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2002 Philadelphia CG Piece

  • Subject: [cg] 2002 Philadelphia CG Piece
  • From: Adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Thu, 7 Aug 2003 12:05:00 EDT

For the Archives 

 Posted on Fri, Jul. 12, 2002   
Scourge of community gardens: Land sales
By Denise Cowie
Inquirer Columnist

One morning last month, Kathleen Garvin found herself in the middle of a 
community gardener's nightmare: The garden she and others had lovingly tended for 
years on the 2100 block of Fitzwater Street in Philadelphia, creating an urban 
oasis of trees, shrubs and flowers, was ripped apart by a front-end loader 
clearing ground for a three-story house.

As horrified gardeners protested, the heavy machinery uprooted plants and 
tossed them, still blooming, into a Dumpster.

The gardeners, however, didn't own the land. The lot, for eight years the 
center of a prize-winning community garden that covered three city lots and 
greatly enhanced the neighborhood, was privately owned by a former resident of the 
street, with whom, Garvin says, the gardeners had a written gardening 
agreement. The owner sold the lot to a developer, which the gardeners discovered when 
a usage permit was issued.

The drama on Fitzwater Street - Garvin, as garden coordinator, tried to fend 
off the earth-mover to prevent the destruction of the garden - got lots of 
media attention, and the issue is still the center of legal negotiations.

But this is hardly the only community garden at risk, especially in 
neighborhoods that border Center City.

Just ask Susan White, an artist who lives across the street from Seedy Acres 
community garden in Northern Liberties, where she has grown vegetables and 
herbs for five or six years. She looked out her window one morning about a month 
ago to see workers cutting down trees on a lot at the perimeter of the garden 
that had been sold in the winter, a lot where she once kept beehives.

"The new owner just brought in a tree crew and took everything out," says 
White, including hydrangeas, rosebushes, and a splendid holly the gardeners had 
planted. "There was a big sign that said 'Neighborhood Gardens 
Association-sponsored garden,' with a phone number on it. It was clearly a garden... . They 
had to break down the fence to get in.

"I was out there yelling at the tree guys, and then I thought, 'Well, it's 
not your fault, it's just your job.' So I said, 'What are you going to do with 
the mulch?' [and] we got a nice pile of wood chips out of it." But the 
gardeners would have appreciated an opportunity to move their plants, White says.

Terry Mushovic, executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Association, a 
Philadelphia Land Trust, says the group has been getting more calls from 
sites where people are looking at buying properties that are part of a community 
garden. "The number of gardens that are feeling this kind of pressure has 
definitely increased over the last six months to a year as development has 
increased," she says.

In Northern Liberties, for example, prices have soared in the last few years, 
says Deborah Solo of Solo Realty, a gardener and real estate agent who lives 
in the neighborhood.

"Usually, builders want to get several lots together, but there is no 
question that there is a trend toward building houses, and there has been for several 
years because of the tax-abatement [incentive]," she says. That program 
essentially offered 10 years of tax breaks for new residential construction in the 
city, but the trend could slow if it is not renewed, Solo says.

"The Fitzwater Street issue is horrible for [those gardeners], but it is 
serving as a wake-up call for the rest of the gardens in the city," says Sally 
McCabe, an outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, as 
well as a national board member of the American Community Gardening Association 
and a founding gardener at Seedy Acres.

"People tend to assume that if a lot is vacant, the city owns it. Often 
that's true, because the city will have foreclosed for back taxes. But in many 
cases, someone actually owns it."

Or many "someones." Ownership of the lots that make up some community gardens 
can be quite byzantine, which is one reason gardeners may be inclined to let 
the issue slide.

Two weeks ago, gardeners at Seedy Acres had a fund-raising block party to 
help purchase more of the land that makes up the irregularly shaped garden, which 
has been a community landmark since 1983, providing vegetables and flowers 
and a picnic area. Four of the lots were sold last year and have an uncertain 
future as garden space, in addition to the lot that the tree crew cleared.

In the area now being called Southwest Center City, community gardeners at 
20th and Catharine Streets have heard that their plots were being eyed for 
commercial development. That, gardener Laura Blanchard says, has much of the 
neighborhood incensed. The garden provides a green haven in a relentlessly urban 

"We haven't got a park," says Blanchard, who moved back to the city from the 
Princeton suburbs because she wanted to live in a community that didn't 
revolve around cars. "A number of people would like to see us develop a green-space 
policy, surveying communities and seeing what they want in the way of green 
space, and taking steps to preserve it."

In some areas, Mushovic says, "people have been gardening these lots for more 
than 20 years, functioning like community parks or green spaces, and it is 
very difficult for them to accept that someone is going to build a house in the 
middle." The Philadelphia Land Trust, one of the few urban land trusts in the 
country, came into being in the mid-'80s when land was being sold off for 
development, she says, "and there were a lot of gardens that we felt should be 

What should community gardeners do if they think their plots might be 

"Find out who really does own land that you want to start a garden on, or 
already have," Mushovic says. "Don't assume what an owner's intentions are... and 
don't bury your head. You might as well know what's happening."

An easy first step in tracking down an owner might be to log on to 
www.phila.gov, Philadelphia's home page, suggests David Glancey, chairman of the Board 
of Revision of Taxes. Click on "search property assessments" under the heading 
"Top Features," and, when you get to an electronic search form, enter the 
specific street address for each lot.

It might give you what you're looking for - name and address of owner, and 
even a value - but it's not as official as going to the Department of Records on 
the first floor of City Hall, going through the maps, locating a parcel 
number, and seeing who the city lists as owner of record. Or you can call the Land 
Trust at 215-988-8797 for help, or seek assistance from a sympathetic real 
estate agent, a local Community Development Corp. organization, or the local City 
Council office.

If the land is privately owned, often the last address listed for an owner is 
the same as the vacant lot's, which means it may have been abandoned.

"The only way to find out is to write a letter to the owner with a 
return-receipt request, to show you tried to reach them," says Mushovic, though usually 
you won't - at which point most gardeners claim squatter's rights and garden 
anyway. If you reach an owner, ask for a letter giving permission to garden on 
the land (preferably for five or 10 years), ask whether the owner would 
consider donating the land to a nonprofit organization, or, if he or she plans to 
sell, ask the price.

Scenarios for tax-delinquent land can get complicated, and Mushovic says it's 
a good idea to talk to staff members of your local council representative. 
Talk to them, too, if the land belongs to the city or the Redevelopment 
Authority. You often can get a short-term agreement to garden on it, but it's good to 
know early if there are other plans.

"They really are key to getting any kind of publicly held land turned over to 
individuals," she says.

As far as McCabe is concerned, however, ownership isn't the only issue.

"We want people to understand that gardening is a viable form of 
development," she says.

"Gardening doesn't have to be just an interim activity - it can be the end 
point, the reason for the land's existence."


The American Community Gardening Association listserve is only one of ACGA's services to community gardeners. To learn more about the ACGA and to find out how to join, please go to http://www.communitygarden.org

To post an e-mail to the list:  community_garden@mallorn.com

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