2012-08-22 - Trespassing to Plant Flowers, and a Flag - NY Times

Trespassing to Plant Flowers, and a Flag
The Villager
August 22nd, 2012
By Colin Moynihan

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/22/nyregion/gardeners-annex-lower-east-si...

The gardeners entered the empty lot, pushing in the bottom of a metal gate on the Lower East Side, ducking under it and dragging their tools behind them.

There were rakes, shovels, a pitchfork — and a “No Trespassing” sign that was ignored by all. The goal, they said, was to turn the city-owned lot into a sanctioned community garden, and to somehow kill a proposal that seeks to merge the empty lot, on Stanton Street near Attorney Street, with two others, forming an L-shaped development parcel of about 4,000 square feet.

Soon about a dozen people were cleaning the lot, picking up pieces of lumber and piling them next to an ivy-covered brick wall. Although the visit flouted city rules, the group made little attempt to be covert: they invited passers-by to sign a petition supporting their efforts.

In some ways, the actions on Sunday harked back to an earlier era, when territorial battles on the Lower East Side involved lawsuits filed to prevent the sale of gardens to developers and barricades erected around city-owned plots by gardeners hoping to stave off takeover attempts. Symbolic annexation of that sort was used to create dozens of gardens in the 1970s and 1980s, when empty lots abounded and development on the Lower East Side seemed permanently stalled.

These days, though, with developers eager to build, the gardeners acknowledged that the odds of prevailing may not be in their favor. But Claire Costello, 38, said she and others had decided to organize the unsanctioned cleanup to promote the idea of a permanent garden.

“Obedience is not always the right thing to do,” she said, as people dug up bricks from the soil and planted flowers, including a leadwort with blue petals and a black-eyed Susan.

While the part of the lot abutting Stanton Street was strewed with debris, a 70-foot poplar, a wild rose bush and other flora grew in the rear of the lot and on parts of two adjoining lots, where some of the participants said that they had been gardening since the 1990s.

The city-owned lot, which runs south from Stanton Street, is 1,200 square feet and adjoins two perpendicular lots of 1,400 square feet, both running west from Attorney Street. One is owned by the city and the other by a private company, 139 Attorney Street L.L.C.

None of the lots are big enough to accommodate a building that would likely generate much revenue, said John Donahue, 53, who began gardening on parts of the lots about 15 years ago. He added that he saw the attempt to combine all three lots as a form of overreaching to “maximize profits” that would also remove a cherished patch of greenery.

Tending the garden, he said, “makes living in New York a lot more bearable, because we have this little bit of ground that we can take care of.”

During a meeting of Community Board 3 in April, architects for a developer identified as 137 Attorney Street L.L.C. presented plans for a five-story building of 14 apartments to be constructed on the lots. The board approved the concept of combining the lots pending further reports and with the understanding that at least three apartments would be designated as affordable housing.

An official from the city Housing Preservation and Development Department said that a developer had expressed interest in combining the lots but had not submitted a formal proposal to do so.

Lawyers at a firm that was identified on papers submitted to the community board as representing the developer did not respond to a request for comment.

Among those who signed the petition on Sunday were some who began living nearby in the 1970s, like Santiago Baez, 54, as well as newer arrivals, like Georgina Koren, 28.

“It has been a wasted space,” Ms. Koren said. “It would be great to have a bit more green.”