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Harlem Community Gardeners Fight City Plans to Hand Greenspace to Developer

By Dartunorro Clark | January 17, 2017 4:57pm | Updated on January 18, 2017 7:58am
 The garden wants the city to rethink its housing plans on the site. 
The garden wants the city to rethink its housing plans on the site. 
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DNAinfo/Dartunorro Clark

HARLEM — Gardeners who transformed a vacant Harlem lot into a blossoming community garden are fighting plans to turn the city-owned land over to a housing developer.

René Calvo, the founder of the Mandela Community Garden at 265-269 W. 126th St, is among dozens of volunteers who cultivated the gated-off piece of asphalt into a much loved greenspace.

But the city announced Friday that contracts to build housing on sites across the city — including the garden — had been awarded.

Calvo said he first learned of it from a New York Daily News story Friday touting an announcement by Mayor Bill de Blasio that 29 units are planned for the site.

For 30 years, the lot sat vacant collecting debris, agitating neighbors and becoming an “eyesore,” Calvo said.

It wasn’t until three years ago that Calvo and several residents banded together to transform it. The garden grows native American wildflowers including blanket flower, scarlet flax, baby’s breath and a wild variety of sunflowers.

“This is where you find your housing advocates, your LGBT advocates, your senior advocates,” Calvo said of the people involved in community gardens.

“It’s crazy, and he’s supposed to be our progressive mayor. You’re telling me you can’t let (these) gardens continue to thrive so they can teach the next generation?”

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said the community garden was always meant to be temporary.

She added that the plans for housing have been in the works for more than a year now.

The mayor’s office announced in December 2015 that, of more than 40 community gardens on city-owned land, only 34 would be saved and turned over to the Parks Department and seven would become sites for housing development.

The spokeswoman said these decisions are not made lightly, but “the supply of city-owned land available for new affordable housing has shrunk dramatically, and these sites represent some of the last viable affordable housing sites in the city's portfolio.”

The city says the plan will create 800 units and will be “100 (percent) affordable.” There was no information available on the levels of affordability.

The Central Harlem site would also house a restaurant and Silicon Harlem, a local tech incubator.

A spokesman for the city's Parks Department said it has plans to help the garden relocate.

Calvo, however, said the garden, which has more than 100 members, is not interested in relocating.

“What they showed us was pathetic,” Calvo said. “They were supposed to offer something equal or greater.”

Calvo has started an online petition hoping the city will rethink the plan.  

“I don’t understand how public land gets promised to a private company?” he said.

“Before Manhattan becomes Bangkok, with a tall building on every block, where is the plan to create community gardens?”

Calvo said he and his volunteers worked diligently through a bureaucratic maze to get the garden up and running.

“We spent a year and a half going to community board meetings and they made it very difficult for us,” he said.

“For the city to put money and resources for upper-middle income people, who most likely won’t even come from the neighborhood, and call it affordable housing," he said. "We have to come up with a new English language if that’s what’s affordable.”