Saving an urban oasis

Waverly residents try to protect their garden from development

June 22, 2006|By SUMATHI REDDY | SUMATHI REDDY,SUN REPORTER

Miriam Avins is standing in the small garden, marveling at all that has sprung up in what was once nothing more than a dumping ground, an abandoned lot in a city filled with abandoned lots.

But here is a picket fence enclosing 20 tidy plots growing everything from tomatoes and okra to fennel and sage. "Gardens like this, they need to be preserved," says Avins, 41, who lives next door. "This is our town square. It's our green space. It's the only place we have."

But the Homestead Harvest Community Garden faces an uncertain future. Several years ago, neighborhood residents hauled away debris and tilled the soil to create the garden on what they thought was an abandoned parcel at 623 Homestead St. in Waverly. Recently, they learned that the land might be claimed by a developer who wants to build seven condominiums and parking on the parcel, which is just under 6,000 square feet.

There are more than 100 community gardens in Baltimore, and some, like the one in Waverly, are threatened by rising land values and gentrification. Today, members of the cooperative that runs the Homestead garden have scheduled a news conference and a tour of the garden to brief city officials about their plight.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke is already on board, pushing to have the city foreclose on the Homestead Street property if the legal owner doesn't emerge. Clarke also wants the city to establish a land trust to oversee all community gardens - a step several large cities have taken to save slivers of green space, which are usually gobbled up in hot real estate markets.

"There should be some kind of equity that goes with preserving and transforming a blighting rot into a blooming garden, so these developers can't come in make a big profit on your labor," said Clarke.

Most of the city's community gardens have sprouted on abandoned or city-owned lots, said Larry Kloze of the Master Gardeners Association, a volunteer arm of the University of Maryland's extension service, which helps community groups in their gardening efforts.

"We try to locate gardens in neighborhoods that are becoming revitalized," said Kloze. "We want the garden to enhance the quality of life in the neighborhoods, and it really does."

But with land becoming more valuable, many fear their fate could be in jeopardy.

A community garden at 728 Lennox St. in Reservoir Hill faced a similar predicament about a year ago when the owner wanted to pay off a lien and reclaim the land, said Frank Patinella of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council.

The garden, with 55 vegetable plots, has continued but the council worries that some day it could be whisked away. "There was concern, but we continue to do the work and use it as a community garden," said Patinella. "It did scare us."

A garden on city-owned land in East Baltimore nearly disappeared several years ago when the city needed to give a developer more space for parking, said Guy Hager of Parks and People, a nonprofit group.

Parks and People helped the group move the garden onto land in a nearby park, said Hager.

Hager said he would welcome a move to create a land trust to manage and oversee the community gardens. "The ownership of these spaces is rather fragmented," said Hager. "We've always thought it would be far preferable ... to have an intermediary."

The Waverly residents took over the Homestead Street property after a fire destroyed a house there. The city demolished the house in 2003, imposing a lien that sent the property into a tax sale.

The property was never foreclosed on, however, and the lien remains on the books.

Therefore, the property's owner - listed as 623 Homestead St. LLC - could reclaim it by paying off the lien, which is worth between $14,000 and $16,000.

Company representatives could not be reached for comment.

Avins said that before she started the garden, she sent certified letters to several addresses listed for the business. The letters were returned unopened.

So she went ahead, breaking ground for the garden in April 2004. It is a true cooperative. Participants pay $20 to join and come every Sunday morning to help till the land.

They bring home whatever they can carry.

"It's pretty self-regulatory," said Avins. "You come, you take a bag."

The garden has attracted a diverse group of residents, and even some from outside the neighborhood. There are two children growing vegetables to sell for a charity. There is Phyllis Brent, 64, a self-proclaimed "guerrilla gardener" whose motto is "fight crime with flowers."

And there is Karen Griffin, who moved to Waverly a year ago and found the garden a great way to meet people. "Everybody sort of gets together and does their thing," she said

Eleanor Montgomery, co-president of the Better Waverly Community Organization, said after a Giant grocery store came to the neighborhood, the group worked to preserve the 600 blocks of Homestead Street and Gorsuch Avenue as buffers between the residential and commercial areas.

To that end, the residential area is part of a historic district, and all development must conform to the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation guidelines.

Debra Evans, a Waverly activist, sees the troubling development over the garden as a battle the neighborhood will have to continue to fight.

"We are afraid," she said. "We know that we're going to have to continue to fight things like this because all of a sudden, our neighborhood, Waverly, is hot."

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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