Urban Farmers and gardeners appear to have narrowly escaped damage from a bill, set to pass out of City Council today, that would have made outlaws of them — if they weren’t already.
The measure, introduced by Councilman Brian O’Neill, would have forced gardeners to apply to the city’s zoning board for relatively tough-to-obtain special exceptions to tend plots in commercial districts. “It could potentially put about 20 percent of existing gardens in jeopardy,” says Amy Laura Cahn, who runs the Garden Justice Legal Initiative out of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
O’Neill has, PlanPhilly reported on Tuesday, agreed to remove the gardens and farm markets from the zoning legislation. O’Neill didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, other facets of the legislation appear likely to stay. They have drawn little public scrutiny, possibly because they — unlike the city’s vocal urban-agriculture community — don’t have a savvy, outspoken lobby.
Under the bill, personal-care homes that house people with disabilities and the elderly would be prohibited from commercial corridors. So would single-room-occupancy housing — the type of housing that may not stimulate property values but is often all Philly’s poorest residents can afford.
Another facet of the bill would impose restrictions on multi-family residential above commercial uses, a shift that “will greatly dampen the vitality of commercial corridors,” Eva Gladstein, until recently the deputy executive director at the City Planning Commission, wrote in a memo to Council staff. Gladstein cited numerous such structures already in existence in vibrant commercial corridors throughout the city.
The debate does, however, serve to shed light on the legal status of urban gardening in what Mayor Nutter has said he hopes will be the greenest city in the nation. One of several ironies in this debate is that many of the gardeners protesting the bill are technically renegades already. After all, for decades, being an urban farmer in Philadelphia has often meant flouting the law: squatting on abandoned lots, and running afoul of a zoning code that made no provision for community gardens and farms.
Those rogue gardeners have finally had a chance to get right with the city over the past year: A progressive new zoning code made the green spaces by-right uses of land in many cases, and a new vacant-land policy from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) provided for more generous, five-year urban-agriculture and community-garden agreements. “The City supports the use of vacant land for urban agriculture that improves the quality of life,” the PRA explained in a report.
In other words, years of gardeners acting as stewards of land that had been illegal dumps and open-air drug markets were about to pay off.
“We’re just at the point of coming up with solutions, and now the city may go and restrict the use,” Cahn said, before news of O’Neill’s amendment. “This really sends projects back out into limbo at the very moment they were coming into compliance.” To gardeners, then, this legislation represented one arm of city government working at cross purposes with another.
Elizabeth Grimaldi of the Village of Arts and Humanities, which runs an urban farm and 14 art parks in North Philly, says her organization owns about 60 parcels; other land it cares for belongs to city agencies or negligent private owners.
Grimaldi says she and the city are on the same page: They want what’s best for the community. “We’re not building gardens to stand in the way of development.” In the past she’s had gardens on public land destroyed to make way for housing. “If it’s a temporary solution, it’s a temporary solution. So if the city is going to seize the land anyway, a permit is not going to stop or help anyone. My question is, why add this extra layer of bureaucracy?”
Over in Kensington, the Norris Square Neighborhood Project (NSNP) would have needed special exceptions for plots in each of its six gardens. It’s an unwelcome twist for an organization that’s been widely touted as a success story, and a key factor in the turnaround of a blighted, drug-infested area.
“It’s a viable commercial area in part because of our gardens,” says Megan Barnes, interim director. NSNP owns about half of its 66 lots; it’s trying to acquire the rest, which are mostly city-owned.
Robyn Mello, who works with Historic Fair Hill and the grassroots group Philly Food Forests, says her gardens “basically have permission from the neighborhood.” Some also have agreements with the city.
Mello says residents often ask her for guidance on developing gardens in their neighborhoods.
“Do I think there’s development pressure in those places? No, I do not,” she says.
“This is not about permanence or stealing away usable land; it’s about using land that would not be usable otherwise.”
Cahn says even Council members seemed confused by the law — and the various amendments being circulated and proposed seem to speak to that. As they get back to business, she adds, “I would hope that there’s an opportunity to evaluate the specific uses with a little more care.”