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Downtown neighbors oppose plan to take over plot for affordable housing

Erica Riha, originally from Iowa, eyes a group of toddlers digging up dirt in a Manhattan flowerbed. "We grew up on a farm," Riha said. "Kids in the city, they don't know how to play in a park."

Riha, 23, is hoping to change that. She's a volunteer at the Elizabeth Street Garden in NoLita, part of a group that formed this summer when the neighborhood caught wind that the city was eyeing the 20,110-square-foot lot between Elizabeth and Mott streets for affordable housing. Supporters of the garden will have a chance to make their case at a community board hearing on Nov. 4.

Few people dispute that the city needs more affordable housing. But some residents say that the Elizabeth Street Garden provides another much-needed resource: open green space.

More than 775 people have signed a petition to Councilmember Margaret Chin to "Save the Elizabeth Street Garden."

"I see all these kids and their parents and it's clear to me that they're hungry for a space like this," said Aaron Booher, 41, watching a group of children paint and glue feathers and eyes to small pumpkins at the garden's Harvest Festival on Oct. 20.

Booher, a landscape architect, is in charge of planting seeds and cultivating plants in the garden. His goal is to have it turned into permanent greenspace.

Although on city land, the lot has been leased by the owner of the adjoining Elizabeth Street Gallery on a month-to-month basis since 1991.

Booher points to the low ratio of open space per person in the neighborhood as a reason to preserve the lot. According to the New York City Department of Planning website, 2.8 percent of the district's land is used for open space/recreation. That's the second lowest percentage of all the districts in Manhattan.

"As someone who lives and works around here, I think it would be great if they could keep it like this," said Antonio Biagi, 30, owner of A.B. Biagi, a gelato and coffee shop one block north of the garden.

Eunice Lee, who owns the clothing shop Unis across the street from A.B. Biagi, and who also volunteers at the garden, says that other businesses in the area have been supportive of the garden.

"The business community has stood behind us," she said. "It's the kind of thing that brings people together. It feels much more like a neighborhood."

But some residents complain that the space has not always been accessible.

"This was never a community garden up until very recently when there was the threat of it being taken away," said Barbara Barone, 67, who has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years. "It's only been open in the last six months."

The volunteer crew who keeps the gates open daily from noon to 6 p.m. came together this summer. Previously, the public could visit the garden, but only by entering through the gallery next door.

Allan Reiver, 70, owns the Elizabeth Street Gallery and leases the land where the Elizabeth Street Garden sits. He uses the garden, which he created in 1991 from a vacant lot, to store and display architectural artifacts from his store, such as statues of lions and sphinxes. "By entering through the gallery, as far as my insurance company was involved, we knew when people were coming and going."

The lot was identified for affordable housing during discussions about the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area project, or SPURA, at Essex and Delancey Streets.

Although the lot is actually in Community Board 2 and SPURA is in Community Board 3, the lot was mentioned in a larger discussion about affordable housing in the area, according to a staff member from Councilmember Chin's office.

The lot had previously been part of a bigger parcel of land, which was divided in 1983. The other piece was sold to a developer and was made into affordable housing as the Lira Apartments.

Tobi Bergman, the chair of the committee which is meeting Nov. 4, said Community Board 2 was never consulted about the decision to build the affordable housing on the Elizabeth St. lot.

"We never evaluated what this represents as an opportunity for the community," said Bergman, who attended the Harvest Festival. "I didn't even know it was on city land."

That's why the community board called the hearing.

"We want to take a step back and look at the options," said Bergman.

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