EAST HARLEM — A nonprofit that owns a community garden sold the garden's air rights to a developer in exchange for $500,000 in cash and a chunk of land to expand its greenspace.
The New York Restoration Project, which owns nine gardens in El Barrio, sold the air rights to 105 E. 103rd St. in December. In exchange, developers gave them $500,000 and part of the vacant lot on the corner of 103rd Street and Park Avenue, NYRP executive director Deborah Marton said.
“That was the main reason we did the swap,” she said. “We got $500,000, but the key thing we got was the land. We wouldn’t have done the deal if it was just for cash.”
The 103rd Street Community Garden is made up of a garden, basketball court, playground, and grass lawn. The new space will become a plaza surrounded by planting beds and fruit trees. Parkgoers will be able to use the space for community events, Marton added.
The expansion will start in the fall and should be completed by next winter.
The development next to the garden will be a 23-story, 108-unit residential building with an underground parking lot, according to documents filed with DOB.
Part of the deal is that the development will have its own door to the garden and building staff will be in charge of opening and closing the park, Marton said.
Apart from that, the rules will be the same for everybody and no one will get preferential treatment, she added.
Some gardeners criticized NYRP for not involving them during the negotiations.
“NYRP, a donor- and city-funded organization, sold their air rights without coming in good faith to consult the gardeners or the community,” said Diana Santana. "What makes this even more difficult to handle is that they did not use their leverage of air rights to negotiate a good deal from the developer to contribute to the broader community.”
NYRP’s East Harlem properties are open to the public and will remain open to the public, Marton said.
Money from the air rights will be put back into the community to help maintain the parks, she added.
Several gardeners were concerned about how the new development and their new neighbors will affect the neighborhood.
“It’ll be kind of like the movie 'Up' where they build a mall around the guy’s house. That’s the only way I can describe it,” said Mercedes Williams, who has been a member of the garden for four years. She grows okra, eggplant, chives, cucumbers, and basil. Whatever she doesn’t eat she gives to friends and co-workers.
Jesus Colon is one of the original members of the garden. He still remembers the vacant lot it was before they cleared it and turned it into a neighborhood gem.
“When we started working on this garden it was a dump full of garbage,” he said.
People often have private events like birthday parties of BBQ's in the park but they never rope off sections or keep people from using the playground or basketball courts.
What happens in 103rd Street could have bigger implications in East Harlem as the neighborhood prepares to rezone, Santana said.
She questioned NYRP’s role in the East Harlem’s steering committee because, as a property owner, they may benefit from the process.
“NYRP and other organizations that now own previously held public land are set to make millions of dollars with East Harlem upzoning if policies are not put in place to hold them and developers accountable,” she said.