NYRP Celebrates Renovation of Willis Avenue Community Garden in South Bronx

State-of-the-art casita structure and new garden features transform and fortify Mott Haven garden in green-space starved neighborhood

NEW YORK, NY, September 18, 2014 - New York Restoration Project (NYRP), the Bette Midler-founded non-profit that transforms open spaces in under-resourced communities, is celebrating the completed renovation of its Willis Avenue Community Garden in Mott Haven, South Bronx. Accompanied by local community members, elected officials, NYRP Founder Bette Midler, and garden sponsors and supporters, NYRP will officiate a ribbon cutting ceremony to mark the grand opening of the public garden. Generous support from the Perlman Family Foundation endowed a transformation of the approximately 9,100-square-foot space, which includes the construction of a new pergola, shed, steel picket fencing, ADA-accessible raised planting beds, expanded butterfly garden, and more. In addition, NYRP’s partnership with TEN Arquitectos, Buro Happold and Urban Air Foundation, generated a unique kit-of-parts design for a modular casita. The first of its kind, the design of the casita provides a scalable, environmentally efficient and sustainable structure. The casita serves multiple purposes as a resting, dining and gathering spot; a stage for dance, theater and musical performances; and in the future, a free-standing energy center for charging stations with Wi-Fi. The new garden features aim to fortify the environmental and social resilience in the community, celebrate the heritage of local residents and demonstrate how well cared for green spaces can improve civic engagement, public health, and other quality-of-life measures.

The renovation of the space was put to motion through NYRP’s ongoing garden adoption campaign, Gardens for Great New Yorkers, which presents individuals with the opportunity to sponsor the transformation and long-term maintenance of an NYRP garden that has yet to be improved with modern design and infrastructure.

“It is our responsibility as New Yorkers to help ensure that all New Yorkers have access to beautiful green spaces,” said Richard Perlman. “We are honored to support NYRP in bringing a garden to life in Mott Haven, and we are thrilled to see the Willis Avenue Garden and the surrounding neighborhood flourish.”

Once vacant and trash-filled, the Willis Avenue Community Garden was originally founded in 1997 by members of the nearby Congregational Church of North New York and local residents. Recognized by NYRP as one of the city’s vital green spaces, the organization acquired the property in 1999 when it was being auctioned off as one of many gardens and vacant lots to be sold to developers. Since then, NYRP has been dedicated to working with the community to keep the space open for, and accessible to the public, as one of the 52 community gardens the organization saved from commercial development. Currently a popular site for community gatherings, celebrations and events, the space provides a rare green space for education, agriculture and entertainment for the primarily Hispanic community in Mott Haven, a neighborhood identified as lacking adequate open space.

“Our community gardens are more than just places to grow food; they are places where the community can connect, celebrate, and grow,” said Bette Midler, NYRP Founder. “The Willis garden has been a central hub for this activity for many years. Thanks to the Perlman Family Foundation, we will ensure that it will continue to be so for generations to come.”

New features of the Willis Avenue Community Garden include:

  • A modular casita: Conventionally, a casita, or “little house” in Spanish, is a one-story wood frame shed structure popular in gardens for social gatherings in Puerto Rico. Designed by TEN Arquitectos, the new 12 foot by 36 foot casita was created with scalable building components that act like Lego pieces, which can be measured, arranged and constructed based on the needs of the community and parameters of the space. As a central hub for activity, the new casita serves as a meeting area in the shade, a food prep station, a performance stage, and so on. For this project, The Home Depot donated the pre-cut materials, as well as a financial donation, matched by long-standing partner, The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company. At a later phase, the casita will be outfitted with Wi-Fi and solar panels to provide light, electricity and online communications—amenities that not only enhance the garden’s everyday functions, but also turn the garden into a center for community preparedness in times of crisis should the neighborhood experience a power outage or be forced to go “off the grid” after a major storm.
  • Raised planting beds: 24 new planting beds, three of which are ADA-accessible, were built to accommodate a growing, multi-generational group of urban gardeners, including individuals who were previously unable to access the beds while in wheelchairs. Vegetables grown in the garden include peppers, tomatoes, okra, beans and more.
  • A Trellis: The addition of a trellis serves as a vertical apparatus for vines, which climb along and decorate the edge of the adjacent church, as well as a preserver of art and culture. The trellis was designed to hold interchangeable panels made of chain link mesh and panels that were cut from the existing garden mural that commemorates the South Bronx community activist Joe Perez.
  • A Butterfly garden: An existing butterfly garden was expanded, with the addition of a stepping stone path to allow people to experience the flowers up close.
  • A Pergola: Located at the garden entrance, the pergola has a partial corrugated steel roof that provides rain shelter, and serves as a convenient place to set up tables for playing dominoes.

The renovation also added a new steel picket fence, compost toilet, shed, mulched picnic area, two permeable paver patios, regraded lawn, and understory plants surrounding the garden’s border, pathways and birch trees, including hardy passion vine and prairie dock, whose large, lush leaves and color evoke a tropical theme and celebrate the Puerto Rican culture present in the garden and the surrounding neighborhood.

“We don’t plan a renovation without first asking neighbors what they want and need,” said Deborah Marton, NYRP Executive Director. “As a result, the transition from old to new has been seamless, and community demand to cultivate and care for the garden has never been stronger.”

The garden has already been a key venue for NYRP’s free Arts in the Gardens programming through this past spring and summer, with the casita as a performance stage for dancers and hip-hop artists, and the lawn, picnic area and pergola as places for spectators and participants to gather. In partnership with The Bronx Museum of the Arts, the program, which also features film screenings and art installations, brings communities together to enjoy performing and other live arts in a natural outdoor setting, and highlights the garden as one of many NYRP community gardens that are resources for the public.


Founded by Bette Midler in 1995, NYRP is a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming open space in under-resourced communities to create a greener, more sustainable New York City. Unlike traditional conservancies that care for a specific place, NYRP is the only New York City conservancy that works citywide, bringing private resources to spaces that lack adequate municipal support. NYRP is also the leading private partner of the City of New York in MillionTreesNYC – an initiative to plant and care for one million new trees throughout New York City’s five boroughs. To learn more, please visit


Anne Tan | PR Officer, NYRP

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