The Plot Thickens

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

And in Five Points, residents are worried about the future of the Clarkson Garden, at 23rd Avenue and Clarkson Street. Seven years ago, the land, which is roughly the size of two large home lots, was littered with heroin needles, beer bottles and other trash. But with the help of DUG, neighbors transformed it into a garden that today blooms with gigantic sunflowers that droop with the weight of their head-sized blossoms. The mint-scented space is also filled with corn, onions, lettuce and tomatoes, all planted in neatly laid plots. Situated between a gray Italianate house and a white-painted brick Victorian on a street of elegant, historic homes, the garden is the site of an annual block party.

The owner of the land beneath the Clarkson Garden -- in this case, the Denver Housing Authority -- changed the lease agreement from three years to one year. The DHA eventually wants to build affordable housing on the spot. "The neighbors got organized with our councilman, Hiawatha Davis, who talked to [DHA director] Sal Carpio about a land swap, but then Mr. Davis died, and we were left without an advocate," says Jeff Mason, a gardener who is leading the preservation effort. "We've worked with Elbra Wedgeworth, who has been moderately engaged, and we've gotten some support from DUG. They contacted GOCO and other supporters, but none of them were interested in buying the land because it's too small of a project. Because DUG has so many gardens to serve and because they can't burn any bridges, they said they couldn't do much more."

Buchenau admits that he doesn't want to get drawn into a debate pitting affordable housing against community gardens. "I can't fight that battle, nor do I want to," he says. "If I had to, I'd probably choose housing, because it's a basic human need." So he told the neighbors that it would be up to them to find a solution.

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.

"Right now we have a verbal commitment from Sal Carpio to renew the lease for another year. But because of the uncertainty, we can't get funding to improve the garden," Mason says. "We want to create a picnic area in the back of the garden and wall it off because it backs up to the alley. DUG helps other gardens with stuff like that, but they won't help us because their investment may not be realized. We've tried to get kids in the neighborhood to work on a plot, but it's become ever more difficult to continue those outreach efforts. We're handicapped, because we don't know how long we'll be around."

Shannon Voirol lives in Capitol Hill but got a plot at the Clarkson Garden because there was a waiting list for the Emerson Street garden when she moved to Denver two years ago. She says the neighborhood has adopted her and that she has no plans to switch to the garden closer to her home. "There's a lot of interest in preserving open space in the mountains," she says. "It seems like we could be more strategic about preserving open spaces in our cities."

The DHA is currently writing a memorandum of understanding stating that the Clarkson gardeners may use the land until housing plans are solidified, according to Wedgeworth. The memo has to be approved by the DHA's board of directors, a move that could happen in the next two months. And Carpio says it will be two to three years at the most before that land is slated for development. "When DHA purchased that land, it was never intended to be a garden; it was intended for the DHA's stated mission, which is to provide affordable housing. But no one predicted that the garden would be so successful," he says, explaining that it might be possible to relocate the garden to another DHA-owned property or to build affordable housing elsewhere. Or, adds Carpio, the neighbors could try to do what the Emerson Street gardeners are doing and attempt to raise money to buy the property.

Mason insists that the neighbors aren't opposed to affordable housing on their block. "Five Points supports most of the affordable housing in the city. Many of the people on our block do volunteer work that focuses on affordable housing," he says. He's a graphic designer who has done pro bono design work for newsletters produced by Hope Communities, a local nonprofit affordable-housing developer. "We just don't want to see the community we've worked so hard to build get destroyed for a few family units. The garden serves hundreds of people through the extra food we give away and the neighborhood gatherings."

Members of the community gardens operated by the Denver Botanic Gardens have also been worried about the future of their plots, which are located on the Gardens' grounds. During a November meeting with neighbors, the DBG discussed replacing them with a demonstration garden where people could learn gardening skills. Then, in June, the DBG unveiled architectural drawings for major expansion plans that would further affect the 200 community plots.

The DBG has since backed down from those plans, and instead of seeking a $40 million bond initiative this November, as it had originally intended, the institution will wait a year ("Shrinking Violets," July 26).

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