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Angry Gardeners Protest Developer After Community Garden Is Fenced Off

 Developer told volunteers he had to block off half of Children's Magical Garden for safety reasons.
Children's Magical Garden
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LOWER EAST SIDE — Members of a Lower East Side community garden squared off with developers Wednesday morning as workmen fenced off half its lot. 

About 9 a.m., a lawyer representing the partial owner of the lot, heavyweight developer Serge Hoyda with Norfolk Street Development LLC, arrived with a team of contractors at the Children's Magical Garden on Norfolk and Stanton streets to build the fence, citing safety concerns.

Garden volunteers heckled constructions workers and the developer's representatives, chanting "Shame on you" and "Don't you have a heart" as the workers dug holes for fence posts and piled up the garden's furniture onto the section owned by the city.

The police were called when volunteer gardeners arrived in an attempt to stop the construction that would reduce their garden by half to 2,500 feet and remove much of their planting and landscaping.

The property, which is also partially owned by the city's Department of Preservation and Housing (HPD), has been under threat of development since volunteer residents claimed it as their own, transforming it from a vacant lot more than 30 years ago.  

"We need this garden here. We need this area so underserved children can have a place to play," said garden director Kate Temple- West, a Lower East Side resident and writer.

"I think it is just amazing that in 2013 someone can come and just do this," said Stan Weichers, 42, a garden member and Lower East Side resident.

Weichers was walking his son to school on Wednesday morning when he saw the workers gearing up chainsaws to cut their way into the garden. He quickly called other garden members.

The Children's Magical Garden often runs community events for children and also allows local schools such as Lower East Side Prep. to use the property has an outside classroom. It is also dealing with a rat problem, according to local blog the Bowery Boogie.

The lawyer representing Norfolk Street Development LLC said the fence had to be constructed due to safety and liability concerns.

"What happens if a kid trips on that stone and falls onto that stone," said the lawyer, who answered to the name Rex, but refused to tell reporters his last name or the firm he worked. "The only one who is responsible is the [lot's] owner."

The lawyer claimed he has personally attempted to contact representatives from the garden to notify of the construction, but they said they weren't told about the fence installation.

"It has been under threat, but there was no prior warning," said Temple-West. "We were here planting yesterday."

Department of Building records show that it approved an application to install a fence on the lot on April 29.

Hoyda did not respond to an email for comment and Rosalie Schwartz from Norfolk Street Development declined to comment further on the matter.

Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who has been facilitating a conversation between the developer,  gardeners and the HPD, requested the fence be taken down.

"We understand that the developer has a permit to build the fence; however, such sudden action is not the best solution and not the act of a good neighbor, especially since there have been active, ongoing conversations to come to an equitable agreement," she said, in a statement.

The HPD, which oversees affordable housing in New York City, offered gardeners an interim agreement to protect the city-owned section of the garden until it is developed by the HPD, an HPD spokesman said. Garden members declined to sign the agreement.

The HPD has slated its part of the lot for future affordable housing, but definitive plans have yet to be made, the spokesman said.

High school student Feng Chen has been coming to the garden since the sixth grade and is now a volunteer youth leader, planting flowers and organizing events for local children.

"I don't know why there are so many police here," said the teary-eyed 17-year-old. "I thought they were going to help us. I thought they were on our side."

"I'm just speechless," she said.