Vacant land, home of St. Bernard Community Garden to be sold

It’s the classic tale of the Philadelphia community garden.

Neighbors band together to clean a vacant lot. They work the weeded rubble until it is healthy soil. They start to grow fresh produce – something their neighborhoods often lack. The garden becomes a community gathering spot. Adjacent property values increase, and the once-vacant lot is sold out from under them.

Members of the St. Bernard Community Garden are fighting to save their garden from this fate, and at the same time members of another West Philly garden, the Sloan Street Community Garden, are working to salvage what they can from the lot they have been kicked off of – a lot they have gardened for 12 years.

St. Bernard at stake

On December 19, one of the two lots the St. Bernard Community Garden has been growing on for the last 15 years will be auctioned off at a sheriff sale.

Those involved in the garden heard the site would be auctioned just days before it was to be sold in October. With the help of Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, the gardeners were able to postpone the sheriff sale and convince the City to bid on the property.

In instances like this, the City can sometimes bid the amount of money owed in back taxes on the property. This bidding-its-debt process allows the City to bid on the debt actually owed the City in taxes and penalties. It essentially cancels out the taxes owed and puts the property under City ownership. The City and gardeners could then work together to preserve the garden.

The City is only able to bid the amount of back taxes owed though, so there is still a chance a developer or individual could outbid the City.

“Our concern is that with the price of the neighborhood going up, they’ll be outbid,” said Phil Forsyth, a garden member and Philadelphia Orchard Project director.

According to Curbed Philly, the house across the street from the garden sold for $300,000 in 2010.

In case the City is outbid, the gardeners have been working to raise money to place their own bid on the lot, but last Forsyth heard the group had raised approximately $10,000.

“Obviously that’s not nearly what we’ll need to do a larger bid,” he said.

Because St. Bernard Community Garden is situated on two lots, Forsyth said another option might be to hope the City purchases this lot and then raise funds to purchase the second lot, which is also on the City’s list of tax delinquent vacant properties.

“The one being sold is three-quarters of the whole garden [though], so it’s really a shame,” Forsyth said.

The lot for sale is also on the south side of the garden, so if it is developed, a building might block the remaining lot’s sunlight.

The St. Bernard Community Garden advocates will hold another fundraiser at the Dock Street Brewery on Saturday, December 15 from 2-4pm.

Risen from the ashes

The homes that originally stood on the St. Bernard Community Garden lot burnt down a few years before the gardeners started to turn the soil.

“The neighbors sort of took charge and got the City to come take down the remains for the burnt houses,” Forsyth said.

The garden now has more than 50 plots and a waiting list of individuals and families who would like a spot.

About eight years ago, some of the neighbors tried to contact the owners of the vacant lots but found them to be unhelpful and unfriendly.

“It’s a completely classic Philadelphia vacant lot story,” said Amy Laura Cahn.

Cahn founded and directs the Garden Justice League Initiative at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, where she is a Skadden Fellow. Though St. Bernard Community Garden is not one of her clients, she lives nearby and has been advising the gardeners about how they might try to purchase or protect the property.

She said before the garden started the lot was an abandoned dumping ground where criminal activity sometimes took place. Now it’s an active garden that feeds neighbors and serves as a community resource.

“That’s what we do in Philly,” Cahn said. “We garden on vacant lots, and it goes beyond cleaning and greening.”

Though she said there is always a level of vulnerability with sites that go to sheriff sale, she is still hopeful the St. Bernard Community Garden will be saved.

“This space in particular has been around a long time, and it would be a real loss if it were to go,” she said.

“They’re doing a tremendous job [though]. There’s been a lot of support for the garden.”

Sloan Street, sold

On Saturday, as the St. Bernard Community Garden tries to raise bid money, members of the Sloan Street Community Garden will be moving their 20-some garden beds to an adjacent concrete lot.

“The garden started a little over 12 years ago,” said Anne Zumbo, who lives next door and is a member. “It was an open lot with a broken down bus, drug dealing, just a complete shamble… The community got tired of it.”

The members turned the lot into an award winning garden, volunteered countless hours of time and donated more than 600 pounds of food to the poor, Zumbo said. According to the Sloan Street Community Garden website, within two years of the garden’s formation the home ownership and occupancy on the block rose from 36.4 percent to 63.6 percent.

But in 2004, without the proper 30-day public notice, the land was sold to a developer at a sheriff’s sale.

Zumbo said afterward the developer came skipping over to see the land he had just purchased.

“He said, ‘who would want a garden instead of a house?’” Zumbo recalled.

Since 2004, the members of the garden have been fighting to keep the development from happening. They sat down with the developer. They attended zoning hearings and got the development postponed. They wrote letters to Councilwoman Blackwell, to Mayor Michael Nutter, to newspapers. They even received some free legal council from the garden’s neighbor, the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.

After years of effort, the group realized things were coming to a head and decided to move what they could to the concrete lot next door. Penn Presbyterian owns the lot, and the center has given the gardeners permission to use it as best they can.

Zumbo said she feels a little burnt out.

“It’s difficult because we’re all volunteers and I feel like if we did this as our job… we’d have more success,” she said.

A cautionary tale

Cahn hopes that the St. Bernard and Sloan Street community gardens can provide a lesson to other urban gardeners in Philadelphia.

“The sheriff sale completely took [the Sloan Street group] by surprise,” Cahn said. “Had the city been willing to bid its debt they might have gotten the garden.”

Cahn said she believes garden advocates could and should work with the city to come up with a system that would meet both the City’s needs of clearing vacant, tax delinquent land and the needs of gardens and communities.

Over the summer Cahn met with 70 urban garden groups, each one of the gardens operate on at least one plot of tax delinquent, city-owned land listed for sale on the Redevelopment Authority’s website. Cahn is trying to come up with a better way for the gardeners to purchase or long-term lease those properties from the City.

The next step will be coming up with a way for gardeners to purchase privately owned vacant land.

In the case of the St. Bernard Community Garden, Cahn said she is happy with the coordinated approach the City is taking and the City’s willingness to bid on the property.

“The bottom line is that there’s a real potential to save the garden, and this is one instance when the City is really taking a great approach,” she said.

Though it is too late to save the Sloan Street Community Garden’s original location, Zumbo advises other gardeners who may run into similar problems to, “raise money, raise support [and] find a lawyer to argue your case because if you’re just citizens nobody cares.”


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