May 30, 2023

West Philadelphia garden fights development as Land Bank mulls changes

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A new Philadelphia program designated a 19-year-old community garden that memorializes children lost to gun violence as “vacant” land to be turned into new housing, leaving a horticulture nonprofit and the residents working with them baffled and frustrated.

The situation around Memorial Garden is so convoluted that the director of the Philadelphia Land Bank called it a sign some city processes modification to avoid a repeat in the future.

Located in the Haddington section of West Philly, Memorial Garden takes up roughly 17,000 square feet along 54th Street just south of Girard Avenue. Recently revitalized through a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society as part of a federally-funded Penn study, it’s been stewarded by Urban Tree Connection (UTC) since 2003.

Now, 8 of its 14 lots have been awarded to a developer as part of City Council’s Turn the Key initiative, which intends to build 1,000 affordable housing units for first-time homeowners on vacant lots.

The garden’s supporters feel they’ve been put in a bind, as they’re unanimously in favor of more affordable housing. Turn the Key has a cap on sale price and forgivable loan program for applicants at or below 80% of the area median income. But the problem, Memorial Garden advocates say, is that these lots are not vacant.

“How can this [development] be done in a way that includes the community in the process,” asked Noelle Warford, UTC’s executive director, “and doesn’t eliminate established community assets?”

After a scramble, caretakers were able to have a portion of the garden taken out of the development plan. Under the current design, however, it would end up at half the size.

The sign at Memorial Garden dedicating the land to those lost to violence
Facebook / Urban Tree Connection

Handed to developers without anyone being notified?

The Land Bank identifies good sites for Turn the Key using a variety of methods, said Jamila Davis, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Housing and Development Corporation.

Those include ArcGIS data maps, the city’s Atlas application, and on-site inspections when needed, she said. When looking at city-owned property, a review takes place to ensure that there aren’t any approved uses attached to the site.

No pictures of Memorial Garden were used to identify the site prior to issuing the RFP for the parcels, Davis confirmed.

Photos were given to the board of the Land Bank before its April 12 monthly meeting, but according to Jessie Lawrence, director of real estate at the PHDC, images “did not show that there were raised beds on the site, so we did not identify that there was activity nor a garden on the property.”

Some of the raised beds at Memorial Garden grow lettuce
Facebook / Urban Tree Connection

The parcels in question also “did not show any current and approved uses involving a third party, which would require a license agreement,” Davis said.

While it’s true UTC is a third party, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is contracted to maintain the space, and it’s unclear why they were not contacted about the plan.

The only way anyone connected to Memorial Garden might have been aware of the process early on appears to be if they subscribed to a PHDC email list following the issuance of RFPs, or if they regularly checked the page for development opportunities on the PHDC’s website.

Philadelphia’s charter requires a “conspicuous posting” of notification on soon-to-be developed land. And a physical letter was indeed stapled to the garden’s fence shortly *after* the April meeting. In that meeting, the Land Bank approved building affordable housing on 36 lots in Haddington, including the eight parcels of Memorial Garden, awarding them to Civetta 1 LLC, which is connected to Civetta Property Group.

Suddenly in a rush, UTC and partners reached out to city officials, including Councilmember Curtis Jones, in whose district the parcels lie.

“We at least want him to come see the site and be willing to talk to neighbors … come talk to the folks that this is happening to and hear from them that, ‘We hope you will be more proactive about doing this in the future,’” said Warford, UTC’s executive director.

She said they’ve received a verbal commitment that the councilmember will come for a visit.


A garden two decades in the making

Block captains in the neighborhood and Urban Tree Connection came together to form Memorial Garden in 2003.

Bounded by 54th, Wyalusing, Conestoga, and Pennsgrove streets, the land had been deemed detrimental to community wellbeing, and UTC was named steward of the land to ease concerns about the space.

Founded three decades ago, UTC’s goal is “to build a community and neighborhood-led food system” in Haddington, said executive director Warford. The group grows thousands of pounds of produce on another farm just blocks away, while Memorial Garden serves as a community green space that’s been used for recreation and programming like a children’s gardening class, block parties, and movie screenings.

The stewardship has had ups and downs. When afterschool funding was slashed in 2015, UTC’s district-funded gardening program took a sustained pause, and the organization narrowed its ambitions to keeping the space clean.

“We are a really small nonprofit, with limited resources and capacity, and so we just committed to making sure that the park was maintained,” executive director Warford told Billy Penn.

In 2019, UTC was awarded a contract to keep up the parcels through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Community LandCare program, funded through the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development. UTC hired formerly incarcerated workers to do regular maintenance, and relaunched the gardening program. Things began to look up.

Volunteer workers at memorial Garden
Facebook / Urban Tree Connection

More good news came in 2021, when UTC was invited by Penn’s Urban Health Lab to join a study investigating the impact of improving local green space on community mental health.

Urban Health Labs is led by Dr. Eugenia South, whose research and writing has explored the relationship between neighborhood greening and wellbeing, building on studies that link beautification to violence reduction.

South’s specific study involving Memorial Garden, which is still ongoing, looks at the impact of community consultation during the process, which ideally “would generate buy-in and generate a sustainable model for maintenance of that green space,” South explained.

Because of the study, there’s been a nearly yearlong series of community meetings around redesigning Memorial Garden — so there are quite a few involved stakeholders.

When the Land Bank letter appeared on the fence in April, UTC not only wrote to officials, they also reached out to the neighbors involved with the redesign, and received 84 signatures petitioning to keep the space intact.

A compromise that makes few happy

Six of the lots that make up Memorial Garden are actually privately owned, part of the collection that councilmembers are trying to stop U.S. Bank from auctioning off at sheriff’s sale. It’s the other eight that were designated for Turn the Key.

So in advance of the Land Bank’s next meeting, UTC petitioned to have them pulled from the program.

At the meeting, which took place May 10, the board heard many comments in favor of preserving the garden — from UTC, but also from the Urban Health Lab, Neighborhood Garden Trust, the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council, the One Art Community Center, and several nearby neighbors.

Hours after speaking with Councilmember Jones, Warford said she was surprised to hear Josh Cohen — Jones’ chief of staff — speak in favor of the amendment which would leave UTC with four lots.

Land Bank member Michael Johns, who said he used to live in Haddington, noted there were other lots in Haddington that could potentially serve as a UTC garden. That prompted board member Rick Sauer to ask whether there were any other lots that could be used for the Turn the Key program, instead.

Executive Director Angel Rodriguez responded that the Turn the Key RFP only considered lots in a 2-3 block radius to avoid scattering affordable housing, and that sites on North 54th Street were preferred since the road serves as a “main thoroughfare.”

Anne Fadullon, the board’s chair and Philadelphia’s director of planning and development, said this situation might be a sign that the Land Bank’s process for site identification needed modifications.

In the end, the board agreed to amend the initial development plan to exclude 4 of the 8 lots.

Warford, the UTC director, said they’ll push to have the remaining four lots conveyed to them at a nominal fee and look for assistance to receive the privately owned lots, so that at least half of the garden can be maintained.

UTC and its partners believe in the need for affordable shelter and green space, she stressed.

But many neighbors in Haddington hadn’t heard of Turn the Key until UTC came to them with the news, then wondered how affordable the housing really was.

Turn the Key development in Haddington is slated to consist of single-family homes, duplexes, and triplexes. Single-family housing will range between $195k and $230k, while duplexes and triplexes will have a maximum price of $230k and $200k respectively.

“What gets frustrating is when it gets painted like this is some sort of compromise between affordable housing and green space,” Warford said. “Once you erase these green spaces, there is no getting them back.”