Green today, gone tomorrow

Pub date April 19, 2011
SectionGreen City

URBAN FARMING Green thumbs may soon be mourning the partial removal of Hayes Valley Farm. The urban agriculture education project is facing the prospect of condos being built on one of its two sections of city-issued property by Bay Area development company Build Inc., as early as February 2012. The company has been slated to build on the property since before the farm project began in January 2010, but was delayed by the recession of 2008 and its wet-blanket effects on new construction projects.

Today the farm sits on 2.2 shady acres near the heart of the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Visit on a typical day and you’ll find volunteers planting fava beans, school-age kids wandering through crops and trees on a school tour, perhaps a instructor teaching a beekeeping class, and on Sundays, a group of volunteers distributing free produce to anyone who stops by. All the while, plant and animal life buzz amid the fertile urban enclave.

But while volunteers have put hundreds of hours into making the farm what it is today — even going so far as to purify the car exhaust-infused soils to make the land arable — this green space was never intended for long-term use. Hayes Valley Farm is among a handful of ventures around the city — another one is interdisciplinary collective Rebar’s Showplace Triangle, a street at the base of Potrero Hill that has been turned into a pedestrian zone with repurposed benches and planter beds as part of the group’s Pavement to Parks project — that are aimed at making interim public space out of underutilized properties.

The current story of the land that the farm occupies starts with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The quake’s damage to the Central Freeway resulted in the city acquiring major parcels of land where the thoroughfare once stood. Since then, the city has relied on sales of those properties — which it designated as Parcels A to V — to build Octavia Boulevard and redevelop the Hayes Valley-Market Street neighborhood. Half the land was to be made into affordable housing.

But at one point, the neighborhood noticed that some of the parcels awaiting sale were attracting crime, graffiti, dumping, and otherwise unsavory activities. The Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association teamed up with the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to go looking for potential projects that could put these spaces to constructive use during the time that they awaiting development.

“We went out and actually sought a user for this. We got in contact with Jay Rosenberg and Chris Burley, who were interested in doing the farm, and we brought them here and asked them if this was doable,” says Rich Hillis of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “We were 100 percent clear that it was going to be for interim use only, and they embraced that.” Hillis and colleague Ken Rich ensured that Hayes Valley Farm received a $50,000 grant from the Mayor’s Office to get started on the work of clearing the property and setting up community programming on the land.

While it’s clear that the farm project was meant from the get-go to be an interim use for Parcels O and P, some members of the community are upset to see Parcel P turned over so soon to Build Inc. “As a citizen, I have the freedom of being able to ask what’s better for the community, this farm or more developments?” says Morgan Fitzgibbons, head of the neighborhood sustainability group the Wigg Party and farm volunteer. “The farm is an anchor of a burgeoning sustainability movement, and after seeing all the good it can do, are we still going to go in there and build? I think the issue is bigger than one city block.”

But Booka Alon, who is part of the 10 core farm volunteers who manage and run the farm, says they will not be putting up a fight. “We are very grateful to the Mayor’s Office and we’re ready to leave when asked. That’s part of our agreement.”

Alon says that the farm gives a sense of hopefulness and accomplishment to many young volunteers who are otherwise underemployed during the economic downturn, but turning Hayes Valley Farm into a long-term career commitment is not something many volunteers are itching to take on. “Planting and farming are hopeful acts, but not very lucrative in an urban setting.”

Many community members who championed the farm in the first place hope that the transition of Parcel P to Build Inc. will go smoothly so that other interim-use projects will be supported in the future. “We love the farm,” says Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association member Jim Warshell. “What they’ve done has been spectacular and wonderful, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t honor your commitment. The way we respond to Parcel P will affect how people trust us with future deals.” And while the farm’s popularity among city residents can’t be denied, some look forward to the fruition of the city’s promise that the area will be converted into homes that residents can afford.

But the sun hasn’t set on the work of Hayes Valley Farm. The group is collaborating with the city on finding another location to continue planting and teaching. And the future of Parcel O appears to be some shade of green. For now, there are no imminent development plans for the space and, unlike Parcel P, Parcel O is under the auspices of the city’s Redevelopment Agency, not a private company.

Alon says that some of the plant beds and flowers on Parcel O might someday be incorporated into the mixed-income housing developments that will eventually stand around — and possibly on — it. As for the permaculture soil that the farm hands have diligently created, she hopes it can be recycled along with the knowledge that was shared through the project. “Maybe we’ll give the soil to neighbors when it’s over. They can use it in their own gardens.”

For more information on how to support the farm, visit