Sudden Deal Saves Gardens Set for Auction

 
    A day before the Giuliani administration was to auction off city-owned lots that had been transformed into community gardens, the performer Bette Midler had her private conservation organization agree to buy dozens of the less desirable parcels, providing the final financing to preserve all 112 gardens that were set for sale.

    The 11th-hour announcement ended a long-running dispute between city officials who said the parcels were ripe for sale and residents who viewed themselves as gardeners tending to verdant oases in neighborhoods of concrete and steel. But the fate of more than 600 other lots that were not part of the auction remains unclear.

    Nevertheless, the $1.2 million purchase of 51 lots by the New York Restoration Project -- arranged by a singer and actress better known for her engaging flamboyance than for her diplomatic skills -- provided a vital piece in the city's negotiations with environmental groups.

    The offer cleared the way for another conservation group, the Trust for Public Land, to buy the rest of the 112 parcels for $3 million, a figure that included an additional $1 million from Ms. Midler's organization.

    According to the deal, the two organizations are to work out plans to turn over the properties to the community groups that tend to the gardens. If the properties are ever used for anything other than gardens, ownership will revert to the city, said Deputy Mayor Randy Levine, who helped in the negotiations.

    "We're thrilled," Ms. Midler said in a prepared statement. "This is a joyous occasion and means that these gardens will stay in perpetuity."

    "It's a win-win for everybody," Mr. Levine said. "The city gets market value for these properties, which will go into the general treasury to be used to enhance other city services. The gardens will remain gardens."

    The agreements end, at least for now, what had become a daunting public relations challenge for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his aides, who were faced with demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience by protesters often wearing colorful garb. No matter how principled their stand, city officials learned, it can be difficult to remain dignified when faced with an adversary dressed as a sunflower -- or a ladybug or a tomato plant.

    But the central issue was not frivolous to any of the involved parties. The administration contended that the city lots were provided to neighborhoods two decades ago as part of a temporary agreement, but should now be used for housing or economic development or put up for sale. If the gardeners were interested, the officials said, they could make a bid. But the environmentalists saw the gardens as havens of green, often in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

    It turned out that the auction -- characterized by gardeners as an act of aggression -- would not have taken place today anyway. A Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn temporarily barred the auction yesterday, after lawyers for several environmental groups and the State Attorney General's office had argued that the city had flouted various local and state regulations in putting the properties up for sale.

    City officials had hoped that the purchase agreements would make moot several lawsuits that have been filed by more than two dozen environmental organizations and neighborhood groups seeking to block the city's sale of the lots. In fact, the city initially sought to make the sale to the Trust for Public Land contingent on the end to the lawsuits, even though the trust was not a part of them.

    But some of the environmental groups vowed to continue their legal battles, saying that they were concerned with the fate of several hundred other community gardens throughout the city.

    "For us, it was never a question of only saving a few gardens," said Leslie Lowe, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. "The issue is the city's lack of policy on open space equity."

    "Almost all the gardens that were to be auctioned were in neighborhoods of color," Ms. Lowe contended.

    Richard Kassel, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council who presented some of the environmentalists' arguments yesterday, agreed that there were outstanding issues, and said, "We are going to wait and see the details" of the proposed sales "before we pop any Champagne."

    Ms. Midler, meanwhile, had always been a player in the efforts to salvage the community gardens. Although a native of Hawaii, she first gained notice as an actress by singing in the gay bath houses of New York City. She and her family later moved to Los Angeles, but returned to New York in 1994 after a devastating earthquake in California.

    Since then, she has been an integral member of the city's environmental coalition. She founded the New York Restoration Project with $250,000 of her own money, and has since raised money for conservation causes with elaborate fund-raising events. At last October's "Hulaween" party, which raised about $1.2 million, costumed dancers appeared as caterpillars, children dressed as butterflies and Ms. Midler made her entrance as a spider.

    Roberta Greene, a spokeswoman for Ms. Midler's organization, said the performer was up well into the night trying to figure out a resolution. She finally decided to offer to buy 51 properties, Ms. Greene said. "So early this morning, phone calls went back and forth."

    That resolve -- and that cash flow -- clearly impressed Deputy Mayor Levine. "I think she's a great believer and she's done a lot for New York," he said.

    "I think she wanted to do what she can to try to save these things," he added.

    Mr. Levine also said that the city would be negotiating with the Trust for Public Land about another 21 gardens. But there are hundreds of other gardens whose fates were not affected by Ms. Midler's beneficence and which Mr. Levine did not discuss.

    Rose Harvey, the senior vice president of the Trust for Public Land, expressed caution about any suggestion by city officials that they had won a victory in the fight over community gardens.

    "It's a victory if it's the end of private purchases of public space," she said. "And a beginning of a process in which the city protects open space on its own."

GRAPHIC: Photos: Olean For, 78, made a prayerful gesture of thanks when she was told that her community garden on East Third Street would be preserved. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times); Bette Midler helped organize a deal that saved 112 community gardens from a city auction. (Reuters)(pg. B6)
 
 
 Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
May 13, 1999, Thursday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section B; Page 1; Column 5; Metropolitan Desk
BYLINE:  By DAN BARRY