UPDATE: Updated on 7/19 to include more information about the PGH’s lease with and relationship to the city.
ITHACA, NY – The Ithaca Community Garden at Carpenter Business Park has been giving the city’s green thumbs a place to improve their self-sufficiency through planting for almost 40 years, but now the garden faces an uncertain future.
The garden got its start in 1976. It’s served as a way for people to grow their own food and improve food security, with a focus on some of the most vulnerable populations: including the poor, immigrants, and refugees. They often work with first-time gardeners, teaching them to grow their own food. Currently the group has about nearly 150 members, not including some of the families they serves.
The city’s new comprehensive plan calls for development in and around the area where the garden makes its home. A grueling series of negotiations in the 2012 and 2013 ended with Project Growing Hope, the garden’s host organization, signing a 20-year lease with the city. The city does not charge PGH for the use of the valuable piece of land.
However, that agreement came with a clause that gave the city the right to terminate the lease, for any reason, with just one year’s notice. At the same time, PGH has very little say in what developer might eventually secure the spot.
Along comes Maguire Auto with a proposal to create a new dealership on the waterfront. The idea of another car dealership on a prime waterfront has already raised many hackles, as it clashes with the city’s vision for a dense, walkable, mixed-use waterfront.
After Maguire acquired the land and made its plans known, it approached PGH with a proposal to relocate a portion of the gardens to adjacent land also owned by Maguire. In exchange, Maguire would give a substantial cash donation to PGH intended to be used to upgrade the garden’s infrastructure.
“The city had a few conversations but they were less than encouraging and not open to re-looking at the terms of our arrangement as they currently stand,” says PGH Board Member Ronda Porras. “So the choice was, do nothing, or enter into trying to negotiate some sort of land swap that would lead to permanence for the gardens.”
This isn’t the first time the gardens have has faced this sort of situation, either. In 1983, the land the gardens were using was supposed to be purchased by the city with $40,000 in grant money, but another developer offered the owner more money, so the gardens had to be relocated.
A hard decision
For the gardeners of PGH, many of whom count themselves as environmentalists, a car dealership is pretty low on the list of businesses that they might want next to their garden. If nothing else, it would stand as a monument to the continued use of fossil fuels that many environmentalists are pushing back against.
Longtime PGH member Joel Fredell explained the perspectives on multiple sides of the issue.
“There were concerns that people who were our allies would be unhappy with us if we had anything to do with Maguire,” Fredell said. “Some of us felt that the permanence thing was too strong a motivator for us. And there’s a third factor that goes into everyone’s thinking, which is that our relationship with the city is so insecure, it puts a lot of pressure on any decision we make.”
Maguire may be the best option, if only because no one knows what other development projects might come along looking to build in that space. Another developer could bring a project that is even less compatible with the gardens, or a project that calls for the gardens to be removed entirely.
“It could be any developer. You had to sit back and wonder, if it were a different developer, would we even be having this kind of conversation? Or would we be just moved — not even moved, just dispersed,” said Porras.
Porras explained that in 2012, Cornell Cooperative Extension researched other areas that might successfully host a community garden. According to that study, there were no other options.
“It is an existential threat. If they do try to move us, in any way shape or form, there’s no place for us to go,” says Fredell. “Things would, I think, fall apart very fast if you tried to close the site.”
For their part, Maguire seems to be making a good faith effort to keep the gardens relatively intact. As part of a Letter of Intent signed between Maguire the PGH board, the groups set out the terms of a potential contract:
- Relocation of approximately two-thirds of the ICG plots to adjacent areas owned by Maguire
- Relocation of the road that now splits the Gardens to a route next to the railroad tracks
- Opportunity for PGH to purchase all the land on which the Gardens would be located (postmove)
- Donation to PGH by Maguire of sufficient monies to pay for the relocation, for upgrades to Gardens infrastructure (new fence, new water lines, new tool sheds, real bathrooms, etc.) and to buy the site
- Support by Maguire of future PGH fundraising
Perhaps most important is the third bullet: a path to permanence for the gardens so that they would never have to be faced with this kind of situation again.
The Letter of Intent was signed following a 5-1 vote with one abstention by the PGH board. Porras points out that the Letter of Intent is not a legally binding contract or even an endorsement of the Maguire project. Rather it is a recognition of the benefits to the Ithaca Community Garden’s under Maguire’s proposal.
The PGH board will remain neutral as to the project itself, according to a press release from PGH.
“I have heard in the past people say that gardens are supporting Maguire’s plans. I don’t feel that’s necessarily what we’re doing. We’re open to being flexible and negation in exchange for some permanency,” said Porras.
There are some dissenting PGH members who feel that by simply agreeing to negotiate with Maguire, they are making it easier for Maguire to accomplish their goals.
“Maguire approached us for a Letter of Intent to send with their site plan to the city, which from their perspective means that the Letter of Intent helps get their site plan approved, in theory,” said PGH member Kelly Frank. “I think it would probably be a wiser way of using what influence we do have if we were to express that we don’t want to rearrange our site and follow this site plan that allows Maguire to move in in the way that they want and gain approval.”
Fredell notes that there is also potential danger in not signing an agreement with Maguire, as PGH would then lose what little bargaining power it might have with car dealer.
For now, the Ithaca Community Gardens’ fate is largely out of its hands. If Maguire obtains the permissions it needs to go ahead with the project, then negotiations with PGH can begin. If not, the future is even more uncertain as there is no way to know what developer will take a crack at the site next.
PGH members say that their only real support comes from the community, but what people can do directly is somewhat limited.
“Really, what we need is support from the city,” says Frank. “The city seems to want develop in that area and that includes housing, restaurants, etc., things that are nicely compatible with the gardens in near vicinity. I think if citizens were calling Common Council representatives and expressing that they are willing to vote based on how they treat the gardens, that is our best bet of showing the government that this is something that the city really needs and the city really wants.”
While many members of PGH feel that the city has put them in a bad spot, the organization does have allies in City Hall.
2nd Ward Alderperson Seph Murtagh said that a lengthy debate arose over re-signing a lease with the gardens. Since the land is developable property, the city could’ve opted to allow the previous owner to exercise her option on the land, which could have been the end of the garden right there.
While no one wanted to see the garden go, there were some who also saw the value of developing that land. The termination clause was the eventual compromise.
“Looking at it from the perspective of supporters of the garden on Common Council, and I’m one of them, it looked like a victory at the time,” Murtagh said. “We were like, ‘Oh, hey, we allowed the gardens to stay there!’ My concern is that if they were kicked out it would just kill the whole organization.”
Murtagh said that he saw the gardeners’ point of view and the precarious situation they were left in, but affirmed that City Hall was ultimately on their side.
“What I’ve told them is that there is no interest at City Hall — none — to see them leave that site. That’s not to say there couldn’t be in the future, but presently there’s not,” Murtagh said.
Murtagh also said that PGH’s public support shouldn’t be underestimated. “It protects them a little because there’s an effort to kick them out of there, they can show up and put 100 people in the Council Chambers,” he said.