Urbavore's Dilemma: Christie Isenberg aims to till the asphalt jungle

At the corner of 15th and California streets, the busy heart of downtown, an earth mover scrapes away at a newly exposed 8,000-square-foot stretch of dirt bounded by chain-link fencing. Surrounded by the 16th Street Mall, the Denver Pavilions, the Hyatt Regency Denver and the Denver Dry Goods Company Building, this space is one of the hottest pieces of real estate in town. But it isn't being primed for a new high rise or development -- at least not yet.

Instead it's going to be a veggie garden.

The garden is the brainchild of Christie Isenberg, head of the Concerts for Kids charity and the latest convert to the city's growing urban homesteading movement A few weeks ago, Isenberg was watching a 60 Minutes segment on local-food proponents who were encouraging Michelle Obama to start an organic garden at the White House. Folks, in other words, were demanding local and sustainable agriculture become a national concern. The First Lady got the message, starting a much-ballyhooed 1,600-square-foot plot at the presidential abode on March 20. And she wasn't the only one who'd acquired a green thumb.

Isenberg decided to follow in Michelle Obama's footsteps, but wanted to make her garden five times the size. Since children are her passion, she chose to have kids from Urban Peak, the city's homeless youth shelter, farm the garden, along with public school students. Urban Peak would receive the produce from the operation, which Isenberg decided to name Tiri's garden after the Ethiopian child she and her husband plan to adopt.

The best, most visible place to build it, she reasoned, was smack dab in the middle of Denver. And with the growing season approaching, it would have to get done in a matter of weeks.

Impossible? Not for Isenberg, a well-heeled do-gooder who knows her way around a VIP fundraising event. Her Concert for Kids shows have brought the likes of Chicago, Chris Isaak, Seal and Heart to Denver, with proceeds going to troubled youth programs. It doesn't hurt that she's married to Walter Isenberg, CEO of Sage Hospitality Resources, one of the leading hotel management and development companies around. And thanks to the fact that Sage Hospitality had recently moved into the newly refurbished Fontius building at the corner of 16th and Welton streets (a move that led the building to be rechristened the Sage Building), Christie Isenberg certainly had an in.

The Fontius building had been renovated by developer Evan Makovsky, who'd accomplished the impressive task of buying up the entire block, a long-stagnant part of downtown known as Block 162, with plans to build a large-scale development. But with the struggling economy and real estate market, it looked like the asphalt lot that covered most of the block would be around for a while -- which meant to Isenberg that the lot was ripe for tilling.

"When we called and asked him about building a garden there, he didn't hesitate for a second," Isenberg says of her conversation with family friend Makovsky, who declined to comment for this article but was more than happy to hand over 8,000 square feet of land at 15th and California streets for free for a year. All Isenberg had to do was grow for Makovsky some really good tomatoes.

Now, just a few weeks later, this capable mover and shaker has managed to fast-track the city's approval process and construction on Tiri's Garden is well under way so it'll be ready for its dedication on May 30 -- the same day as the Concerts for Kids annual city-wide Community Day volunteer event. Visiting the patch of dirt with Isenberg on a recent morning, she points out to me how the whole thing will take root: the vegetable beds and compost bins, the solar-powered irrigation systems and lights, the decorative arbors and sundial centerpiece. And, for Makovsky, some tomato trellises.

"What people are missing in the heart of the city is how green and sustainable we can be," says Dale DeLeo, head of Europa Escape Landscaping, which volunteered to work on Tiri's Garden for free. "If it can be done here in the middle of an asphalt jungle, it can be done in most people's backyards."

Sure, the project may be short-lived, since the garden only has a one-year lease. But knowing Isenberg, she'll come up with a way to keep the project going, either at its current location or some other prominent locale. After all, this is one lady who knows how to get things growing.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner

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