After 10-year saga, judge’s delay keeps senior housing unbuilt

Elizabeth Street Garden was supposed to yield 123 affordable units a decade ago. So where’s the housing?

From left: Joseph Riever and Christopher Marte (Elizabeth Street Garden, New York City Campaign Finance Board)
From left: Joseph Riever and Christopher Marte (Elizabeth Street Garden, New York City Campaign Finance Board)

It’s been 10 years since then-City Council member Margaret Chin persuaded the city to raze a modest community garden in Nolita and replace it with a 123-unit, low-income apartment complex for seniors, along with ground-floor retail and a community open space.

But despite city approval and a developer that’s ready to build, the garden endures.

The story begins in 1991, when the city leased the empty parcel between Prince and Spring streets to local gallerist Allan Reiver for $4,000 per month. Reiver lived and worked in the area, so he started storing larger sculptures in the green space and soon moved his gallery into the building abutting the garden.

While open to the public, passersby could only access the garden through Reiver’s antique shop, turning him into, as the New York Times described it, a “cantankerous guardsman” of the downtown oasis.

As the city pushed to create more affordable housing for seniors, Chin identified the park as a potential development site. After a public request for proposals, the city decided on Green Haven, a project pitched by developer Pennrose in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofit groups. But some locals, led by Reiver, didn’t want the garden party to end.

Reiver formed a nonprofit to manage and represent the garden, and in 2019 it sued the city to stop the affordable housing development. He even wooed Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney and former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, to represent him. Both sides made their arguments, and by December 2020, the ball was in the court’s court. Everyone waited.

They’re still waiting.

Reiver died last May, but his son, Joseph, has taken up the cause. In September, agents from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development served the nonprofit with an eviction notice. Siegel, the garden group’s attorney, called his counterpart at the city to demand answers.

“Something very chaotic happened this afternoon,” Siegel said, according to a transcript filed in court. “What’s the basis of the eviction? I just can’t think of any at this point, other than maybe retaliation because of the lawsuit, which would totally be improper.”

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In October, the city terminated the nonprofit’s lease at the garden. Joseph Reiver called the eviction an “attempt to circumvent the case” and said he planned to challenge the notice.

Around the same time, Chin closed off one of the main counterarguments to the redevelopment by tucking a deal to bring 100 affordable units to a city-owned lot at 388 Hudson Street into the rezoning of Soho and Noho. Reiver and his allies had touted the Hudson Street lot as an alternative site for the senior living facility, but faced with the option of bringing affordable housing to both parcels, they were left with little moral high ground.

Since then, Chin has been replaced on the council by Christopher Marte, who said in a candidate questionnaire issued by the garden nonprofit that he was a donor to its legal fight and would “be ready from day one to save Elizabeth Street Garden.”

Marte didn’t respond to a request for comment, but told the nonprofit that he would try to prevent the redevelopment by suing the city for violating the Special Little Italy District zoning resolution.

“The housing crisis is not going to be solved by destroying a community garden,” Marte wrote.

Still, the case remains unresolved. Both sides say they’re waiting for the judge to make a call, but don’t know when to expect it. In the meantime, it would be next to impossible for the developers to close on financing without evidence that the court case has been dismissed, further delaying the project and increasing its costs.

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In an October letter to the judge, Kenneth Fisher, an attorney for Pennrose, wrote that the delays have caused headaches for the developer and delayed sorely needed housing. It’s been 30 months since the council approved the plan, and 13 months since the court finished two days of arguments.

“The last year of living under the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the pressing need for housing like that proposed in the development at issue,” he wrote.