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 PlanPhilly.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.