By Alan Prendergast
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Three old homes once sat on the corner of Eighth and Emerson, but they were torn down in the late 1970s, presumably so the site could be redeveloped as condos. According to neighbors who have lived there since then, the property owners couldn't get the financing, so the land remained vacant until the manager of an apartment building across the street came up with the idea of turning it into a garden. He asked the owner, Herman Feldman, a local attorney whose mother had owned the land before it was passed down to him, for permission, and Feldman agreed. All he wanted in return were some home-grown vegetables.
Yvonne Prendergast, who lives just a couple of houses away, is the garden's most senior member (she's also the mother of Westword writer Alan Prendergast). She's gardened there for more than twenty years, and she always took tomatoes and corn to Feldman at his law office on 12th Avenue and Bannock Street.
A couple of years ago, Feldman's health began to fail. He moved into a nursing home, so Prendergast started taking the vegetables to his daughter, Amy Schoendaller, who lives in Littleton. Prendergast then learned that Feldman was planning to put the land in a trust and that his descendants would someday want to sell it.
Feldman died in February, and the land was indeed passed on to yet another generation of the family. Schoendaller doesn't know exactly how many people are part of the family trust, which includes several Denver properties and involves a number of family members, some of whom live out of state. She says it's a convoluted arrangement and that the other members of the trust don't want to discuss the particulars. One thing she's sure of, though, is that they want to sell the Emerson Street property and are willing to give the gardeners the first shot at buying it.
No asking price or deadline has been put forward, however. "We're in very preliminary stages of negotiations," Schoendaller says. "We've had a wonderful relationship with the gardeners, and we want a good outcome that will work for everyone."
Though most of the gardeners never met Feldman, they all emphasize their gratitude to him for letting them use his land for so many years, and to Schoendaller for acting as the liaison between them and her relatives. And none of the gardeners begrudges the family for wanting to sell the land. They just hope the price will be within their reach.
"This is not an anti-development issue," says Grant Van Pelt, a school counselor and avid gardener who's leading the effort to raise support and money for preserving the garden. "This is about pro-community. This is like a watering hole. You sit here during the day, and fifteen people you don't know will come by."
The scent of basil is strong in Van Pelt's plot. This is his first summer in the garden; he and his fiancée took over their section after the previous tenants, Don and Gracie Batt, moved to Park Hill. The Batts had worked the plot for nine years, and it shows: They installed a stone path leading to what is now a sitting area; Van Pelt has furnished the area with deck chairs and a table made of sandstone slabs. He replanted most of the garden with his own vegetables, but he kept some of the Batts' crops, including their rhubarb and sage.
After Feldman died, Van Pelt called several of the other gardeners, who agreed that they wanted to save the garden. Last July, he convened a meeting and invited Michael Buchenau, co-executive director of Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), a nonprofit that helps neighborhoods establish such green spaces. Buchenau had worked with the gardeners in the past and had approached Feldman several years ago about buying or leasing the land, but Feldman wasn't interested in selling or in entering into a formal relationship with the gardeners.
After the July meeting, Buchenau offered to be the liaison between the gardeners and the Feldman trust and to help neighbors raise the money to buy the land. He advised the gardeners to collect signatures from people who want to save the garden so that he can show potential donors how many people value it.
He predicts that the asking price will be in the high six figures, however, and could be even higher. "My fear is that if they come back with a number that's seven figures, the neighbors will give up," Buchenau says. "Of the sixty gardens that are part of Denver Urban Gardens, we only own about six of them, and most of those have been deeded to us. We've never even come close to raising this kind of money."
Buchenau says the safest locations for community gardens are on lots that can't easily be developed -- sites that are small, oddly shaped or in an undesirable spot for a home. Gardens that are planted on school playgrounds or on church, library, municipal or other public property have better chances at longevity. Unfortunately for the neighbors, the Emerson Street Community Garden is on a prime piece of real estate: The large square corner lot would be attractive to any developer looking to build condominiums. In 1996, a twelve-unit loft project was built on a vacant piece of land on Clarkson Street, behind the garden; the average sale price of the units is $235,000.