Property wrongs

Pub date April 10, 2007


For decades the narrow strip of land at the corner of Fulton and Stanyan streets in the Inner Richmond sat abandoned, accumuutf8g weeds and trash. At some point in the distant past, neighbors say, it had been a nice lawn, but no one remembers exactly when that was.

"I walk past it every morning," 75-year-old Kathleen Russell, who has lived in an apartment overlooking the lot for 34 years, told the Guardian. "I kept hoping somebody would put a lawn in or something, something that was pretty. But it was just left vacant and unattended."

Last year the Department of Public Works posted a sign declaring the vacant land blighted after receiving repeated complaints. Then in January a small group of neighbors began transforming the lot into a community garden. They cleaned up the garbage, cut down the weeds, and planted vegetables. Soon after, the DPW sign disappeared and was replaced by fava beans, garlic, and lettuce.

Justin Valone, who lives down the street from the piece of land, helped initiate the garden. "The response from the community has been amazing," he told us enthusiastically. "We’ve had nothing but support from neighbors. It’s been a real catalyst for getting to know everyone in the neighborhood."

Only one person seems to take issue with the project: the landowner. While visiting San Francisco from her out-of-town home, Aileen O’Driscoll discovered the guerrilla garden on her property and was less than thrilled. She also found neighbors using a hose from her building to water the plot without permission. O’Driscoll told Citywide Property Management, which takes care of the lot and the adjacent apartment building, that she wanted them off her land. She refused to speak to the gardeners directly and did not respond to our inquiries.

Carol Cosgrove, co-owner of Citywide, has been responsible for returning the lot to its unkempt state. "I think beautification of the city is important. I agree with it completely, but I think that personal property and private property is still important," she told us. "Instead of taking something aggressively and taking the water and not even bothering to seek out who the owner is and ask permission or to give a proposal to, this could have been done more responsibly."

Citywide got in touch with Valone and told him to stop using its water (which he did) and to remove the plants (which he didn’t). In response, gardeners began trying to generate broader support for the garden. They went door-to-door with a petition. Some neighbors asked Citywide to leave the plants alone.

Still O’Driscoll refused to talk. The San Francisco Parks Trust contacted the property managers to show there is organizational support for the garden. District Supervisor Jake McGoldrick’s office called too, offering to help mediate a deal between the two groups. The gardeners even agreed to lease the unused land. Citywide says it has presented the case to the owner many times, but O’Driscoll won’t budge and won’t offer an explanation.

"I can’t really speak for her, but she doesn’t want the garden there right now," Cosgrove said.

Gardeners are frustrated by her unwillingness to talk to them. "We could address her specific concerns, but without knowing what they are, we can’t do anything," says Becky Sutton, another garden organizer.

When they felt negotiations were going nowhere, garden supporters began holding a constant vigil at the lot, hoping for the chance to speak to the landowner directly. Groups of friends and neighbors stayed by the garden for days, talking to passersby and getting more signatures on the petition. Currently they have more than 300.

The benefits of the garden would extend beyond the 1,300-square-foot plot, advocates assert. "Green space in San Francisco is very valuable to all residents," said Jude Koski, director of the San Francisco Garden Resource Organization (SFGRO), a local community gardening organization that is willing to help broker a deal over the land. "It is a wonderful way to engage the community. It’s an opportunity for people to come together who wouldn’t otherwise be coming together." According to a 2004 survey by the Recreation and Park Department, 47 percent of San Franciscans would like to see more community gardens in the city.

The two sides have reached something of an impasse: O’Driscoll wants the garden gone, Citywide says it has no choice but to follow her orders, and the gardeners don’t want the lot to go back to dirt and weeds.

But even if they lose this lot, the gardeners see the fight as ongoing. "We want to see this garden not just be bound by the concrete that is all around it but be something that will inspire people and help them know they can utilize vacant land in their neighborhoods," Valone said. "People can take responsibility for beautifying and creating important and useful resources for themselves and their neighbors in the space around them. Whether you’re a renter, whether you own land or not, you can still take responsibility for land and utilize it." *