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
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
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."
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