One hundred twenty-six community gardens across the city face destruction if the Giuliani administration carries out its plan to auction them off in May as part of a package of city-owned land parcels.

    In response, a burgeoning, citywide grass-roots movement, supported by national environmental groups, has sprung up to oppose the plan. The anti-Giuliani sentiment has united community gardeners, neighborhood activists and local politicians who are gearing up to make their voices heard in the city's final public hearing on the auction this week at City Hall.

    "We want as many people to come out for the Feb. 24 meeting as possible," said Gerard Lordahl of the New York-based Council for the Environment. "It's a last-ditch effort."

    Mayor Giuliani has dismissed his opponents as stuck in "the era of communism."

    In all five boroughs, community garden supporters are holding late-night strategy meetings, signing petitions, planning rallies and talking of civil disobedience, if necessary. Local elected officials, especially in Brooklyn, are outraged that the Giuliani administration did not consult them about which local parcels would go on the block. In the past, the city had sought community advice on property transfers or sales.

    "In 1998, community boards and gardeners were basically taken out of the loop," said Craig Hammerman, district manager of Community Board 6 in Brooklyn. "No notice. No consultation."

    Even officials who support auctioning some of the gardens were galled by the unannounced policy shift. Community Board 6 had reached an agreement with the city last fall to turn its 12th St. garden into a Sisters of Mercy hospice for developmentally disabled teens. The plot now is slated to goto the highest bidder.

    City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Queens) wrote Mayor Giuliani that his plan "does not suggest a well-thought-outpolicy direction."

    City Hall says low-income housing will be built on many of the sites. Officials say there is no guarantee that will happen.

    Howard Golden, the Brooklyn borough president, recently released a report showing that lots sold by the city usually remain garbage-strewn eyesores for years.

    "Based on my study, once auctioned, most vacant lots not only remain underdeveloped, but become dumping grounds for unauthorized vehicles and garbage," said Golden.

    Brooklyn officials worry that the loss of 56 of the borough's 250-odd community gardens about twice as many as listed for auction in the Bronx, with 31 will contribute to an already acute lack of green space. Brooklyn has 1.7 acres of open space for every 1,000 people, according to figures prepared by the citywide Neighborhood Open Space Coalition.

    That's less than in any other urban environment in America. Boston has four acres per 1,000 people. Philadelphia has more than six.

    City officials say the sale is an opportunity to expand the tax base and cash in on the city's surging real estate market. According to a Daily News analysis of city records, the least the city could make from sales of the 126 gardens is $ 3,620,000.

    A fair-market value for all of the properties, say land-use experts, would be at least twice that amount. In other words, the city stands to make at least $ 7 million.

    "Is $ 6 million to $ 7 million a lot of money? Yes, but what are the other costs?" asked City Councilman Stephen DiBrienza (D-Brooklyn). "The gardens have enormous community value that should not be discounted."

    Last week, the Community Board 6 Parks and Housing committees voted unanimously to to ask the city not to auction the Gil Hodges Memorial Garden, which is used by nearby Public School 372 for writing projects and science experiments, as well as four other gardens in the area.

    All of Board 6's gardens are on the auction block. Their sale, say advocates, would fundamentally alter the face of the community.

    "This land is valuable, there's no doubt about it," said the Rev. Roderick Crispo of Our Lady of Peace Church, which cares for the Gil Hodges Memorial Garden and pays for its maintenance. "But this is important, too."

    Whether any of the gardens up for auction can be saved remains uncertain.

    "Don't put your faith in the courts," said Leslie Lowe, executive director of the New York Environmental Justice Alliance. "This is a political issue. We have to bring the political pressure to bear."

    The City Council has vowed to oppose any moves by the mayor to auction the city's remaining 600 community gardens without local feedback. According to sources, a motion to protect community gardens is planned at Thursday's City Council meeting.

    State legislators also are trying to save as many gardens as possible. State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery is introducing a bill with Assemblywoman Joan Millman, a fellow Brooklyn Democrat, that would allow not-for-profit groups to purchase gardens using state funds.

    "The ruination of community gardens will destroy more than flowers, trees and branches," Montgomery said. "It will repress a community spirit that compels neighbors to do good for one another with a hoe, a trowel and a great deal of tender, loving care."

GRAPHIC: BUDD WILLIAMS DAILY NEWS GOING ONCE? Members of community garden coalitions gather near City Hall to protest Mayor Giuliani's plan to auction 126 city gardens in May. Top, Darren Phillips, 9, (l.) and Kalif McNeil, 7, learn gardening at Warren St. garden in Brooklyn. EVY MAGES DAILY NEWS

Copyright 1999 Daily News, L.P.
Daily News (New York)
February 21, 1999, Sunday
SECTION: News; Pg. 26