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Gowanus Residents Fighting Community Garden

By Leslie Albrecht | September 18, 2013 8:44am
 President Street neighbors say the city is trying to 'force the garden down their throats.'
Gowanus Residents Fighting Community Garden
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GOWANUS — One man's urban farm dream is another man's rat magnet nightmare.

President Street residents say the city is trying to force a community garden onto their block, and they're trying to stop the vegetable patch from taking root.

The President Street block association has collected more than 40 signatures opposing the garden, which they fear will bring rats, litter and strangers to their clean, close-knit block.

"I know it sounds wonderful, a garden — how can you fight a garden?" said longtime President Street resident Ivan Rodriguez, 52. "This is not a pretty garden. It's not a place residents on the block can use as a respite. This is a place to produce food. It's conducive to rats. It's not what we want, and it's not what we need."

The garden headed for President Street isn't new — it already exists. It's currently planted on Bergen Street between Third and Fourth avenues in Boerum Hill.

The land is slated to be developed into a 24-unit affordable housing complex, and the gardeners recently inked a deal with the city's Department of Housing Preservation & Development to move the green oasis to a long-empty, city-owned lot at 503 President St., an HPD spokesman said.

Trouble is, President Street residents received almost no notification about their new green-thumb neighbors. They found out the garden was coming last month when one of the Bergen Street gardeners knocked on their doors to inform them that the garden would be arriving later this fall.

Representatives for the Bergen Street garden, known as A Small Green Patch, could not immediately be reached for comment.

An HPD spokesman called A Small Green Patch a "successful, award-winning" garden. The mini farm, where tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants flourish, has been held up as a model for how to put neglected corners of the city to productive use in The New York Times and on Channel 13. The Village Voice dubbed A Small Green Patch the best garden of 2012 because it hosts neighborhood picnics and musical events while also growing food.

But President Street residents see the garden as a potential threat to their block, where neighbors make a point of sweeping sidewalks and pride themselves on maintaining a rat-free street. Rodriguez said he was horrified when he visited A Small Green Patch and spotted a rat amongst its rows of planters. His neighbor, Barbara Quadrello, also visited the Bergen Street garden, and was alarmed to see squirrels feasting on produce and a compost pick-up area that she worries will attract vermin.

"It's a farm — it didn't look nice to me," Quadrello said. "I feel like [the gardeners] are going to come and do what they want, and they're not going to care about the community, even though they say they're for the community."

Most of all, President Street residents are irked that the deal to move the garden to their block was made seemingly behind their backs.

Community gardens don't trigger a formal public review process, the HPD spokesman said, and approval from neighbors or the local community board isn't required. However, HPD "generally" requests that groups who want to start a new garden make a presentation to the local community board and get a letter of support from the board, the spokesman said.

In this case, that never happened, Brooklyn Community Board 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman said at a recent board meeting.

"They had no intention of following the [public review] procedures that we've become accustomed to," Hammerman said. "This came as news to us."

Community Board 6 only found out about the garden after concerned neighbors contacted the board, he said. Now the board is drafting a resolution calling for public review of the garden plan.

"It certainly was not our intention to upset the members of this community board or the local residents," the HPD spokesman said.

President Street residents say if they had known the city would let them turn the lot into a garden, they would have submitted their own plan for what Rodriguez called a "sit-down" garden.

Locals have watched over the empty lot since the mid 1980s, after a house on the lot burned to the ground. Since then, Rodriquez and others have worked to keep the lot rat-free. Rodriguez laid down sod so kids could play there, tossed in some wildflower seeds to keep it looking pretty, and shoveled the sidewalk in front of the lot in the winter.

Over the years, he said he's tried to get in touch with the city to see about doing something with the lot, but he could never get a response.

"We’d like to see the space productively used," Rodriguez said. "What the President Street block association wants is a better garden managed by us — something that would answer our needs and be useful to the people in our area, not just transplanting an idea from another area and forcing it down our throats."