La Perla garden will likely survive

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Following lot swap, a portion of Manhattan Valley will stay green and bright


  • Neighborhood residents tend about 30 plots at La Perla community garden, which took root on three empty lots on West 105th Street near Columbus Avenue about 25 years ago. One of the lots is now on the market and the garden will likely shrink by about one-third, but remain on two contiguous lots. Photo: Shoshy Ciment

  • La Perla community garden on West 105th near Columbus Avenue took root on three empty lots about 25 years ago. Photo: Shoshy Ciment

  • La Perla's composting station, now on the southeatern-most corner of the garden, will have to be moved if the garden's eastern-most lot is developed. Photo: Shoshy Ciment

Following an almost three-year trudge through city bureaucracy, a neighborhood jewel is primed for a scale-down.

A recent land swap of two of the three lots that comprise La Perla community garden on West 105th Street eliminates a deed restriction on one of the outermost lots, making a sale — and the survival of the garden, albeit scaled down — all the more likely.

“At the moment, we are just kind of holding our breaths really,” said Robert Pollard, a La Perla member and its composting chief.

Since the mid-1990s, La Perla has nestled within those three lots, and from which neighborhood residents have cultivated lilac and iris, picked peaches, figs, and plums, and reaped tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, basil and thyme from 30 plots. The garden currently extends about 50 feet by 100 feet over the adjoining lots, which are owned by three separate entities.

Before the swap, two neighborhood families owned the center lot, officially 78 West 105th Street, while the adjacent lots were owned by the nonprofit Manhattan Land Trust and the Parks and Recreation Department, 76 and 80 West 105th Street, respectively.

The city’s Economic Development Corp. approved the swap, which involved the family-owned center lot and the Manhattan Land Trust’s adjacent lot, last summer. In November, the Trust signed off on the deal and the transaction was completed.

Groundwork for the exchange began three years ago, when the two families decided it was time to sell their lot, which they had bought for $500 at a public auction in 1977. The lot has since appreciated into property assessed at about $350,000 and on which the families now pay $15,000 in annual taxes.

“We are just two neighborhood families,” said Elizabeth Kellner, one of the owners. “We are not real estate developers.”

To avoid disrupting the garden by selling their middle lot, the families proposed a swap with the Manhattan Land Trust, owners of the easternmost lot, at 76 West 105th Street. That lot, however, had a deed restriction, which designated the land as a park into perpetuity.

“An empty lot with a deed restriction is worthless,” Kellner said. After discussions with Community Board 7 and a city Parks & Recreation committee, the deed restriction was lifted from the families’ newly acquired property and the Manhattan Land Trust received a lot with a new but similar deed restriction. In effect, the swap would ensure the continuity of La Perla on a pair of contiguous lots.

The two families are now trying to sell their lot. Any new owner will be able to build, with the garden shrinking by one-third as a consequence.

“We at La Perla have not heard anything,” said Elizabeth Hall, a garden member for about 12 years. Like many of her gardening colleagues, Hall hopes that the new lot owner is sensitive to La Perla’s significance in a neighborhood where, not so long ago, the drug trade and attendant violence were near-nightly occurrences when the garden first took root.

Among the assets of the soon-to-be sold lot is a stone sculpture rooted in soil, a wall of Boston ivy, and Pollard’s compost station, which he plans to move.

“It’s going to be a little tricky,” he said.

To Pollard, having the gardeners come up with a preemptive bid for the lot would have been the ideal scenario; many members of La Perla are disheartened at the prospect of losing a chunk of the neighborhood landmark.

“It’s really a very lovely garden,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

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