A ten-year battle to turn an empty lot into green space wages on
By C. Zawadi Morris 12:15 pm
Jerry Nurse, the owner of Myrtle Pets, wants the vacant lot on Myrtle Avenue between Kent and Franklin avenues to be turned into a dog run.
Armen Reyes, a 60-year Bed-Stuy resident, wants it transformed into a place for seniors to sit and gather.
Civil rights attorney Paula Segal envisions the same things for the lot as both Nurse and Reyes, but in addition, she’d like to add a shade structure, flowers, a couple of raised beds for gardening, some benches and some tables…
In the late 90s, Reyes joined the Kent Avenue Stabilization Task Force, a group of residents and associations who were trying to turn the vacant lot into something useful. But within inches of closing a deal, the project mysteriously stalled.
So, a year and a half ago, Segal decided to resuscitate the more than 10-year-old campaign with a renewed effort she has named Myrtle Village Green, requesting the short-term use of the lot, currently owned by the Department of Environmental Protection, for vital green space in the community.
“There are no parks, there’s no green space, all of the playgrounds are paved, and there are all of these vacant lots,” said Segal of the area located at the intersection of North Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill, a district that was historically the center of Wallabout Village.
It turns out that land use and public space just so happens to be an area of focus for Segal in her job as a part-time attorney at Rankin and Taylor. But that’s not all. She’s also the founder of 596 Acres, the same advocacy organization that already has helped turn four empty lots in Brooklyn into green space, including the community garden at 462 Halsey Street, which celebrated its grand opening on Sunday.
And from the beginning, her efforts with MVG also looked promising: Residents, neighborhood organizations, DEP, Community Board 3, Councilwoman Letitia James, Pratt Area Community Council — everyone in the neighborhood, it seemed – were on board. MVG even raised $1,000 to clear out the space and begin an initial build-out.
In fact, the groundswell for MVG happened so quickly and with such impressive force, by February 2012, Matthew Mahoney, the associate commissioner for intergovernmental affairs at DEP, said on the record that, as long as the requirements were met (and they were) and as long as Councilwoman Letitia James was on board, the DEP saw no reason why keys could not be transferred by March 1. But on March 1, the day the keys were scheduled to be handed over, no one showed up.
“We’re not sure what happened, because no one is really talking now,” said Stephan Von Muehlen, an active member of the MVG and a Bed-Stuy resident of 7 years. “We’ve got over 1,000 signatures and plenty of interest, and all we want is interim use. We want flowers along here in time for spring and summer, and we‘ve got elementary school kids from the area ready to help out.”
“Here’s the DEP, they’re like ‘Yes, yes, it’s supposed to be a community site,’ and then nothing happens,” Segal said. “It’s very hard to advocate for something when someone is already telling you yes. You’re like, ‘okay, thanks… and… ?’”
The community felt deflated. And confused. Who led the bait and switch?
“I’ve been here 15 years, and that lot has just been sitting there,” said Nurse, who also joined the MVG coalition. “We don’t have no green space here. In the winter, the space is dead, but at least if there was a dog run in there, people will bring out dogs year around… It could even be a place for the little guys to toss around a baseball.”
Segal, Nurse and Von Muehlen cannot say for certain where the disconnect happened, but they do have a small idea. When they think about the last thing DEP told them before they could receive the keys, it was that it would happen, ‘as long as Ms. James is on board.’
“It seems like a lot of it goes back to Councilwoman James’ office,” said Von Muehlen. Councilwoman James had been a supportive and active member of MGV’s efforts at the beginning, but in more recent months had started talking about “affordable housing,” and “competing interests.”
“No one seems willing to elaborate,” said Von Muehlen. “She hasn’t said it quite so plainly, but I think she’s now more interested in housing,” he said.
If James wasn’t clear at the time of her intentions, she seems to be plainspoken now. As far as the promise that was made to MVG, she says she cannot speak to it, since she was not at the meeting.
“All I know is that we’re sitting down with a number of stakeholders to determine issues related to that lot, and there are a lot of competing needs,” James told Bed-Stuy Patch. “And until all stakeholders — and let me repeat– all stakeholders are at the table, there will be no promises made.”
MVG says they would have no problem with alternate plans for the space, but while elected officials and other interest groups figure out what that plan is, they’d like to get something growing.
“I think that there’s money, political power and lots of things that go along with [supporting housing]. And I respect that,” said Von Muehlen of James’ hesitancy. “But that could take 3-5 years for approval and we only are asking for interim use.
“This site has been empty and has been promised for over ten years, and we just want to grow something this spring.”