Community gardens in trouble

Which social good do you want? Citizen-tended greenspace or space for affordable housing?

Horn Towers resident Eldon Duxbury gardens a small plot of city-owned land at 102 W. 32nd St., and it — like many community gardens around Minneapolis — has a tenuous lease on life.

Vacant land has become increasingly valuable in the city, and community gardens compete with another social good: affordable housing. Proposals for townhomes, apartments and condos are springing up like flower buds after a spring rain.

The Minneapolis Community Development Agency, which owns Duxbury’s garden plot, is under pressure to develop affordable housing.

Earl Pettiford, MCDA’s manager of single-family-housing development, said the agency is charged with improving housing stock, not developing gardens.

"Somebody has to measure the importance of providing quality shelter or housing for people — which is all year long — as opposed to having a garden space, which ordinarily in Minnesota is a short growing season," Pettiford said.

Duxbury’s 4,000-square-foot plot on the northeast corner of Blaisdell Avenue and West 32nd Street appeared safe, since it is too small for a house. "I’m waiting for spring," said Duxbury, who said he started the garden four years ago. "I want to get my hands dirty."

However, the MCDA has considered reducing the size of a buildable lot.

A buildable lot is now defined as having 40 feet of frontage and roughly 5,000 square feet of land, Pettiford said. One proposal would reduce that to 28 to 30 feet of frontage and roughly 3,500 square feet of land — a definition that would encompass Duxbury’s plot.

The MCDA tabled the debate, for now.

Norma Pietz, project manager for the Lyndale Neighborhood Development Corp., said the neighborhood is watching Duxbury’s garden plot very closely, and she believes the MCDA would give the neighborhood a chance to buy it, as it has other parcels.

Linda Alton, a Lyndale Neighborhood Association member and garden neighbor, said an informal "Friends of Eldon’s Garden" group is forming. She said people eat lunch in the garden in the summer and a group of women has met there to do knitting projects.

"I am the cheerleader, because I live on the street," she said. "It would be best if the neighborhood owned it, and [it] continued to be under Eldon’s guidance. We want to make sure it’s there for a long time."

Other community gardens in the city might not be so lucky.

The LaSalle Gardens, 1727 and 1809 LaSalle Ave., might disappear.

The MCDA owns 1809 LaSalle and has not renewed the lease, said Liz Sheets, chair of the Stevens Square Community Organization’s Arts and Greening Committee.

"We continue to garden there knowing it is possible for someone to come in with a bulldozer and knock the whole garden down because we don’t have a lease," she said.

The lot at 1727 LaSalle has no guarantees either.

The private owners of 1727 LaSalle have allowed the neighborhood to use the vacant lot for a garden, as along as SSCO pays the property taxes, she said. "So far, they allow us to stay, " Sheets said. "We’ve been there six years. I don’t know how long we could have it for."

Community gardens: A brief history Minneapolis has 82 community gardens, according to the Sustainable Resources Center (SRC) website, www.src-mn.org. In Southwest, it lists gardens in Lyndale (seven), Bryn Mawr (six), Whittier (four), Lowry Hill East (two), Stevens Square (two) and Lynnhurst (one).

Some have flowers, others vegetables. Some are for youth, others have disabled-accessible plots. Duxbury has created a quiet greenspace for neighbors to sit and eat lunch, even spending $100 from his fixed income to buy roses last year.

Advocates say the gardens are a great source of community-building and crime prevention. For apartment or high-rise dwellers such as Duxbury, it is their only shot at a garden.

Corrie Zoll said community gardens blossomed in less prosperous times, especially in the Phillips neighborhood that had more than 200 vacant lots, many owned by the MCDA.

"The city seemed unable to take care of those lots," said Zoll, program director of Greenspace Partners, a group that has promoted Phillips community gardens. "They were full of trash, overgrown with weeds, attracting crime."

Small groups of neighbors took some of them over, he said. "A lot of those lots became community gardens, and many of 0those neighbors became block clubs," he said.

Sue Gunderson, executive director of SRC, 1916 2nd Ave. S., said her organization helped "guerrilla gardens" get formal leases with the city starting in the early 1990s. SRC coordinated the effort, paying the lease and liability insurance and arranging for water.

"We started identifying vacant lots," she said. "SRC built community gardening in Minneapolis. We let [people] know it was available. It is the spirit of the community that makes the gardens happen."

The number of community gardens peaked around 1997, when SRC had roughly 150 leases, Gunderson said. It had roughly 90 garden leases with MCDA that year; the rest were with other public and private landowners.

In 2002, SRC had 60 leases with the MCDA, she said. This year, it only has 15 to 20 approved MCDA leases.

A window of opportunity closed Pettiford said the MCDA created a time-limited policy allowing groups to buy buildable lots from MCDA to preserve

community gardens.

The program ended in August, Gunderson said. SRC bought six lots. Greenspace Partners bought two lots.

The Lyndale neighborhood also bought two lots, Pietz said. It paid $12,870 for the garden at 3110/3112 Pillsbury Ave., the Lyndale Youth Farm and Market Project, and $6,696 for Pleasant Gardens at 3518 Pleasant Ave.

"There was a clause put in the contract that we could not ever develop it — it had to be used for gardening," she said.

Other neighborhoods, such as Stevens Square-Loring Heights, did not buy the lots.

Changing the debate Sheets would like to recast how the city views development.

"Development should not only be considered building buildings," she said. "It’s creating an environment where people want to live. It includes vegetable gardens and trees."

Some community-garden backers take care to try to frame the debate in a way that doesn’t pit housing against gardens. Zoll said at a City Council meeting last year, an affordable-housing advocate accused him of robbing homeless children of a place to sleep by advocating community gardens.

Gunderson said she would like a planning effort by the city to come to an agreement about how many community gardens the city should have per square mile, and identify vacant land — "land that is not the best fit for a house or apartment."

City Councilmemeber Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward), a Green Party member, said the MCDA thinks housing is the only reason it can sell land.

He is going to introduce language to expand the allowable purposes for a land sale to include gardens, tot lots and other green space, he said, "so these become legitimate reasons in the eyes of the MCDA staff."

"The economics of the thing will be that most of these will keep being sold for housing," he said.

Zimmermann said he expected the MCDA board to revisit the buildable-lot-size debate in February.

Will parks adopt gardens? The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board adopted a new policy Dec. 18 supporting community gardens.

The policy states that the Board would not spend any money on the program but would hold the land title for garden plots purchased by community groups to guarantee their long-term stability.

Supporting community gardens "is consistent with our mission of providing recreation opportunities for all citizens in our city, promotes the use of underutilized land as green space and provides a place in which neighbors can congregate," the new policy said.

Park Board Commissioner John Erwin said it was only a first step.

"We are looking at additional ways to facilitate community gardening that include woodchip drop-offs and equipment use," he said.

Erwin said he would also like the Board to consider allowing community gardens in city parks but would not push the idea until next year.