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Apartment Towers Approved for Former Mott Haven Community Garden Site

By Patrick Wall | March 2, 2012 10:23am
A group of people, several of them students from nearby Samuel Gompers High School, takes advantage of the cleared out space, which gardeners dubbed Morning Glory Community Garden, on an abandoned city lot.
A group of people, several of them students from nearby Samuel Gompers High School, takes advantage of the cleared out space, which gardeners dubbed Morning Glory Community Garden, on an abandoned city lot.
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Aazam Otero

MOTT HAVEN — After securing approval from the local community board, a developer this summer plans to begin building towers on top of a former community garden — despite fierce opposition from a group whose unsanctioned plantings were uprooted to make room for the project.

Douglaston Development, whose portfolio includes high-end residential towers in Brooklyn and Manhattan, got the green light with hundreds of apartments it deems affordable from Community Board 1 last week. The three new towers, called Crossroads Plaza, would house about 430 apartments, as well as shops and a center for children with special needs.

Douglaston would break ground in July on an eight-story building that would offer 126 below-market-rate apartments and an early education center run by Easter Seals. Thirteen- and 15-story apartment buildings with street-level store space would be constructed in subsequent years.

But the group who converted the city lot — which sits at the intersection of Southern Boulevard, 149th Street and Union Avenue — into a vegetable garden has fought the plan.

At last Thursday’s community board meeting, garden supporters shouted down city officials and called on board members to reject the development project. Board members went on to approve the plan, though, by a vote of 19 to 3, with two abstentions. The board determined that the neighborhood’s need for more affordable housing and special-needs services trumped its desire for extra green space, said Cedric Loftin, the board’s district manager.

“I think it’s going to be a beautiful site and it will meet the needs of the community,” Loftin said. “It’s not like anyone is against greening, just not at that site.”

The proposal to sell the city-owned land to the developer for a nominal fee and obtain a permit for the two taller towers, which exceed current height limits, must still be approved by the borough president and the city council. A decision is expected in May.

Still, the gardening group made a desperate plea to meet with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. in hopes of convincing him that the community would benefit more from the green space than the development.

But on Thursday, the borough president’s office informed the group that they would not be given a meeting because of their “incredibly disrespectful” actions at the board meeting, Diaz spokesman John DeSio told DNAinfo.

One of the gardeners, Mott Haven resident Aazam Otero, said that the borough president’s decision amounted to “a death sentence for us.”

“We’re being shut out,” he said.

Otero said that in 2010 several Mott Haven residents and environmental activists cleared the city lot, which had been vacant since the 1970s. They began to host outdoor events there and plant a garden, which they called Morning Glory Community Garden, he added.

More than a dozen volunteers, including several local high school students, planted crops such as carrots and corn, as well as a peach tree. And even though the trash removal, raised beds, tools and soil cost hundreds of dollars, Otero said, the group offered the vegetables to the community free of charge.

But last November, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development uprooted the garden and padlocked the site to prepare it for development. Department officials noted that the gardeners had never registered Morning Glory or asked for access to the site.

The gardeners responded by holding an angry sit-in at the community board office. In December, they protested outside the locked garden site, leading to the arrest of five people, including a journalist.

Besides objecting to the removal of the garden, the group has questioned how the developer will finance the project and whether local residents will be able to afford the apartments.

The financing package for the first building is still being finalized, but will include equity from the developer, as well as tax credits, tax-exempt bonds and capital funding from the city, said HPD spokesman Eric Bederman. Funding for the other two buildings has not yet been secured since their construction will not begin for several years, he said.

The department requires public-private projects to be fully financed, however, before building starts, Bederman added.

Rents in the first building will range from $751 for a studio to $1,580 for a three-bedroom apartment, according to a document released by Douglaston.

The apartments are reserved for tenants with low- or moderate-income levels, which are based on regional averages. Low-income for a family of four is defined as $49,000, while moderate-income is $66,000, according to HPD.

The median household income in the census area that includes Mott Haven and Hunts Point is $20,037, according to 2008-2010 census figures. In that area, which includes Community Boards 1 and 2, more than 80 percent of families earn less than $50,000 a year.

Critics of the plan have questioned whether the apartments are intended for local low-income residents, or are designed to bring better-off newcomers into the neighborhood.

“That’s not affordable housing for that community,” said Rafael Mutis, a Morning Glory gardener who lives in East Harlem but teaches at community colleges in the Bronx. “There’s no way anyone in the community makes that much money.” 

Still, Bederman called the development an “investment in the future of Mott Haven” meant to provide housing and jobs to both current and future residents.

“There’s nothing wrong with growing a community when it’s accomplished without displacing the residents who already live there,” he said. “Economic diversity helps to make a neighborhood healthier and stronger.”

A spokesman for Douglaston said that with its vote, the community board had spoken for Mott Haven residents.

“It seems they want affordable housing and Easter Seals and future retail development,” he said.