Urbavore's Dilemma: Making urban greenhouses as hip as coffee shops

Urbavore's Dilemma is an ongoing web series detailing city dwellers' commitment to urban homesteading. From May through September, Westword writer Joel Warner will get his hands dirty, covering everything from backyard chickens to front-lawn gardens, from greenhouses to co-ops and food-sharing. Check out the full series here.

A year after the Holly Shopping Center was gutted by a gang-related fire bombing, something new is sprouting from the abandoned Park Hill strip mall. And it's not the revitalization project being planned by the Urban Land Conservancy, which bought the site last month. That development is likely years away.

What's going in now are peppers, cucumbers and lots of tomatoes.

The nonprofit ULC is dedicating part of the neglected lawn space at the location to a temporary garden, details of which will be announced Wednesday, May 20, at a 9:15 a.m. press conference at the mall.

Like Christy Isenberg's 8,000-square-foot veggie patch in the middle of downtown, "Holly Farm" will demonstrate the opportunities for community revival and neighborhood building through urban gardening, with produce going to area food banks, neighbors and possibly nearby restaurants. "We hope to maybe have an informal farmers market," says project head Lisa Rogers. "And if you are walking by and want to grab a tomato for your salad, fine. If you want to jump in and weed, you are welcome to do that, too."

While the garden will start off small, it's part of Rogers' ambitious new undertaking, Feed Denver Urban Farms and Markets, an operation dedicated to developing downtown greenhouses attached to markets all over town. "Denver needs two- to three-story greenhouses, fronted by a market-café," she says. "And we need a lot of them."

An impossible pipe dream? Maybe if it came out of anybody else's head. But this is the woman who in 1992, with the help of her mom, had the strange idea of opening a quirky little coffee shop at the sleepy corner of 32nd and Lowell avenues. Now that intersection is red-hot Highlands Square and that coffee shop, Common Grounds, is a Denver institution with a second location in LoDo. This small-business maven had another hit last year when she helped open Little Man Ice Cream shop in the Lower Highlands.

Sitting amid the hustle and bustle of Common Grounds on a recent afternoon, Rogers explains the secret to her success: small-scale enterprises with a handful of employees that sell locally based products to local consumers -- and in the process foster community. Now she plans to apply that idea to the country's struggling farm industry. "When a farm is in the middle of nowhere, you are losing money every step of the way working with distributors. The industrial farming model is not designed to make money until you are really massive," she says. "But coming into the city, it changes the way farming looks. It's going back to how farming looked in the past. It's hands on, it's small scale and it's biodiverse."

One of Dickson Despommier's vertical farm concepts
One of Dickson Despommier's vertical farm concepts
The Vertical Farm Project

Rogers isn't the first person to ponder shaking up the farm business by bringing it into the city where farmers can directly market their goods without sizable distribution costs. Will Allen, for example, is a former pro basketball player who started Growing Power, an organization that runs greenhouses, training gardens and a food distribution center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier has turned heads with his Vertical Farm Project, which involves city greenhouse concepts built into skyscrapers.

Rogers doesn't think Denver is designed for such tall greenhouses, nor does she want to wait around until there's money and support for such massive undertakings. Instead, Feed Denver is focusing on 2,000 to 4,000-square-foot operations featuring two- to three-level greenhouses. Built into new buildings or retrofitted old structures, the greenhouses would likely involve fertilizer-producing fish farms and storefront farmers markets to sell the harvests. And while no one's ever tried to build such a thing before, Rogers says the numbers work: She estimates that with a $200,000 start-up investment, a one-eighth acre urban farm could generate $250,000 to $750,000 in sales a year.

She plans to test the theory herself, hopefully in the next few months. She's looking for a suitable space downtown for her first greenhouse, which would double as a training center in order to "grow farmers," as Rogers puts it. At the same time she's hoping to start a compost farm in the metro area to turn waste into soil for the greenhouse.

If it all comes together, Rogers believes urban greenhouses could become as popular and ubiquitous as independent coffee shops are today. Maybe one could go into Highlands Square -- a bodega-like joint where people stop by for produce grown just a few feet away. In the future she might even try to expand the model, turning vacated big-box stores into flourishing indoor farms.

It's a tall order for someone who's starting with just a small patch of garden at a burned-out strip mall. Then again, folks said the same thing when she first wanted to open a coffee shop in the Highlands.

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