Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou on Elizabeth Street Garden

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on the proposed plans for Elizabeth Street Garden. My name is Yuh-Line Niou. I serve as the Assembly Member for the 65th Assembly District which is home to the Elizabeth Street Garden.

Following the demolition of a public school, the derelict lot was overrun with weeds and covered in debris. Our community poured countless hours into creating new open space. There was no direction from the City in developing the Garden into what it is today. I want to make it very clear that Elizabeth Street Garden is what it is today because our community stepped up when the City would not. We engaged our community to develop the Elizabeth Street Garden into a jewel which meets our community’s needs.

As a member of the Committee on Housing, I recognize the need for low-income and affordable housing in New York. There is a housing hearing on rent laws, which are set to expire in June, occurring as we speak. I have fought for critical funding in our housing system and affordability in our community. I have also stood with advocates and other elected officials to defend against privatization of public space on all fronts, such as NYCHA housing, public facilities like Rivington House, green spaces, and open space. I firmly believe public land should remain public and require ample public input prior to any change in usage. When public land becomes privatized, it rarely, if ever, returns to the public. Therefore, we must be doubly sure that the local community’s needs are taken into account fully, prior to engaging that often permanent change in ownership.

Lower Manhattan is in need of affordable housing, but we cannot pit the need for housing against the need for green space, especially when good alternatives are available. Both are vital and both are in dire need of protection and expansion. Our neighborhood is the only downtown neighborhood that NYC Parks defines as underserved by open space, with an open space ratio of 0.13 acre per 1,000 residents. In Little Italy and SoHo, we have even less open space with an open space ratio of 0.07 acre per 1,000 residents or 3 sq. ft. per person.

The City proclaimed its commitment to expanding open space to 2.5 acres per 1,000 residents. Yet, the current plans for the Garden lowers the open space ratio even further and eliminates nearly 70% of the open space of the Garden from 20,000 square feet to a mere 6,700 square feet. The EAS (environmental assessment statement) arbitrarily states that eliminating the Garden does not do any harm, even though it will reduce the extraordinarily minuscule amount of public open space this area has. Losing the Garden, or at least diminishing and altering the Garden, should have triggered a more extensive environmental review process to fully capture the damages done through these plans. In addition, the City owns this site in trust for the Board of Education. The current plan to transfer the property for a non-educational purpose such as creating non-permanent ‘affordable’ housing and office or retail space does not adhere to the requirements of the trust.

Eliminating the Garden for non-permanent ‘affordable’ housing and 11,200 square feet below-market rate office space is not a ‘win-win’ scenario like the City portrays it as. It is a false choice. As Community Board 2, elected officials like myself, and other advocates have said time and time again, a win-win solution is to build up to five times as much affordable housing at a nearby city-owned 25,000 square foot alternative site at 388 Hudson Street and designate the Elizabeth Street Garden as a NYC Park.

Choosing this solution would not set a precedent. In fact, the Mayor supported a similar real win-win solution in Chelsea where the City is creating a new park on West 20th Street and building more housing on a larger city-owned site nearby the park. We should be discussing a real win-win solution and creating plans for truly permanent affordable housing while supporting the Garden’s operations in our community. In face of the overwhelming support from Community Board 2, other elected officials, and community residents, I urge the City Council to vote nay on this proposal and to seek out a solution that can match all of our community’s needs.