How One Thriving Community Garden Protected Itself from Real Estate Developers

Walking along a quiet stretch of West 89th Street in early spring 2013, Judy Robinson’s footsteps slowed as she gazed through a large arched gate. There, tucked between two apartment buildings, were thousands of tulips in just about every color, shape, and size bursting from the ground.

Drawn in by the brightness of the blooms, Robinson entered the heart of the West Side Community Garden.

“What is this place?” she thought.

Robinson has been president of the garden since 2018, which will start its 39th season this spring. Her story echoes that of many others’ discovery of the plot.

“The most important thing to know,” said Robinson, “is that it really is a community effort that is sustained by a large group of very dedicated people who love the garden so well.”

But it wasn’t always a natural beauty.

Urban blight had overrun much of New York City before Upper West Side residents took over the space. With an unlikely opportunity to purchase the land in 1985 after negotiations with city officials and private developers vying to develop the plot, the West Side Community Garden has thrived ever since.

That hasn’t been the case for many of the other 550 community gardens on city property in New York that are vulnerable to developments taking their place. The founders knew owning their land was the only way to protect the beauty and safety that their green space helped usher in.

The garden’s story began in the 1970s, when the lot was nothing more than a pile of rubble where stolen cars were stripped for parts, said Robinson.

The space had been an eyesore for decades. Slums once stood there before the city demolished the rundown building through eminent domain in an effort to revitalize the neighborhood.

“The West Side was not considered a good risk for real estate development,” said Robinson. “It was considered dangerous, dirty, depressed. I mean, local block associations were hiring private security guards because the area was considered so dangerous.”

Tom Thies, a founding member of the garden and its first president, said that in 1973, neighbors began to clean it up, planting vegetables and flowers. Over time, they transformed it with a limited usage agreement by the city which stipulated that they could use the land until a developer came along.

In the late 1970s, a real estate developer did come along, prompting a high stakes mobilization effort by residents to save the garden.

According to Thies, Jerry Kretchmer, a politician and developer, wanted to build government subsidized townhouses. He presented a plan to the local community board, CB7, for a vote.

That’s when Sally Goodgold and Doris Rosenblum, two infamous civic advocates, challenged Kretchmer, Thies said, arguing that his proposal was an illegal use of federal funds.

Kretchmer, Thies believes, saw danger of his whole plan being scrapped. According to Thies, Kretchmer was “adamant that no community group would be able to establish a permanent garden there.”

With financial and legal assistance from the Trust for Public Land, a U.S. non-profit with a mission to protect land for communities, the gardeners created the West Side Community Garden non-profit organization and began negotiating. Ultimately, a quarter of the garden was allowed to remain in exchange for the developer being allowed to build taller buildings on a nearby site at West 89th Street and Columbus Avenue. The rest of the plot would be developed by Kretchmer.

“I think he realized the community was not going to let him have what he wanted,” said Silvana Pizzuti, a founding member of the garden, referencing Kretchmer’s plan to develop the entirety of the garden.

Kretchmer was also given assurance, said Thies, from the Trust for Public Land that the space would be maintained.

“He was guaranteed to have this nice green space attached to his building,” said Thies.

So, in 1989, the garden was granted their deed in perpetuity.

But the trust has the right to buy the land back if the garden isn’t used as a public space.

Many community gardens are on city-owned land and operate under limited use agreements. Although gardens can increase surrounding property values and lower crime rates, the city can decide at any time to repurpose the land.

“It’s a huge relief to those of us involved in the garden to know that our property is protected,” said garden member Elizabeth Buening. “Especially when stories come up with other gardens like Elizabeth Street.”

The well-publicized fight over the Elizabeth Street Garden in the Lower East Side has dragged on for 10 years. It stems from whether the space should remain a garden, or affordable housing for older people. As of June, a court ruled in favor of housing.

It’s an issue that continues to raise alarms for community gardens throughout the city that don’t have any legal right to their land.

“For me, green space has always been a big part of finding happiness and peace in New York City. When we lose trees, when we lose open space, I feel like our minds close down a little bit. It feels different,” said Buening. “It feels desolate.”

About the author(s)

Emily Byrski is a journalist, photographer, and M.S. student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, focusing on climate change, travel, and global affairs.