Spring Catalogue

Plots thicken as gardens head for auction block

It's spring, and a gardener's fancy turns to thoughts of . . . catalogues? For thousands of New York City planters, it's not the Burpee's Seed or Smith & Hawken inventory that's anxiously awaited; it's a catalogue published by Rudy Giuliani's Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS). With its list of more than 100 gardens grown on city-owned lots that DCAS plans to auction off in May, the list has been much-anticipated by horticulturalists from Loisaida to Long Island City; sources say it will be out any day now.

"We expect it in early April, and it's important because the city has always been reluctant to take any property out of the auction once the catalogue is published," says garden activist Jane Weissman. "This auction is supposed to have 400 properties, about 120 of which are gardens. There's been no indication of any major changes in those numbers, but I'd love to be proven wrong."

Headed for the auction block are city-owned parcels— some empty lots, some vacant buildings, and some community gardens— that Giuliani wants to return to private hands. The auction is scheduled for May 12­13. And while the gardens are just a fraction of the property to be sold to the highest bidder, they are unquestionably the most controversial.

"It's very troubling," says Toby Brandt of the Open Space Coalition. "These gardens were born out of garbage-strewn lots, and if they let someone buy them and sit idle for 10 years, they'll die as garbage-strewn lots."

Typically, community gardens are demolished not because they've been auctioned off but because the city has turned them over to a developer to build housing— a move that invariably leads to protests, litigation, and misdirected debates that pit the need for housing against the need for open space. But the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has decided the lots in the May auction are unsuited for housing— many are too small— meaning buyers will not be required to build anything.

That fact has cranked up the already blaring dissent. In February, 30 people protesting the auction were arrested after a City Hall hearing on the issue. Dressed as flowers and bees, they plopped down in the rotunda and sang a version of "This Land Is Your Land" until police handcuffed them and carted them off. Giuliani spat out his contempt for garden activists— who have usually tended the lots as "interim" tenants with no guarantee of permanence— by welcoming them "to the era after communism."

The May auction's primary goal is to get property out of the city's portfolio and back on the tax rolls, but buyers aren't required to build. "The great fear," says Weissman, "is that they won't be developed into anything but maybe parking lots." Fears that fertile ground will become fallow are not unfounded: in February Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden released a study that found that of 440 vacant lots that the city sold in that borough between 1990 and 1995, 423 remain undeveloped; 148 of those are used to store vehicles; 240 are littered with trash and debris.

The auction has spurred a flurry of legislation. A resolution by Brooklyn councilmember Ken Fisher asks the state legislature to stop the sale; failing that, he has a bill to put garden sales on a November citywide referendum. A bill by Bronx councilmember Adolfo Carrión Jr. would forbid selling gardens under the jurisdiction of the parks department— fewer than 40 of the roughly 650 community gardens citywide. In Albany, Brooklyn state senator Velmanette Montgomery wants gardeners to use state Environmental Bond Act money to buy the plots themselves.

The city will net at least $3.6 million from selling the gardens, according to the Daily News. The amount leaves Fisher unimpressed. "It would be one thing if we were in a financial crisis, but we're not," he says. "What is in short supply is open space, and volunteerism is in even shorter supply. These gardens represent the best of New York."

Indeed, the volunteer efforts of elementary school students turned one dump on West 121st Street into the Garden of Love six years ago. But on November 2, HPD demolished the garden to make way for housing. Tom Goodridge, a special ed teacher at P.S. 76, says the bulldozers came without warning, destroying plants and trees. HPD had promised to relocate the garden on a lot adjacent to the school in time for spring planting; Goodridge says the season's here but the lot is not ready.

"We're ready to plant now, and we need it ASAP," says Goodridge. "They say they're working on it, but there's no evidence of that. We expect HPD to fulfill their promise, especially after what happened last time." HPD did not answer question about the garden.

The efforts of Brooklyn gardeners bore fruit two weeks ago when City Hall pulled one Park Slope patch off the auction block after a mayoral aide visited it and concluded that it was "best used as a meeting and greeting place for seniors, children, and members of the community." The rescue of the Gil Hodges Memorial Garden was especially surprising since it's in the district of Councilmember Steve DiBrienza, a Giuliani nemesis whose most recent brawl with the mayor (over city homeless shelters) sparked a feud that made headlines and lasted for months. Giuliani ultimately backed down in that battle, too.

All of which suggests that if Giuliani can bend for DiBrienza— and for a garden that memorializes Hodges, who, as a Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman and later Mets manager, is probably also a nemesis to the Yankee-fan mayor— perhaps he can yield for other gardens as well. Maybe if one were named for Joe DiMaggio . . .

SRO Owner Set Back

Tenants of the Allerton Hotel, who worried that the city would cave in to pressure from their landlord, were relieved last month when HPD denied an application that would have allowed their landlord to profoundly alter the hotel. The decision douses the plans of Property Markets Group, a fast-growing developer that has acquired control of four single-room occupancy hotels like the Allerton in the last few years (see Voice, February 16). PMG wants to attract budget travelers rather than long-term, low-rent tenants.

PMG spokesman Ron Simoncini said the firm lost the application because of harassment that occurred before PMG took over the Allerton in mid 1997. In December, an HPD hearing officer recommended the application be denied, and last month, HPD commissioners agreed, with one exception: they concluded that a letter to tenants written by a PMG official was "patently offensive" but did not constitute harassment. Simoncini says PMG has no plans to appeal the decision.

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