Faced with three lawsuits and the kind of bad publicity that comes when protesters are willing to risk arrest for the sake of lilacs and tomato plants, the Giuliani administration is trying to strike a settlement with various environmental groups opposed to its plan to auction off public lots that are used as community gardens.
A senior administration official said yesterday that after several weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, the city was working on a deal to sell 63 parcels -- scheduled to be auctioned off tomorrow -- to a private conservation group called the Trust for Public Land. The sales price is $3 million, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and whose account was verified by others close to the discussions.
It was unclear last night precisely which parcels were included in the proposal, although the city official said that they were not ones that the city considered feasible for "economic development or housing." There are 112 community gardens scheduled to be sold at auction; even if a settlement is reached, dozens of gardens would still be put up for sale.
All parties acknowledged that any agreement faces significant hurdles, particularly the city's demand that, as the city official put it, "all the lawsuits go away." Rose Harvey, the senior vice president for the trust, said last night that her organization is interested solely in a real estate transaction and is not involved in any way in the lawsuits.
"I do believe that there's a strong possibility that we will do a deal," Ms. Harvey said. But having the lawsuits dropped "is a condition put forward by the city," she added, "and we have no ability to do that."
Making matters even more complicated is that the plaintiffs in the lawsuits include more than two dozen organizations, from the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance to the More Gardens! Coalition. And not all of the groups share the same agenda.
Lawyers at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is representing several of the garden groups, said that they were angry that they had not been apprised of the discussions between the city and the Trust for Public Land. They also said that they were unlikely to drop their lawsuit unless the city agreed to call off the entire auction.
"We feel a great deal of frustration at the fact that a party, which is not a party to this lawsuit, is coming in and negotiating what the city is now considering 'the deal' -- in effect cutting the baby in half," said Sara E. Rios, a lawyer for the fund. "We think it is not in the interests of our clients and we will continue to aggressively defend our clients, which is all of the gardens."
The potential for an agreement represents a shift by the administration in its dealings with the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit national organization that has long advocated the preservation of the city's community gardens. Less than three weeks ago, the city rejected the group's offer to buy 165 gardens for $2 million, which city officials said was markedly lower than the properties' fair market value.
The intense negotiations are taking place as advocates for the gardens continue to demonstrate an almost militant resolve, staging demonstrations with people dressed as plants and ladybugs, sending out plaintive E-mail appeals en masse, filing lawsuits and orchestrating acts of civil disobedience. One week brought a protest at City Hall that led to the arrests of 30 people, some bearing kazoos; another week found a man, dressed like a sunflower, screaming, "The gardens must be saved!" from his perch in a ginkgo tree in City Hall Park.
The latest action came on Monday, when three demonstrators shackled their ankles together with a Kryptonite bicycle lock inside a city office. The police had to use an electric saw to cut through the lock before arresting them.
Also on Monday, State Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer sued the city on the grounds that auctioning off the lots violated state environmental laws. And yesterday, some members of the City Council wore flowers from the gardens on their lapels, reflecting the Council's interest -- perhaps through state legislation -- in blocking or delaying the Giuliani administration's plans to sell the properties.
Two decades ago, the city permitted community groups to transform vacant lots into gardens as part of an open-ended but temporary agreement. That agreement effectively ended with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who wants to sell the lots and return them, if possible, to the public tax rolls. His administration's general response to those who want to keep the lots gardens has been: So then buy them.
The administration has also said that it hoped the sales would lead to more housing; garden advocates dismiss that position as a ruse. Adding further confusion to the debate is the differing conditions of the gardens. Some are verdant gathering places for neighborhoods; others are little more than glass-strewn lots.
The debate reached Federal District Court in Manhattan yesterday, as Judge Allen G. Schwartz considered a request by garden supporters for a temporary restraining order that would stop tomorrow's auction. After being told by city lawyers that the administration was trying to negotiate a deal, the judge indicated that he might issue a decision sometime this afternoon.
In addition, there is a hearing scheduled today in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on two other lawsuits, including the Attorney General's, that are also seeking to stop the auction.
GRAPHIC: Photo: Children made their way through the garden
at Parque de Tranquilidad on East Fourth Street between Avenues C and D
yesterday. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)(pg. B4)