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NYC’s Community Gardens and Parks Need Our Help

Lately some community gardeners have gone to court to save their plots of land:  In Manhattan, LaGuardia Corner Garden is slated to be part of an NYU expansion that local Assembly Member Deborah Glick calls a “completely inappropriate and out of scale development plan.”  And, on Coney Island, the Boardwalk Garden is to be transformed into a $53 million amphitheater.

And it’s not just the gardens:  Public parks are being eyed by developers and private organizations.  Lincoln Center, for example, has a long-term lease to use Damrosch Park as it sees fit.  For all intents and purposes the 2-acre park has been privatized.  There is Fashion Week — that needs four (4) weeks — Big Apple Circus is there for 4 months and private events take place throughout the year.  Ten months of the year, the public has no access to its local park.  Adding insult to injury, Lincoln Center keeps all the monies it collects from the use of the park and a city parking garage.  It is estimated that $6 million a year should go into city coffers that instead enriches a private organization.  The Committee for Environmentally Sound Development filed a lawsuit last year.  The Damrosch family joined in a press conference to announce the lawsuit.

In Queens, Flushing Meadows park is threatened with privatizing a major part of its northeastern corner, for a shopping mall parking lot.

Mayor DeBlasio’s Initiatives for Affordable Housing

The vast majority of community gardens (some 600 are registered with Green Thumb) are on very small plots, or are of irregular shape that would be difficult to build on.  Garden sizes range from 1,500 square feet to 5,000 square feet, and many are in the middle of low-rise blocks zoned for 4 to 6 story buildings.

Mayor DeBlasio has announced that small vacant lots should be developed for affordable housing and that there will be two new programs to accomplish that goal:  the Neighborhood Construction Program and the New Infill Homeownership Opportunities Program (NIHOP).  Several City agencies are surveying city-owned vacant lots to determine which are suitable for development.   Developers might get these properties for as little as $1 apiece.

Many community gardeners feel they will be targeted when a city agency deems a garden a vacant lot.  Manhattan’s Community Board 3 voted overwhelmingly to save its community gardens, rejecting a developer who offered only 3 affordable units.  This will be one of the first tests of what lies ahead, though community boards only make recommendations.

Gardens that have signed a lease with the City Department of Housing and Development (HPD) have limited protection.  But even holding a lease with the Department of Parks and Recreation is no guarantee that a community garden or city park is safe.  The Boardwalk Coney Island Garden was transferred from the Parks Dept. to the Dept. of Citywide Administrative Services to facilitate development.  It is this sort of bureaucratic maneuvering that is being challenged in court for violating state law.

Sources of Hope

Some things may get better under Mayor Deblasio, given that his commissioner of Parks and Recreation, Mitchell Silver, has announced that public funds for parks will be more equitably distributed throughout the five boroughs and that additional staff will be hired.  Also needed is a commitment by the Mayor and/or the City Council that protection of community gardens is as important as the parks as ecological, cultural and economic resources of the City.  Ideally, they should be given park status, which provides NY State protection as well as the City’s.

Also, the City can and should demand more funding from the NY State Environmental Protection Fund (EPF).  This fund is financed by a real estate transfer tax that NYC contributes to and is a dedicated fund for the environment.  While the EPF provides funds for botanic gardens and zoos, its open space expenditures in NYC are very small.  They go to the three land trusts set up by the Trust for Public Land to steward the 60+ lots saved and protected from the Giuliani ordered auction of “vacant lots” in 1999.

To get involved with community gardens e-Mail Irene van Slyke