NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: LOWER EAST SIDE; Browning of Hope for Village Gardens

    Supporters of community gardens suffered a setback last week when a State Supreme Court justice ruled against an environmental group that wants to prevent the construction of housing on four garden sites in the East Village. Though the decision directly affects only a handful of the city's 400 or so makeshift urban greens, advocates of community gardens say they are worried about the message it sends at a time when city officials are increasingly reclaiming the long-abandoned -- and now cultivated -- lots for housing.

    Justice Jeffrey Atlas's decision on Wednesday lifted a stay on bulldozing at the Chico Mendez Mural Garden on 11th Street between Avenues A and B, the Little Puerto Rico garden on 10th Street between Avenues B and C, and a smaller pair, Angel's Garden and Maria's Garden, both on 11th Street between Avenues B and C.

    The New York Housing Partnership, with money from city, state and Federal housing authorities, plans to build 98 two- and three-bedroom condominiums, intended for families earning $28,000 to $70,000 a year, on the four garden lots. But the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, which sued on behalf of a community garden advocacy group to stop the demolition, argues that the condominium project should be seen as part of a broader plan to build some 2,500 units of new housing in various neighborhoods in the next few years. Development on that scale, the group says, should require a full-scale environmental impact study by the city.

    Justice Atlas disagreed, upholding the city's view that projects in separate neighborhoods should be viewed individually. The environmental group says it plans to appeal.

    "We are not opposed to housing," said Leslie H. Lowe, director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. But pointing out the number of available lots in the city, she said, "Out of 11,000 vacant lots, you can't tell me the city can't find a space other than a garden."

    Deirdra L. Picou, a spokeswoman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, applauded the decision. "H.P.D. does not target gardens," she said, noting that the housing sites had been endorsed by the local community board.

    Meanwhile, lawyers representing six artists whose work is in the Mendez Mural Garden have filed a complaint against the city in Federal District Court, claiming the planned demolition violates the 1990 Visual Artists' Rights Act, which forbids mutilation or unauthorized alteration of public artworks. At the three other sites, advocates have responded to recent attempts by the police to padlock the gardens by staging 24-hour vigils and protest parties.

    Anastasia Pardalis, director of the New York City Coalition for the Preservation of Gardens, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that gardeners also planned to pursue other options, like legislative action and civil disobedience. "It's not the end by far," she said.   JESSE McKINLEY

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
October 19, 1997, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 14; Page 6; Column 4; The City Weekly Desk