How Will Our Gardens Grow?

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A delegation from Paris’ parks department recently visited the Big Apple to study how New York does community gardens.

“Right now there are very few collective gardens in Paris,” says Antoine Cassard of Paris-Nature, which coordinates environmental educational programming in the city. “We want to find a way for people to be more active and engaged in the parks.”

Cassard was one of about 500 greening professionals and enthusiasts who came to New York from across the U.S., Canada and Europe for the 23rd annual American Community Gardening Association conference in late July. With community gardens a new concept in Paris, Cassard says, “New York is a model we’d like to follow.”

At the moment, though, local gardeners are not sure exactly what kind of model New York represents. As City Limits went to press, State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg ere reportedly close to reaching a deal on the fate of nearly half of the city’s 650 community gardens.

The legal battle dates back to 1999, when Spitzer sued to block the Giuliani administration from auctioning gardens as “vacant lots.” The following February, a judge issued a restraining order that has prevented the city from developing any of the roughly 300 gardens currently under the jurisdiction of its Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

HPD says it has plans to develop more than 2,00 units of affordable housing on 131 of those 300 garden sites, and that the gardeners are jeopardizing $48 million in state and federal funds. Spitzer, however, argues that the gardens–many of which are more than 20 years old–should be considered parkland, and that the city should review the environmental impacts of replacing them with housing.

While neither the Attorney General’s office nor HPD would comment on the progress of the talks, insiders say HPD is now insisting on developing just the gardens that have been okayed for housing by the City Council. The city would then put the rest of the 131 disputed gardens through land use hearings that would give gardeners the chance to defend them. Spitzer is also reportedly demanding that the city relocate gardeners who are displaced from their land.

Meanwhile, some gardeners are pushing for legislation that would allow gardens to apply for permanent status. Councilmember Joseph Addabbo, a bill sponsor, says he will not schedule hearings until Bloomberg ad Spitzer settle.

Watching a throng of protesters in bug costumes outside City Hall, Cassard found the complexities of New York’s open space wars baffling. His neighbors to the east, in Berlin, have 80,000 gardens, and gardeners there have so much clout hat if the city decides it wants to build on their land, it has to compensate them with funds and an equal portion of space elsewhere. Says Cassard, “I find it ironic that I work for the city in Paris, and here I attended a demonstration against City Hall”