How to Win Parks and Influence People, NYC Edition

In Manhattan, green-space advocates realized their dream of building Chelsea Green, a new community park, by becoming affordable-housing advocates, too.

August 16, 2019

Michele Smith / Friends of Chelsea Green

We all love a good David-and-Goliath story. In real life the Goliaths almost always win in the end, so it’s thrilling when, every now and then, the Davids manage to pull off an upset. And just like the deadly blow from David’s slingshot, their strategies can be surprising.

Six years ago I wrote about a small but passionate group of Manhattan residents who were fighting to convert a long-empty, weed-strewn lot in their neighborhood into a pocket park—a tiny parcel of green space that might offer the community some respite from the bustle of the big city. They were up against one of Gotham’s most formidable Goliaths: a joint force of New York City’s political and real-estate power structures. Back in 2013, the local community board in the Chelsea neighborhood had already made plans to let developers erect a 75-unit apartment building on the lot, with a sizable portion of those units reserved for middle-income New Yorkers in search of ever-scarce affordable housing.

Despite the unfavorable political odds, this group—the underdog Davids in this saga—didn’t give up. And today, on West 20th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, where a glass-and-concrete colossus might have stood, a brand-new park has emerged instead. Chelsea Green is the first new community-based park to open in more than 40 years in this neighborhood—which recently ranked 58th out of 59 community board districts in terms of public open space. And in welcoming its first guests on July 25, the 10,000-square-foot lot has gone from eyesore to idyll. In place of the weeds, cracked concrete, and tossed-over-the-fence trash that defined it for years, the lot now boasts an expansive play area with water features, an abundance of well-shaded benches and tables, numerous plantings, and a wide circle of invitingly green turf.

Michele Smith / Friends of Chelsea Green

But as I recently learned from Matt Weiss and Sally Greenspan, the tale of Chelsea Green isn’t actually your typical David-and-Goliath story. The giant in this case wasn’t felled by a well-aimed stone. Instead, David walked up to Goliath, got to know him, heard his side of things, and realized he wasn’t a monster after all, He was simply fighting, just like David, for something he believed in. And then, amazingly, David vowed to work with the giant rather than against him, so that both parties could get what they really needed.

I met with Weiss and Greenspan on a sunny August morning in the park they helped bring into existence. As leading members of Friends of Chelsea Green, the pair was able to explain to me how they realized their goal and shared insights as to how other groups fighting for urban green space might follow their example. Near our small, circular table, toddlers frolicked in the fountains and explored the playscape. Sheltered on three sides by the tall edifices of the surrounding buildings, the park felt like a hidden, peaceful valley nestled among mountains.

As I wrote back in 2013, the fight over this lot was always a fight over two social goods—affordable housing and public green space—brought into conflict because of the extraordinary scarcity of real estate in New York City. But in a way, Weiss and Greenspan explained, the fight was a false one: Every single member of their group agreed that creating more affordable housing should be a priority for the city and their neighborhood. For community board members, however, it was the priority. In the face of this demonstrated neighborhood need, the board felt it couldn’t justify sacrificing the lot’s footprint for anything other than a residential building.

So Weiss, Greenspan, and the other members of their group decided to modify their strategy by redefining the terms of the fight. “In our very first community board meeting, we had gone in admittedly stubborn, thinking we had a great idea and everyone would just see the light as soon as we presented it,” Weiss told me. “We weren’t recognizing all the nuances and history and points of view—going back many years, well before our group had ever formed—surrounding this small, contested piece of land. And that’s when we realized that it’s actually all about people.”

Michele Smith / Friends of Chelsea Green

The new strategy, Greenspan said, was to switch their group’s identity from adversarial foe to cooperative partner. “Whenever we were challenged by a community board member who said, ‘We need affordable housing; what are we going to do?’, we would answer the question by saying, ‘You’re right! We do need affordable housing!’ So we went out and researched where else in the neighborhood we could put it.”

Weiss said that the community board told them, “If you can come to us with alternate affordable housing sites, then maybe we’ll consider the park.” That’s how a group of green-space advocates took on a second mission as investigators, scouring their neighborhood for alternate sites where such housing might go up. They combed the streets, studied records, and asked lots of questions. “I think the community board was very surprised when we came back with 27 sites,” Weiss said. Many of the spaces they found were derelict, underutilized, or even abandoned. But a fair number of them were city-owned—a designation that would make them prime candidates for development.

Once they presented leaders of the Chelsea community board with their findings, the energy between the two parties began to change. Then came a watershed moment when the board adopted a new mode of doing business, participatory budgeting, that gives community members much more of a voice in proposed projects and local investments by holding the endeavors up for a vote, referendum-style. Local support for the park, as it turned out, was overwhelming. Chelsea residents still wanted affordable housing for middle-income earners. But they wanted a park much, much more—and now there was incontrovertible data behind that assertion.

Michele Smith / Friends of Chelsea Green

With the indispensable support of a newly elected and highly sympathetic City Council member, the political walls began to crumble, and the planters and playscapes began to go up. But it might never have happened if Weiss, Greenspan, and their fellow advocates hadn’t rejected the idea that they and the community board were playing a zero-sum game. “We repositioned it as a win-win,” Greenspan said. “We knew that if we worked together, we could have both.”

As child-filled stroller after child-filled stroller entered the park, Weiss reflected on the way his neighborhood has changed over the years, from a largely industrial part of Manhattan to a mostly commercial and residential one. And during this transformation, quality-of-life issues have come to the fore in Chelsea. “The needs in a community can and do evolve,” he said. “The need here today is open green space for children, for seniors, for everybody in between. Parks are open to everybody; they don’t discriminate. They’re the great equalizer.”


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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