordered the City of New York, which owns the property, to conduct a full environmental impact statement before granting approval for the development.
“When I saw the notice I started shaking,” said Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney who represents the nonprofit. “The law of the case says that they have to look hard at environmental issues, and one of the biggest problems they have to look at is the loss of open space.”
Sitting on a bench in front of Central Park’s Upper West Side, Siegel offers a huge smile. “They won,” he said, adding that it would be impossible for the city to defend the development plan without showing that it would have a negative impact on the environment.
The New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) called the judge’s decision “disappointing” and said in a statement to CNN that it will appeal, indicating plans for a long battle.
Haven Green, a project planned for the site, is a 123-unit affordable rental complex for seniors, according to the development’s website. It will also include a green space, retail shops and the new headquarters of Habitat for Humanity New York City.
HPD says Haven Green is necessary to address New York City’s growing affordable housing problem, and was designed with the environment in mind.
“With 100,000 seniors currently waiting for affordable housing, we cannot allow a small number of anti-housing voices to continue to stand in the way of projects our city so desperately needs,” HPD said in a statement to CNN.
Open New York, a grassroots group that advocates for affordable housing, echoed HPD’s position. “Housing delayed is housing denied, and we simply cannot allow a small number of anti-housing voices to block 100 percent of affordable housing in a well-resourced neighborhood,” said Executive Director Annemarie Gray.
But Joseph Reiver, executive director of Elizabeth Street Garden Inc., says it’s not that simple.
Her father, Allan Reiver, was an artist who turned a vacant, trash-filled lot decades ago into the Elizabeth Street Garden. The elder Reiver, who ran an art gallery and filled the garden with his collection of sculptures and artifacts, died in 2021, leaving the garden to his son and the thousands of volunteers who have fought to protect it for nearly a decade.
“It was my father’s estate, but it’s not my garden,” said Reiver, sitting on a bench inside one of his many quiet nooks and crannies. “It belongs to this community, it’s valued by the community, and they would be devastated if they lost it.”
Reiver rejects HPD and Open New York’s claims that Elizabeth Street Garden Inc. is a joint anti-affordable housing group.
“It’s a false choice, a divide-and-conquer tactic to say, well, would you rather have affordable senior housing or a lush garden? You missed the point. We are in dire need of both,” said Reiver. “We should seriously question any agency or management that says we can only have one or the other.”
Karen Haycox of Habitat for Humanity New York says Haven Green would provide both, with plans for 16,000 square feet of publicly accessible green space.
Siegel says the green space the project promises is “no match for the Elizabeth Street Garden” and will sacrifice the necessary amenities the garden currently offers, including ample access to sunlight and space for large community activities.
District 1 Councilman Christopher Mart, who represents the neighborhood where the garden grows, says the community has offered the city several proposals “to build affordable senior housing in other areas where we can get four times as many units as the Elizabeth Street Garden site.”
The council rejected those proposals, he said.
Supporters of Elizabeth Street Garden are confident that the environmental impact statement will reveal that the construction of Haven Green will harm the neighborhood’s environment and quality of life.
Christopher Kennedy, associate director of The New School’s Urban Systems Lab, says it’s a compelling conclusion.
“The more green space, the better,” said Kennedy, who co-authored a study on the positive impact of green spaces in cities. “Green spaces offer endless climate-related benefits, especially when it comes to urban flooding issues. With extreme heat likely to become much more common in 50 years, the amount of plant cover such as trees and shrubs can cool the area by several degrees in an evening, which can mean the difference between life and death.
“When you take away green spaces, you increase the vulnerability of New Yorkers,” he added.
Destroying the garden could also have “monumental” effects on the mental health of local residents, Kennedy said. Many rely on garden events and programs—including morning yoga, summer movie nights, poetry readings, and partnerships with local schools—for a sense of community.
“The garden is very unique because although there are many public parks and larger parks, they cannot provide the same services that the garden provides,” he said. “It’s not just about getting outside to get some fresh air, it’s about connecting with your neighbor and community, which has positive mental health effects.”
It could also affect local wildlife, supporters say. Elizabeth Street Garden, certified by the National Wildlife Foundation, is a registered way station for the endangered monarch butterfly, providing nectar, nectar and shelter.
The city council has indicated other parks that offer similar services, but it is not the same, said Councilor Marte.
The district “is, to put it mildly, poor”, he said. “Our neighborhood shows that Elizabeth Street Garden is one of the only places to bring green to Little Italy, Chinatown, SoHo and NoHora. As much as we love Washington Square Park, it’s not our neighborhood. It’s a completely different area, and most seniors can’t walk 20 minutes to that park. do that.”
Renée Greene, a local senior and president of Elizabeth Street Garden Inc., says the garden has been essential to her health and well-being.
“Ever since I moved here 15 years ago, I was riddled with arthritis,” Green, 91, said. “The garden is everything to our community, and for people like me, who are getting older, losing it will mean losing us. Just access to nature, to a community, and that would be devastating.”
Nicholas O’Connell, 51, lives opposite the garden. He says removing it would irretrievably change the landscape of the community.
“You walk around this neighborhood and there’s really no trees, there’s no nature, and to destroy the garden and the ecosystem it’s created would be really unacceptable,” he said. “We don’t want what they’re trying to bring in, it’s never going to match what we have here.”
Along with distinctive sculptures from the collection of Allan Reiver, Elizabeth Street Garden features a gravel path surrounded by decorative stone railings designed by the French Gilded Age landscape architect Jacques-Henri-Auguste Gréber.
Each corner of the sanctuary reveals a different nook, benches hidden under the canopy of colorful trees where birds sing, to take a break from the noise of the bustling city. Sun seekers have endless options to bask among pear trees, rose beds, dahlias, asters, dianthus and geraniums.
“It’s like walking out of a storybook into a magical garden, it’s really surreal,” said garden volunteer Geena DiGuilio.
On a balcony opposite him, a couple is sitting on a bench, hands linked, reading a book aloud to each other. Later that evening, the newlyweds will laugh as they run down the path to the garden entrance.
“My favorite thing is to bring my friends and see their faces when they first walk in, like ‘what is this place?’ And to see him drenched in magic,” DiGuilio said.
The Department of Housing Preservation and Development remains adamant Haven Green will not harm the community, and says it is committed to the project. “We support our environmental assessments, are determined to bring Haven Green to this site, and will pursue all avenues available to make this happen,” he said in his statement.
To counter those efforts, Reiver says the nonprofit will try to preserve the Elizabeth Street Garden as a conservation land trust so that the garden and its community programs can continue to be encroached upon by the city.
Meanwhile, Reiver asks Mayor Eric Adams and other officials to visit the garden and see its impact. “Come see what’s at stake,” he said.
After last week’s legal victory, he and his supporters believe anything is possible.
“So many people saw us as that little garden that will never win. But we won, at least for now, and we will never give up,” Chich said.