Garden-Variety Politics

Councilmember Spigner Weeds Out Queens Lot

Community gardeners citywide breathed a sigh of relief last May when environmental groups and City Hall struck a deal to rescue 114 plots from the auction block. Among the grateful were Carmen Grau and John Fussell of Queens, who were delighted to learn that the 9000-square-foot lot in Cambria Heights where they had gardened for nearly three decades would not be sold to the highest bidder. Instead, it was slated to go to a nonprofit group and remain a garden.

But that promise was made in the warmth of spring. Now, chill winds have brought bad news: The garden will in fact remain under city control—a status that means it is likely headed back to the auction block. The reason? Queens councilman Archie Spigner, a self-described prodevelopment pol, wants the land to be built on. Spigner convinced the Queens Borough Board, which has the final say on the garden, to vote against a plan to turn the lot over to the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, one of two groups that brokered the citywide garden rescue.

Spigner says he reached his conclusion after "discussions with the community board chair, residents, and Jack Thompson," president of the Cambria Heights Civic Association, which runs the garden. "Our decision was based on the fact that the community would be better served by having the lot developed," Spigner said. But Thompson told the Voicethat he is not as adamant about developing the garden as the councilman suggests. "The fact is, I've said that whatever people in that area want, it's up to them," says Thompson. And Grau says that Community Board 13 chair Susan Noreika supports the garden; Noreika did not return repeated calls for this story.

One local official who was not consulted by Spigner is appalled at his interference. "I find it very bothersome after the community fought a gallant battle to save this garden, and the mayor and the Trust for Public Land set up agreements," says state assemblywoman Barbara Clark of Cambria Heights. "Most people feel this issue was a citizens' victory because of what was accomplished in the spring. They don't know that this quiet war is going on."

Clark is referring to an agreement announced on May 11 whereby the Trust for Public Land and a second group funded with $2.2 million donated and raised by entertainer Bette Midler agreed to buy from the city the gardens that were up for auction. Under the deal, the Trust was to take over 63 gardens; the remaining 51 would go to Midler's New York Restoration Project. Each garden would be eligible to receive between $10,000 and $20,000.

But the transfers must be approved by each borough board, made up of the borough president, local councilmembers, and community board leaders. Citywide, four gardens slated for transfer were rejected. One is in Central Harlem, where Community Board 10 wants to keep development options open for the 2025-square-foot Bradhurst Avenue garden. The other two are in Spigner's district, including the Cambria Heights garden at 227th Street and Linden Boulevard, and two smaller plots in St. Albans. To make up for the losses, the city has added a Central Harlem garden to the trust's mix, but is still short three citywide. Representatives for both the trust and Restoration say they are confident that within a few months, the city will ultimately turn over 114 gardens, although not necessarily the ones on the original list.

The prospect of an auction frustrated gardeners not only because they would lose their lots, but because the land would simply be sold to the highest bidder with no requirement that it be used well; in fact, a study by Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden found that of 440 lots the city sold from 1990 to 1995, 423 remained undeveloped; 148 of them were used for vehicle storage and 240 were litter-filled.

Of the five gardens that failed to make the transfer, the Cambria Heights site is the largest. Spigner told the Queens Chroniclethat the site is "not contributing to the aesthetic enjoyment of the community," despite the fact that it is planted in beds, landscaped, and, even in December, still yields collard greens and a mammoth pumpkin. "I have no doubt that some people say they want that garden," Spigner told the Voice, "but I must tell you that the arguments for development are very strong." Spigner says he has no particular plan for the corner lot. "I have no developer in mind, no multiplex, nothing like that," said Spigner, who chairs the council's housing committee. "This is purely a public policy. There's no smoking gun here."

But there are steamed gardeners. Grau, who chairs the Cambria Heights Civic Association's beautification committee and who last February had collected 118 signatures to protest the May auction, complains that "the gentleman in question said it was unsightly," referring to Spigner. "People who don't get their hands dirty in the soil and who don't know what's a weed and what's a plant say it's a blight. It's not an architecturally designed, fancy garden, but it's used a lot by seniors who come in and plant vegetables like squash, pumpkin, and cabbage."

Spigner argues that community gardens are not needed in Cambria Heights, where "everyone has their own piece of property. It's not like it's on 6th Street and Avenue C," he says, referring to the pitched battles over gardens on the Lower East Side. "This is a low-density community and everyone here has their own lawn. This is not a hard choice."

Cambria Heights is one of the city's furthest-flung communities, hugging the Nassau County border and miles from a subway. The blocks in this middle-class, predominantly black community are lined with a Levittown-like array of attached and semiattached homes. Some do have built-up squares of grass in front that could technically be called lawns.

John Fussell, 65, has gardened on the Linden lot for 24 years; he disputes Spigner's claim that lawns are abundant. "But Archie is pretty powerful—he's been in office for about 20 years—and he seems hell-bent against this garden. I think what happened is when we got the news that Bette Midler was going to buy it, we just relaxed. And then all of a sudden, Archie comes along and puts a monkey wrench in it."

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