The Plot Thickens

A fear of development is growing in community gardens around Denver.

"You know, I'm an older person, so I need my vegetables," she says. "And I'm on a limited budget. I rely on the garden for supplementing my food."

Buchenau and fellow DUG director David Rieseck want to ensure that people like Grandma Laura can continue to benefit from the Emerson Street Community Garden as well as other community gardens throughout the city.

Birgitta De Pree says the Emerson Street garden has changed her relationship with the community.
Anthony Camera
Birgitta De Pree says the Emerson Street garden has changed her relationship with the community.
Don and Gracie Batt gardened in the Emerson Street Community Garden for nine years.
Anthony Camera
Don and Gracie Batt gardened in the Emerson Street Community Garden for nine years.

The two men took over the nonprofit DUG in 1993, eight years after it had been formed as an agricultural program operated by Colorado State University. The two men, both landscape architects and urban planners, were on DUG's board in the early 1990s and saw the potential for a strong program. "We saw a lot of enthusiasm on the board, but they couldn't really accomplish anything because of a lack of funding," Buchenau says. "So David and I approached the city and got a community-development block grant. When we took over, there were about thirty gardens, but twelve of them weren't sustainable. Some were too close to others, and some didn't have enough community interest, so we decreased the number of gardens to eighteen."

For the first couple of years, DUG worked on improving the existing gardens. When people saw how successful those had become, other neighborhoods throughout Denver flooded DUG with requests for help to establish more. "We couldn't build gardens fast enough for six years," Buchenau says. DUG now manages about sixty gardens, including many on the grounds of schools; it also leases a number of parcels from Denver Parks and Recreation. If enough money can be raised to purchase the land on Eighth and Emerson, that garden will become part of DUG.

"We raise money all the time to benefit a lot of gardens at once, so we're in internal turmoil now: Should we campaign for all of those or save just this one?" Buchenau says. "At the same time, it's the oldest community garden in Denver, and it's not one that people garden in just as a hobby; it's really important to the community."

Buchenau has submitted a funding proposal to the board of Great Outdoors Colorado, a trust fund that voters approved in 1992 to preserve open space and recreational areas with lottery proceeds, but he isn't sure if GOCO will contribute enough to save the garden. "Great Outdoors Colorado is geared toward large wildlands, not small urban land. They probably won't buy it all, but they may be one of many organizations to come forward and help," he says. "We'll also approach the city. They'll probably be willing to be a part player in it, but how big of a part, I don't know. I'm not a pessimist, but to raise the kind of money the owners will probably ask will be a new challenge for us. Right now we sit and wait for the price and the time period they'll allow us."

This isn't the first time DUG has tried to save a community garden. In May 2000, neighbors of the Marion Garden, on the corner of Marion Street and Bruce Randolph Avenue in the Cole neighborhood, protested when the city announced plans to build affordable housing on the lot, which is owned by a nonprofit housing developer. Most of the gardeners lived in St. Martin Plaza, a senior citizens' high-rise across the street. One day they circled the garden holding hands. For thirty minutes they chanted, "Mayor, mayor, don't say no; let the people's garden grow." Steven Reemts, the administrator of St. Martin Plaza, organized the demonstration. "Land is precious in Denver, and I understand the need for affordable housing, but they needed to understand that this garden was the center of the community," he says.

The protest, which was televised on local newscasts, ended up having the desired effect. Denver City Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, whose district includes Cole, helped get city funding to relocate the garden to a piece of vacant land one block away, on Lafayette Street. Although DUG didn't take sides, the organization helped mediate discussions between the gardeners and the city. With the city's help, the Archdiocese of Denver, which owns St. Martin Plaza, was able to buy the new property. The location is smaller than the previous one, but Reemts says it's much nicer. The old garden site is still undeveloped; it is fenced off and filled with weeds.

Impending development also forced DUG to relocate the Umatilla Garden in northwest Denver's Highland neighborhood. The garden, near I-25, was on land owned by the Del Norte Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit housing developer. DUG had been leasing the property for three years at a time until a couple of years ago, when Del Norte switched to one-year leases. "With all of the development in that neighborhood, we got the message," Buchenau says. "We started looking around for other land, and then the Denver Bookbinding Company, two blocks away, approached us and said they'd love to have a community garden on their property, so we moved it over there."

Another community garden northeast of downtown didn't have such a happy ending. Interest in the garden, located across the street from Crofton Elementary School, at 24th and Arapahoe streets, had waned over the years, and then the private landowner "got a fat check waved in front of him" and sold it, Buchenau says.

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