By Ian Lovett, 7/22/2010
For the last year, the fate of the West Hollywood community garden program has hung in limbo. A decade ago, the city boasted three community gardens. Now, the property owners of the sole remaining garden, located at the corner of Norwich Drive and Rosewood Avenue, have been trying to sell the plot. The city negotiated for the gardeners to remain while the property is on the market, but when any sale closes escrow, the tomato plants, artichokes and corn will have to be uprooted.
This week, however, the city negotiated to lease an empty lot at 1201 Detroit St., where a new community garden will be installed. The new garden will house 35 plots where gardeners who live or work in West Hollywood can grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers at a cost of just $60 a year.
“We were looking at how to find other plots so we could continue the garden program,” West Hollywood City Councilmember Abbe Land said. “I’ve really been working hard with staff, and I’m thrilled we’ve been able to get a new property.”
Land said she hoped the new garden would be open some time this fall.
The new garden will also operate under slightly different guidelines than the garden at Norwich, which has been open since 1985. Eight of the 35 plots will be reserved for residents who live within 500 feet of the garden. In addition, gardeners would be allowed to stay in their plots for a maximum of three years. After that time, they would have to wait two years before they could join the waiting list to get a new plot. A lottery will determine who will get spots in the new community garden. Currently, the waiting list for a plot in the Norwich garden is about two years.
In addition, the city will also lease the land at 1201 Detroit St. at a cost of $1,500 a month, whereas the Norwich garden had been made available almost free of charge, with the city paying only the cost of utilities and property tax.
City Councilmember Jeffrey Prang explained the program began as an effort to beautify vacant lots around the city at a low cost. The feedback from gardeners in the Norwich garden, however, encouraged the city to maintain the program, even at a slightly increased cost.
“Originally, it started as a program to provide some public beneficial use for the vacant lots around the city,” Prang said. “The Norwich garden taught us that this is a program many people in the community enjoy, and we want to make sure to try to continue providing that sort of service when possible.”
Though the new lease agreement ensures that the city will continue to have community gardens for at least the next two years, gardeners at the Norwich site, many of whom have occupied their plots for years or even decades, still do not know how much longer they will be able to stay. Many of the gardeners expressed disappointment that the city has not bought the plot.
Ruth Murphy has tended the same plot at the Norwich garden for the past 25 years.
“We’d like the city to negotiate to try to buy, that would be our position,” Murphy said. “I don’t think they understand. Here you have something that’s been in place, and it takes a few years before the soil is even good. I know we’re a city that does have money and this is a green area. I think they could probably try to negotiate.”
City councilmembers, however, cited the cost of purchasing plots — the Norwich plot listed for more than $1 million last year — as prohibitive.
“One challenge you have spending that much money is that the Norwich garden has twenty-seven plots,” Prang said. “To pay a million dollars and only serve twenty-seven is not as good a value as buying another piece of property that can serve the general community.”
Gardeners, on the other hand, argued that the garden serves more than just the 27 gardeners. Brad Keistler, who has maintained his plot in the Norwich garden for 15 years, suggested it could be turned into a pocket park with benches that would be open to the public; Patrick Fanizzi said he thought it could be used as an educational garden for school children, or to grow food for a food bank.
“It’s a great community asset, and I’d love to see the program expanded even more, not reduced,” Fanizzi said. “It’s one of the few areas where seniors can have as much to contribute, if not more, than anyone else. I’ve learned from some of the seniors who garden there, and I think we could open up that knowledge base to schools.”
Prang maintained that the city remains open to creative solutions, and has not ruled out buying land for a community garden, if it becomes economically feasible. However, he said the development in West Hollywood has made it more difficult to find space for the gardens.
“Land values are extremely high now,” Prang said. “Even with substandard lots, people find a way to develop them. It’s conceivable that not too many years into the future, it will be difficult to have any community gardens, because we don’t have a lot of vacant lots as it is. We will always keep an open mind towards acquiring property for a garden, but we have to think about bang for the buck and serving as many people in the community as possible.”
In the meantime, as the gardeners in the Norwich garden continue to tend their plots, some have also started planning for the garden’s closure.
Fanizzi has joined the Wattles Farm garden, in Los Angeles near Runyon Canyon, though he said he prefers the West Hollywood setup.
Keistler, meanwhile, has planted tomatoes in the strip of land between the sidewalk and the road outside his house, and plans to add artichokes.
“I think vegetables are a good solution for those strips,” Keistler said. “It gets rid of the grass that sucks up so much water, and it keeps it green. Plus, it’s gotten plenty of ‘fertilizer’ over the years, if you know what I mean.”
Murphy, however, continues to hope she’ll be able to keep the plot she’s tended for the past quarter century.
“I live in an apartment, so I have nowhere else to plant,” Murphy said. “That was the beauty of this. Yesterday, I was leaving the garden, late at night around eight, and I had my vegetables and said, ‘Gee, this is really very, very nice. It reminded me of when I was a little child bringing vegetables home to my family. I just love the idea of community, and the idea of a garden in the middle of this big city. I really will grieve about this.”