NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – A battle is brewing over a community garden in Manhattan.

The city wants to build affordable senior housing on the site of the Elizabeth Street Garden in Little Italy.

Two groups have filed lawsuits to keep the green space as is.

Filled with statues, trees, flowers and more, Elizabeth Street Garden serves as a place where many gatehr to escape the noise.

Joseph Reiver is the executive director of The Garden, a nonprofit that manages the land. His father, a gallery owner, started the site in 1991 on land leased from the city. In 2013, the space was opened up to the public.

“It was actually in 2013 when the community really came together and started volunteering there, opening the space up to the public. We have hundreds of free programs, actually throughout the year, mostly in the spring and summer,” he said. “But it’s really grown to be this center for the community to kind of come back to life, because we felt it sort of disappearing in the area.”

“A lot of people refer to it as the heart of Little Italy,” he added.

Web Extra: Elizabeth Street Garden Executive Director Makes His Case On CBSN New York

“The city has been consistently, for over a decade now, been clear that at some point the site was going to need to return, would have to be returned to the housing agency to become afordable housing,” said Leila Bozorg of the Housing and Preservation Department.

Now the city says that time has come.

“We have very few sites in Manhattan that present opportunities for building low income housing in higher cost income neighborhoods. This is one of those valuable sites,” she said.

The city wants to build a seven story, mixed use building that would include 123 affordable studio apartments for seniors. The development, named Haven Green, is a public-private partnership. That means four retail spaces would also be leased, and Habitat for Humanity and other community services have office space.

It would preserve 6,600 square feet of green space, which is about a third of the garden’s current 20,000 square feet.

“It’s a spot that’s valuable. It’s a large piece of land in a very popular neighborhood,” he said. “But we’re saying (the housing) doesn’t have to be built there, there’s a better site for it, and we can really preserve this green space, because there is no real green space in the neighborhood.”

Reiver’s group has thrown out the idea of 388 Hudson Street, which he says is a city-owned gravel lot.

“They can build up to five times the affordable housing on this site and they could actually include additional open space,” he said. “So we’re saying not only could you save Elizabeth Street Garden in all of its worth for the community, but you can also achieve more affordable housing and more public open space by using this site.”

“Most importantly, you wouldn’t be pitting these communities against each other,” he added.

“That site does have some complications. There’s important city infrastructure under the site. We’d have to evaluate what parts could actually be built, but this idea, it’s either – or is – a little bit of false equivalence. For us, it’s both,” Bozorg said. “This community has actually built, been able to build, 140 affordable units in the past decade.”

Reiver says he understands the need for affordable housing.

“What we’re saying is with that alternative site – which is at 388 Hudson – you don’t need to pit community green space against affordable housing, and that’s what’s really happening here,” he said. “Affordable housing is absolutely needed in New York City. I’m from New York, I know it very well. But it shouldn’t be coming at the expense of equally valuable community green space, especially something as unique as Elizabeth Street Garden.”

The city wouldn’t comment on pending legislation.

In a statement, the Haven Green development team said it was aware of the lawsuit and “stands firmly behind the vision of Haven Green to bring deeply affordable, LGBTQ-friendly, senior housing to one of New York’s most gentrified and high opportunity neighborhoods.”

“The Haven Green project itself is a model energy-efficient building, adhering to Passive House standards, employing significant sustainability measures, a green roof and a rainwater collection system. As proven, responsible stewards of public land and community assets, the Haven Green development team partners support HPD in their use of City-owned land to create critical affordable housing for low-income seniors and publicly accessible open space for the community,” the statement continued.

There’s a hearing on March 13th before the City Planning Commission. After review, it goes to the City Council for a vote.