The gardens and farms are here to stay

Work­ers at the Frank­ford Av­en­ue Garden, on Frank­ford Av­en­ue and East Hunt­ing­don Street. Mem­bers of the Circle of Hope Church, on the bor­der between Fishtown and East Kens­ing­ton, helped set up the garden. PHOTO BY THE CIRCLE VEN­TURE URB­AN FARM TEAM

Com­munity garden­ing and farm­ing spaces throughout the River Wards are among those that could have been neg­at­ively im­pacted by a zon­ing bill. Thanks to re­cent com­munity op­pos­i­tion, they can con­tin­ue to grow.

From the ef­forts of Fishtown, Kens­ing­ton and oth­er Phil­adelphia res­id­ents with green thumbs, many un­used lots in the city bloom each spring with gar­dens of well-tilled soil that bring forth ve­get­ables to be sold loc­ally or brought home by garden­ers.

Urb­an garden­ing is more than just a trend, pro­ponents say — it’s a res­tor­at­ive work that beau­ti­fies blighted neigh­bor­hoods while bring­ing di­verse pop­u­la­tions to­geth­er to col­lab­or­ate in com­munit­ies where demo­graph­ics are chan­ging.

In fact, they feel so strongly about their hobby that some garden­ers and farm­ers said they were gear­ing up to res­ist city gov­ern­ment when they heard that City Coun­cil Bill 120917 had been in­tro­duced in Novem­ber. The bill pro­posed ban­ning garden­ing and farm­ing in cer­tain com­mer­cial areas, some of which are already oc­cu­pied by green land.

“We would’ve res­isted the le­gis­la­tion, be­cause it’s un­just,” said the Rev. Joshua Grace of Circle of Hope church, at Frank­ford Av­en­ue and Nor­ris Street. “We would’ve made them come and fine us, and then not paid and had them try to make us pay.”

The lan­guage ban­ning garden­ing in those areas has since been nul­li­fied in an amend­ment to the bill, but feel­ings are still raw that the meas­ure was even pro­posed.

“It’s nice that they passed it [the amend­ment] for them,” Grace said, “so they don’t have to deal with us and people like us who don’t play by those rules.”

When Bill 120917 was in­tro­duced to City Coun­cil in Novem­ber by City Coun­cil­man Bri­an O’Neill (R-10th dist.), it in­cluded lan­guage list­ing “com­munity garden” and “mar­ket or com­munity-sup­por­ted farm” as be­ing pro­hib­ited in land zoned mixed com­mer­cial, CMX-2 and CMX-2.5.

That lan­guage was amended in Decem­ber to al­low­ing such activ­ity by “spe­cial ex­cep­tion,” a pro­cess akin to get­ting a vari­ance that sup­port­ers said would cost garden­ers and farm­ers up to $400.

Un­der that ver­sion of the law, farm­ers and garden­ers would have been re­quired to pe­ti­tion the city’s Zon­ing Board of Ad­just­ment (ZBA), which would have re­quired hir­ing leg­al coun­sel, for per­mis­sion to set up green space in these mixed com­mer­cial areas. It was un­clear how the bill would have af­fected already ex­ist­ing gar­dens in those mixed-com­mer­cial areas.

Last Thursday, this bill was amended again in City Coun­cil to now al­low farms, gar­dens and mar­kets by right, as they already were un­der the new Phil­adelphia Zon­ing Code, in­tro­duced last Au­gust, which was Phil­adelphia’s first new zon­ing code in more than 30 years.

But garden­ers, farm­ers and their sup­port­ers were still con­fused about why this le­gis­la­tion was pro­posed in the first place.

“Where was this com­ing from?” asked Lena Helen, pres­id­ent of the Kens­ing­ton Com­munity Food Co-op and her­self a back­yard garden­er. KCFC’s mem­ber­ship stretches from North­ern liber­ties through Port Rich­mond.

Coun­cil­man O’Neill did not re­spond to re­peated re­quests for com­ment about the bill.

“It def­in­itely put us in­to kind of a de­fens­ive mode,” said Nor­ris Square Neigh­bor­hood Pro­ject dir­ect­or of gar­dens Ra­fael Al­varez of the bill. “It would’ve really com­plic­ated things for us. We could have been cited, we could have been pos­sibly fined.”

Al­varez said that Nor­ris Square Neigh­bor­hood Pro­ject has 66 lots in use as gar­dens cur­rently, in the area bordered by Paleth­orp, Second, Susque­hanna and Dauph­in streets. Since garden­ing star­ted there in 1982, he said, a cul­tur­al hub has formed where formerly there was an open-air, drive-through drug mar­ket.

Many of those gar­dens are in areas zoned CMX-2 and CMX-2.5 and could have been af­fected by the ori­gin­al bill.

“Philly will al­ways present chal­lenges to people do­ing com­munity work, just by the nature of city gov­ern­ment in gen­er­al,” Al­varez said. “[But] the re­ac­tion is that we’re re­lieved, that we don’t have to deal with an­oth­er lay­er of red tape and can con­tin­ue do­ing what we’ve been do­ing for some time.”

Over at Frank­ford Av­en­ue and East Hunt­ing­don Street, Grace and mem­bers of the Circle of Hope Church helped set up the Frank­ford Av­en­ue Garden in a va­cant lot to share with neigh­bors who don’t have ac­cess to large green space.

It’s not in an area zoned mixed com­mer­cial, but Grace said that based on his ex­per­i­ence, Phil­adelphia needs more gar­dens.

“I think we should have more gar­dens and make them as easy as pos­sible to do,” he said. “It’s part of the re­la­tion­ships that you build with neigh­bors, es­pe­cially in jaded neigh­bor­hoods like ours where the demo­graph­ics are chan­ging.”

The Circle of Hope Church is part of a co­ali­tion called the Phil­adelphia Cam­paign to Take Back Va­cant Land, a pro­ject that is part of the Wo­men’s Com­munity Re­vital­iz­a­tion Pro­ject. Its mis­sion is to re­move un­used, blighted lots from the city, and one way of do­ing that is by turn­ing them in­to green, garden spaces.

“It’s kind of a shock­er,” Grace said of this le­gis­la­tion. “I don’t get the mo­tiv­a­tion, why he’d [Coun­cil­man O’Neill] want all com­munity gar­dens to be banned or to have made them pay and go through the pro­cess of ap­plic­a­tion. That seems like an un­ne­ces­sary step.”

Urb­an farm­ing and garden­ing sup­port­ers cel­eb­rated Coun­cil­man O’Neill’s amend­ment of the bill on­line as a vic­tory for the demo­crat­ic pro­cess. The “Cam­paign for Health­i­er Foods and Green­er Spaces: Make Your Voice Heard Against Bill 120917” star­ted by the Pub­lic In­terest Law Cen­ter of Phil­adelphia claimed the change as its “first vic­tory.”

Mean­while, though, some com­munity mem­bers are troubled by oth­er zon­ing changes in Bill 120917 that haven’t re­ceived as much at­ten­tion.

A let­ter by City Coun­cil­wo­man Maria Quinones-Sanc­hez (D-7th dist.) pos­ted on Plan­ states that she op­poses the bill’s lan­guage re­strict­ing res­id­en­tial units in com­mer­cial areas to single-fam­ily homes, as well as the re­stric­tions on vehicle sales, an­im­al ser­vices and li­censed per­son­al care homes. The let­ter states that Sanc­hez will cre­ate new le­gis­la­tion to undo those changes if 120917 is passed.

But for now, farm­ers and garden­ers can rest easy.

“Ul­ti­mately, it’s good news,” Helen said of the situ­ation. “The more flex­ib­il­ity that we have on these va­cant lots to be able to do something like or­gan­ic farm­ing is good. It means there’s ac­tu­al room to cre­ate these sorts of loc­al eco­nom­ies for sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion of food.”

Re­port­er Sam Ne­w­house can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at sne­w­

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