No Winter Hibernation For Garden Activists

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With the termination looming next year of a legal agreement protecting community gardens across New York City, gardeners are working to formulate strategies for how to ensure that neighborhood green spots continue to flourish.

They’re eager to avoid the pain of uprooting suffered by gardeners like Tom Goodridge, who helped to create a garden at P.S. 76 in Harlem in the early 90s. Dubbed the Garden of Love, it replaced a trash-strewn vacant lot in the kind of transformation being repeated in hundreds of other spaces across the city. But on Nov. 2, 1998, bulldozers plowed without warning through the garden’s fence, flowers and grove of mulberry trees. Along with 40 other newly flattened gardens, it was slated by the city for development into affordable housing.

Goodridge and his school community mourned their magical refuge. “I think it’s wrong to raise children without trees to climb and mudpies to make,” he said. Especially when two years after it was razed, all that the city had erected in its place was a sign announcing that affordable housing would be built.

Now, a vocal cohort of community gardeners across New York City worries that a similar fate could befall their own sanctuaries. A legal settlement that protects some of the city’s green spaces is set to expire in Sept. 2010, with no new safeguards to take its place.

That has advocates debating issues like whether new City Council legislation would be the best path toward longer-term garden preservation – or whether various new routes toward guarding the gardens actually come with more pitfalls than real protection.

A small slice of green

Community gardens in New York City come in all shapes and sizes, as any observant pedestrian has noticed – but people may not realize that they fall under a variety of jurisdictions, too. Two owners of garden land are the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and it is 51 lots owned by HPD – 23 of which are being used as gardens, according to department spokeswoman Catie Marshall – that are potentially threatened by the settlement’s sunset in September.

There are also some gardens under Department of Transportation jurisdiction that could be slated for development, said Edie Stone, the director of Green Thumb which is a part of the parks department. Community gardeners can register their land with GreenThumb – which claims to be the country’s largest municipally-run gardening program – to receive financial and logistical support.

By Stone’s calculation, about 11 active gardens across the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan could be directly threatened by development once the settlement expires.

Activists view the current stage as largely set by events of former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s era. Giuliani’s efforts more than a decade ago to turn garden lots into apartment buildings enraged the gardening community and spurred it to take action. Actress Bette Midler had recently launched the New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting green space in the city. The organization joined with the Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation organization, raising $4.2 million to buy up 114 gardens threatened with destruction. At the same time, then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer brought a lawsuit against New York City, claiming it was illegal to auction the gardens. Both sides reached a settlement in 2002, in which Parks would take over the jurisdiction of lots previously owned by HPD, whose goal was to create affordable housing units. The settlement also laid out a public review process whereby any garden the city wanted to take for development had to be offered a new location.

Praising the settlement, Mayor Bloomberg announced, “We are providing permanent protection to hundreds of community gardens throughout New York City.” Yet permanency was not spelled out in the settlement. The Memorandum of Agreement that settled the fate of those gardens carried a term of eight years, until September 2010.

The Trust for Public Land pointed out that after that date, the gardens would be left vulnerable again. “No deliberative system governs the fate of the city-owned lots transformed into gardens; no comprehensive plan determines the disposition of the land; no guidelines protect the value these gardens bring to their neighborhoods,” read a report published by the nonprofit.

Other gardens were handed over as part of the settlement or afterward to the parks department. While most gardeners view Parks ownership as protection, some fear even that won’t preserve the spaces from future development. Parks maintains it has no plans to develop the gardens.

“There’s a persistent fear among a certain bunch of the gardeners that suddenly the parks department would decide to get rid of all the gardens under their jurisdiction,” said Stone. “While that’s theoretically possible, that’s highly unlikely for a thousand reasons.”

HPD maintains that expiration of the settlement will not impact the pace of the agency’s ongoing plans for development. “Many of the gardens and former gardens in [our] jurisdiction have already been designated to developers. The others will be designated and developed through our affordable housing programs,” said Marshall.

Staking claims

With such a small number of gardens possibly threatened, most community gardeners aren’t kept up at night by the thought of the city snatching their plots away. But Hajah Worley, of the New York City Community Gardens Coalition, thinks they should be worried. The Bloomberg administration seems interested in protecting green space, said Worley – but what about mayors to come?

“This is a development-oriented city that we live in, so we can’t ever just sit back and think we are safe,” he said.

Stone, the director of GreenThumb, acknowledged that nothing in the law prevents the Parks Department from transferring land to another agency, which could then develop as it wished, though she thought that was highly unlikely.

“The city is as committed now as it was in 2002 to preserving the gardens,” said Parks Department Assistant Commissioner Jack Linn. “Only a wacko would suggest getting rid of them.”

Linn confirmed the Parks Department was committed to preserving community gardens for the long-term. Deciding how best to do that legally is the challenge. “Currently, no such legal protection exists – it would have to be created new for the very first time. So these things become complicated,” he said.

Nevertheless, Worley and others don’t want to count on the city’s promises today when it comes to protecting their gardens tomorrow. They’ve approached the attorney general and City Council to pass legislation that would protect the gardens, this time for good.

“That’s what we’re aiming at, getting some kind of concrete protection [for] ten years from now when community gardens are looked at as real estate,” said Karen Washington, the coalition’s president. “It’s up for debate. Why can’t we have that conversation? What’s the best way that community gardens can be preserved?”

City Council has tried to address that question twice already. Two resolutions were introduced in the past three years. One in 2007 sought to extend the existing settlement by preserving all existing GreenThumb gardens and set aside more parkland, open space and vacant lots for gardens. Another resolution introduced in 2009 called for GreenThumb gardens to be represented on the official New York City map as city parks.

Neither bill was voted on, however, and as the Council calendar is cleared for the new year, they won’t be. Several councilmembers are formulating new legislation, slated for introduction in early 2010, aimed at protecting the gardens. “Something will happen over the next few months to bring attention to this matter,” said Bill Murray, legislative aide to Queens Councilman James Gennaro, chairman of the Committee on Environmental Protection. Gennaro’s bill, now being finalized, would call on the mayor and attorney general to extend the 2002 memorandum of understanding, Murray said. “People have forgotten about it, but the settlement does expire and something’s got to be done.”

But Stone cautions that even protecting the land under the current settlement’s provisions doesn’t necessarily mean protecting gardens. Even if legislation is passed that puts all gardens under park department protection, nothing prevents the department from using that land for other purposes.

“The Parks Department could pave over them all and stick a basketball court on it and that would be totally allowed,” she said.

– Jennifer Brookland

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