PARK SLOPE — It's taken nearly 20 years of bureaucratic wrangling, but an empty gravel-strewn lot on Fourth Avenue and Sackett Street will be reborn this fall as a community garden, officials say.
"It's tremendously exciting. Many people had sort of given up on the dream at this point," said Community Board 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman.
The "dream" was hatched back in the 1980s when the city started construction on the site, which is part of the massive Third Water Tunnel that will eventually link city faucets to upstate water sources.
After neighbors complained about dust, noise and all-night lights at the construction site, the city agreed to turn the land over to a community group when its work was finished.
That wait still isn't over — the Department of Environmental Protection doesn't expect to be done working at Fourth Avenue and Sackett Street for several years. But in the meantime, DEP will hand over about half the land to community gardeners who will build an "interim temporary" garden starting this September if all goes as planned, Hammerman said.
The garden will stay in place for the next eight to 12 years, during which time DEP won't be working at the site. Eventually the city will return to finish work on a 700-foot subterranean shaft that links Park Slope water pipes to the Third Water Tunnel. But until then, the site will bloom with native plants that will provide much needed greenery along gritty Fourth Avenue.
"We're happy that we can start doing something, (but) it's a little different than what we planned," said volunteer gardener Judy Janda, co-founder of the group GreenSpace, which will maintain the garden and also runs the community garden on Fifth Avenue and President Street.
Janda, who gardens at the Gardens of Union, started plotting the empty lot's future with other locals back in the mid-1990s, when the city finished the first round of work at the construction site. She and neighbors held community meetings to find out what Park Slope residents wanted on the land.
"Fortunately there was only one person that wanted a dog run," Janda remembers, and the garden plan was born.
Since then the community gardeners have suffered through several rounds of disappointment. City officials told them multiple times that the land was almost ready for community use, but those promises fell through at the last minute, Janda said. One DEP community liaison who the gardeners were working with retired, then the next one moved to a different agency.
But locals and neighborhood officials forged ahead with their garden plans. They got a mural about the water system painted on a wall overlooking the site, which Janda chuckles about now because during the 1990s, DEP officials told her they wanted to keep the site's connection to the water supply a secret for security reasons.
The garden organizers also won a Percent for Art grant of about $338,000 to fund the community garden. They used part of the money to hire a sculptor, Meg Webster, who designed a "beautiful, cutting-edge garden," Hammerman remembers. That design won't be used until the community gardeners gain permanent control of the entire site.
This fall, they'll plant a scaled-down version of their original vision, with native plants, a shed for tools, and a rainwater collection system, Janda said. Organizers plan to offer leaf collection and Christmas tree chipping to create mulch at the garden, and they may partner with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy for help with composting.
Though they've come close to almost opening the community garden before only to see their hopes dashed, Janda and Hammerman say they're optimistic that this time the green vision will become a reality. After months of silence, it was DEP who approached the community about moving the garden plan forward once and for all. "I've never seen an agency so proactive," said Hammerman. DEP did not respond to a request for comment.
Now Janda is recruiting volunteers to help build the garden, some of which will be on wheeled planters that can be pushed aside if DEP needs access to the site in the event of a tunnel-related emergency. Ironically, though the garden will sit on top of a mammoth water tunnel, there will be no access to water at the site, so gardeners will have to tap into a nearby fire hydrant, Janda said.
The nearly two-decade wait for the garden has silver lining, Janda noted. There's more interest than ever in community gardening, in part because of changing attitudes about the environment and sustainability, Janda said. She's also expecting to find more volunteers in the neighborhood than she might have in the mid 1990s.
"Over these years, the whole neighborhood has gotten much more densely populated and built on, and there have been some socioeconomic changes," said Janda. "More people rent and buy closer to the Gowanus area and Fourth Avenue. There's a lot more people around who would get interested and get involved."