In a legal and public relations battle with the Children’s Magical Garden, the president of a real estate firm might need some magic of his own.
David Marom of real estate firm the Horizon Group is attempting to build a luxury home on the site of the Lower East Side garden. If the optics of that were not challenging enough, Marom filed a defamation suit against the garden’s defenders, only to have a judge throw it out.
Advocates of the garden, at 157 Norfolk Street, have now sued Marom back, seeking payment of fees it racked up in fighting off his lawsuit, according to a complaint filed in Manhattan.
The Children’s Magical Garden has occupied the green space on the corner of Stanton Street since 1983, growing fruits and vegetables and serving as a gathering spot for the community. However, in 2013, Marom bought a portion of the garden and sought to replace it with a seven-story residence.
The dispute caused a local uproar. Advocates sought control of the garden based on the legal concept of adverse possession, which gives a party that has occupied a space for more than 10 years the right to ownership. That case has been ongoing since 2014.
In October 2019, Marom filed $20 million worth of defamation claims against the garden, its director Kate Temple-West, its treasurer David Currence and other community members and organizations advocating for the garden.
Among the defendants in his lawsuit was Tiffany de Bruyn, an early childhood educator and PTA president, who had said, “I see the joy [my daughter] has when she is playing in nature and so to see all of this just destructed, it hurts my soul a little bit.”
The New York Supreme Court Commercial Division dismissed Marom’s claims and held that he had violated its anti-SLAPP rules. SLAPP lawsuits, also known as intimidation lawsuits, are meant to censor critics by burdening them with legal costs.
“To sue regular people, especially parents, for huge amounts of money is bullying,” Temple-West said. “This lawsuit is really important, so that our community feels like we are protected.”
In their own suit, the garden advocates allege that Marom has harassed them. In one instance, Marom came to the garden and, in front of parents and children, insulted members and pushed over benches. Marom told members that he would turn over [a] port-a-potty at the garden. Another time, his daughter stormed into the garden during a busy afternoon, shouting and threatening the Garden’s director.
The garden now seeks attorney fees and costs from Marom’s lawsuit, compensatory damages and punitive damages.
Whether the courts deem those claims as frivolous as Marom’s were labeled remains to be seen, but that is not garden backers’ focus at the moment.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to regain our land and to make sure that no one is going to stop us from creating this oasis for our neighborhood’s children,” Temple-West said.
Community gardens proliferated across the city decades ago when advocates persuaded developers who were sitting on vacant land to let them use it on an interim basis. Eventually, some reneged on that promise and attempted to block development plans that inevitably arose as the city’s economy improved.
In this case, the Children’s Magical Garden says a previous agreement gives it a claim to the lot at 157 Norfolk Street.
In 1998, developer Serge Hoyda, aiming to erect a six-story apartment building, reached a deal to buy the parcel for $180,000 from a company called 88 Holding on the condition that the property be delivered vacant. But the seller did not clear out the garden, so the sale did not close.
Hoyda, sensing a bargain, then sued, arguing that he could waive the condition and close on the property with the garden present. The seller tried to back out of the deal, noting that the land had since increased in value, but the courts ruled for Hoyda in 2002 and the sale went through.
Now the garden’s lawyer argues that Hoyda conceded the garden had a claim to the land and that Marom is bound by that concession. However, the 2002 ruling shared by the lawyer makes no reference to the garden having such a claim.
What Marom’s Horizon Group did acquire from Hoyda upon buying the plot in 2013 for $3.3 million was the challenge of evicting the garden.
Horizon planned a building designed by Daniel Bernstein of Kutnicki Bernstein Architects with a “quality housing” designation allowing for something larger than zoning would normally permit, but with a height restriction.
A representative for Marom denied the allegations in the new complaint and said in an email that Horizon “will vigorously defend against this lawsuit.”