The Endangered Garden


For the last 31 years the Liz Christy Garden, at the corner of East Houston Street and the Bowery, has faced drugs, crime, and passersby treating it like a urinal. But no threat has loomed larger than the construction of the Avalon Chrystie Place project, a giant residential-commercial complex springing up next door. In the bad old days, junkies used to come to the rubble-filled lot to score their fix. That changed in 1973 when the activist Liz Christy and a group of friends transformed the blighted corner into the first community garden in New York. They planted trees, flowers, and vegetables and opened their experiment in urban agriculture to the public. Since then the garden has flourished, spawning copycats across the city. Visitors flock to the downtown oasis to sit in the shade of the cherry blossom tree, watch the turtles in the pond, or meditate on the ivy backdrop.

The 22 active volunteer gardeners, of which I am one, started planning for the construction of Chrystie Place about three years ago. Now AvalonBay stands poised to demolish the crumbling buildings adjacent to the garden, and the volunteers are struggling to deal with the inevitable: The iconic ivy wall must come down and a nine-story facade will rise in its place.

For the moment, the gardeners are just trying to keep bulldozers out of Liz Christy. AvalonBay claims the land disposition agreement it signed with the city in June 2003 allows it to excavate three feet into the garden for the foundation and parking garage. Arborists say that digging into this crucial space may kill decades-old trees, including the blue atlas cedar and flowering cherry. The turtle pond will also be destroyed.

AvalonBay counters that respecting the property line would cost the building 700 square feet of retail space and one row of parking, in other words about $3.1 million. But when the gardeners asked an architect to come up with an alternative design, he showed how a tweak to construction plans could keep shovels out of the garden for an added cost of just over $130,000.

As other issues have come up, both sides have had to adjust. The volunteers have agreed to close the garden for two years. AvalonBay, in turn, has agreed to use netting instead of a 20-foot sidewalk shed to protect the garden during construction, allowing light and water to reach the plants below. It has also promised to pay for trees and plants damaged during construction (though good luck putting a price tag on a 30-year-old tree).

AvalonBay stands to make millions from its 564 market-rate rental units, 150,000 square feet of commercial space, and parking garage. Given these figures, $130,000 doesn’t seem like too much to ask to preserve this beloved speck of neighborhood beauty.