Frequently Asked Questions
Questions about creating a group
Does incorporating make my group a tax exempt organization?
Incorporating in New York State is a separate process from filing with the IRS to have your organization's tax exempt status recognized (under Section 501(c)(3) of the Tax Code). It's totally legit and legal to incorporate as a NYS not-for-profit without filing with the IRS for tax exemption. Your organization would be presumed exempt and not need to apply to have the IRS recognize your exemption as long as your income was not over $5,000 (see http://www.irs.gov/Charities-&-Non-Profits/Charitable-Organizations/Public-Charity-Exemption-Application).
The fees for filing with the IRS start at $400. If you're just starting out and you've filed as a New York State Non-Profit, the IRS will presume that you meet the requirements and donations to your organization are actually tax exempt income for both the organization and the donor as long as your group doesn't collect more than $5,000 in any single year. If you think you might cross the $5,000 line, it probably makes sense for your group to use a fiscal sponsor (to handle all your finances) or IOBY (to fundraise for specific projects) or simply collect donations that are not tax exempt (the Section 501(c)(3) exemption is NOT why your neighbor is giving you $20 for shovels). If you figure out that your organization needs to have your own recognized Section 501(c)(3) exemption for some reason, you can then file for it.
596 Acres, Inc. is a New York State Not-For-Profit Corporation, with an income of more than $5,000 annually. Our fiscal sponsor is the Fund for the City of New York. We have not filed with the IRS to have our own exemption recognized under Section 501(c)(3) of the Tax code.
Nothing on this page constitutes legal advice.
What if we need to become an organization in the legal sense to meet our land access goals?
Legally, you could chose to become a corporation, a limited liability company or a coop. There are several types of corporations in New York State but if you are doing work that is geared towards improving your neighborhood only and not generating a profit, you probably want to incorporate as a Not-for-Profit corporation. Here is some information about the process from the State Division of Corporations and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Your group will need to name 3 initial directors to form a board. Keep in mind that these 3 people will take on liability for the corporation (e.g. for paying taxes).
You'll need to pay some fees to incorporate as a Not-for-Profit corporation:
- the reservation of name fee ($5),
- incorporation fee ($75),
- charity registration fee ($25) and,
- if your group plans to incorporate any education in its mission, a NYS Department of Education consent fee ($10).
Questions about data
Are there really 596 Acres of vacant public land in Brooklyn???
596 acres is how much vacant public land the NYC Department of City Planning perceived there to be in Brooklyn in 2011, a number that came out of an examination of the official data published in MapPLUTO (more on that at the bottom of this FAQ). Our project delved into this official number and discovered that - while lots of land is not being used in the borough and much of it is publicly owned, that number is both under- and over- inclusive (e.g. unbuilt municipal parking lots are not included while 20 year-old gardens are). Information about particular parcels is even more complex than that. So we cleaned up the available data and set out to get information about particular parcels to people where they could use it - at the parcel sites themselves and online on this webpage.
Questions about livinglotsnyc.org
Can you add data about other public resources to this map?
Right now, this map shows information about vacant public land in New York City and supports organizers working to transform the lots in their lives into community gardens, pocket parks and playspaces. 596 Acres acts as faciliator of this process - it's clear to us that while information is necessary before any change is possible, information is not enough. We provide guidance, cheerleading and direct advocacy where needed.
We would be happy to share this platform with advocates working on community control of libraries, post offices and other public buildings. The platform is flexible enough and can serve to both broadcast what is know-able and to help people find one another. At this time, 596 Acres is not set up to act as facilitator for the public take-over of properties beyond the vacant lot. We hope to partner with other organizations who want to facilitate those transformations.
The map doesn't work on my computer. How do I fix it? / Why don't you fix it?
Otherwise, we have heard that some versions of the Firefox web browser get confused and block the map as though it was a popup. In this case, you might have to enable popups on 596acres.org in order to view the map.
Finally, if the above suggestions don't work out for you let us know. The more you can tell us about your operating system (Windows or Mac) and your web browser (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari, mostly), the better we'll be able to work out the problem. If you can attach a screenshot that would help too!
Questions about NYC agencies
Can a New York City agency just tell me that my group can't use the lot anymore after we put work into it?
If the site belongs to the city and has a GreenThumb license, Parks Department regulations require GreenThumb to provide your group with an alternate site in the event the lot you steward is needed for something else, as long as one is available either within 1/2 mile of the existing garden or within your Community District. This rule applies to any City Agency site (Housing Preservation and Development, Parks & Recreation, etc.).
For sites that are under the Parks Department's jurisdiction or otherwise considered "parkland" by the public, the City Agency also needs to get approval from the New York State Legislature to turn the site into something other than open space. The law that makes this approval necessary is called the "public trust doctrine" and the process required is called "alienation." The State handbook on the process is here.
Note that if your group signs an agreementment that explicitly states the site is for "interim use," it's not likely that public trust doctrine will apply. The City Agency will be able to assign another use without state approval, but will still need to provide your garden group with an alternate site if one is available.
I'm about to call or email a city agency -- what should I say?
You'll need the identifying information about the lot you are interested in handy - the Block and Lot number is crucial; the address, if the lot has one, is also nice.
This site gives you contact information for the person for each piece of vacant public land who we think has the ability to tell you it's status. Sometimes our sleuthing is off -- or sometimes people change jobs. When you call, start by asking if they are the person you should speak to about a vacant property in your neighborhood. If they're not, ask who is (and remember to tell us: organizers@596Acres.org).
If they are, tell them you are calling from a neighborhood organization. Describe the lot, how long it's been empty. Give the Block and Lot number and maybe the address. Ask if the agency has any plans for it. Ask about a timeline.
Make sure you get the email of the person who you are talking to. Follow up with a note and copy email@example.com. Then add a note you describing what you learned on the phone to the page for the lot you are calling about so that we can all learn from your experience.
Questions about private land
Do you have a sample letter to a private land owner?
Need help drafting a letter? Take a look at this example of what you might want to say:
[Name this person],
I'm writing in regards to an empty lot at [insert lot address and city] that I believe you may have an affliation with as per the city's tax financial records. A group of neighbors and I are interested in temporarily using it as [insert use, perhaps a garden or community meeting spot] in the time period before development of the property becomes a reality. My hope with this letter is that you will be able to help get permission from the owner of the property to turn it into a community resource for the short term. If you are the owner, or know who the owner is, I would really appreciate your help with this.
The project would involve a group of community members who would use the space to [insert activities planned for the space, such as gardening or hosting events]. In return, the same group would help maintain the lot: keeping the lot clear of trash and debris, shoveling snow in the winter, and [insert other forms of maintenance]. We would be sure to obtain general liability insurance to cover anyone working on the property and will name the owner as an additional insured. We would also make sure that any project that is started would be marked as temporary to ease the transition of the land to development. We would be happy to sign a contract with the owner enumerating these promises.
In the future, the City of New York is considering creating a tax credit for owners of vacant lots whose neighbors use them. Our collaboration at [insert the lot's address] can be a model for other communities working with private land owners.
Please let me know if this is something you can help with.
[Your Name and contact information]
How do I figure out the actual address of the vacant lot near me?
How do I figure out who has the deed to the land?
After you get some more specific information about the privately owned lot you're looking at, you can use ACRIS. Search Property Records to figure out who was the last person to receive the deed and look at the image of the deed or its details to see contact information for all parties and their attorneys. You can try contacting everyone!
How do I know much the owner owes in taxes?
Still having trouble figuring out where to contact the owner of a private lot?
The most recent tax bill is also a good place to look for a good mailing address; start at the NYC Department of Finance's website and look at the PDFs of the bills to see where they are being sent.
If the owner is a corporation, you can also look them up in OpenCorporates. You can link to State Divisions of Corporations see whether the corporation is currently active or dissolved; you can also see what address the corporation has on file as the place the State can contact it. You can use that address, too!
There's this privately owned vacant-lot that people could use. How do I get started?
This is a great opportunity for your neighborhood and the wider 596 Acres community. Two ways you could start:
1. If you'd like to be involved in the project yourself, put a sign on the fence to the lot telling your neighbors that you have permission to use it and how to reach you to start scheming for how to do so this spring.
2. If you're looking for other people to spearhead the effort (and take care of things like insurance and fundraising), we can add your lot to our interactive map to draw people to your budding project that way. Let us know the address of the lot and if you'd like to do that. We have been talking about adding a layer for private lots that people WANT community uses on and this would be a great way for us to start building that layer. Click the contact button to get in touch with us.
Questions about schools and gardens
I work at a school. My students would really benefit from being involved in a garden. How do I start?
You can see where there is vacant public land and gardens on public land using our map. Another good tool that might help you find an existing garden to plug into is Garden Maps. You might also want to reach out to GrowNYC's Grow To Learn Program -- they are a school gardens program that might be able to give you the tools you need to go forward. They are a funded NYC program.
Questions about signs
Have you guys considered using QR codes?
In a word - yes. Here s what a QR code looks like on for a NYC vacant lot; we put up about two dozen of these and know that they were never scanned (though folks on the internet really liked them). If you'd like to print one for your lot that you're organizing around, go to the lot's page and add "pdf" at the end of the URL in the address bar (like this). Remember to laminate it or put it in plastic before you put it up. We don't actually put QR codes up ourselves now but we have considered them among the mechanisms available for connecting people in their neighborhoods with information that is available online on our website about local public land. We have decided that the most straightforward ways work the best -- we write notes, in English and Spanish, and in complete sentences, about the lots and a-fix them to fences; we have a phone number and email address and pay a staff person to answer both, reading information directly off the website when needed and adding people who are motivated to build community to the lots pages on the site so that they can utilize the organizing tools and connect with neighbors. QR codes require acts of technological translation and levels of understanding that we think are not the best tools for taking barriers down.
Questions about temporary art projects
I'm looking for a place to put my temporary art installation/theater piece/sculpture/etc. Can you help me find a vacant lot to put it into?
Art is an important part of each 596 Acres community. As each site is self-managed by neighbors, each group makes its own decisions about how to integrate temporary projects and other artisitic ventures. Feel free to reach out to folks in the 596 Acres network who already have access to land (pink dots on the map). If you have an idea for a project that you have the resources to manage (like a mural) and are looking for a community that will welcome it, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org explaining your project and the resources you have to complete it. We'd be happy to share that with all the organizers on our network.
Questions about the lot in your life
I don't want to start a project -- but I would like to get involved in my neighborhood. How do I do that?
You can turn on the layer of Living Lots NYC that shows existing community gardens on public land (the buttons are to the right of the map on the front page - chose the green one with the black circle around it). Another good tool that might help you find an existing garden to plug into is Garden Maps. But the best tool is your feet -- go for a walk; when you see a place you'd like to be a part of, stop and say hello.
There's a lot I want to work on getting control of for my community. Where do I start?
There are a lot of possible steps. To give you a sense of them, we made the diagram below.medialibrary/2015/01/Broadsheet2_Color_final.pdf (Hannah Learner)
What about insurance?
You may want general liability insurance for your project on public land so that if someone gets hurt, they can get care and no one will have to pay for it personally. Projects on city owned land are not required to carry insurance; private owners and municipal authorities like the MTA can require you to have insurance for the site as a pre-requisite to giving you permission to use it.
Insurance sounds intimidating but it really isn't. You're just paying a company to carry the risk of anything bad that might happen in your space. Since gardens are pretty simple projects, that risk is not so severe and so insurance doesn't cost that much. The American Community Gardening Association recently created a way for gardens who are members to get individual insurance policies affordably. Details are here.
What can my neighbors and I do with the vacant lot in our lives?
Our friends at Keep Growing Detroit put together a great guide to different lot "treatments" a group can chose from. We invite you to take a look and mix and match from their simple and practical ideas. Here are some great suggestions shared with use by Chicago's NeighborSpace for play garden features that kids love.
What's the difference between a licence and a lease?
A license gives you permission to do something or be somewhere. It can be taken away at any time because it is given freely.
A lease is a contract that can't be taken away by one party because both sides are actually giving up something to be a part of the relationship. When you pay rent to a landlord, you are giving up money and they are giving up the right to rent the space to someone else or use it themselves. You have a contract.
Why isn't the vacant lot near me on this map?
Our map only shows land that is owned by the NYC government and is marked as vacant in the Department of City Planning's database. If you know of a vacant lot that is not on this map, chances are good that it's privately owned. The best way to be sure is to look for the lot on OASIS. The tab marked "Location Report" should contain the owner and links to more information regarding the lot. For a tutorial on how to access information about this particular lot on OASIS, go here and click on "How do I access information about locations on the map?"