Community garden site listed as surplus, but city says don't worry

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Helen Ost, Barbara Knapp and Jennifer Vitello are hoping the Portland Parks & Recreation will purchase the Johns Community Garden from the Water Bureau.City officials are trying to reassure community garden users their plots are not for sale.

Concern began to spread among participants in the popular garden program earlier this year when the Portland Water Bureau posted a portion of the Johns Community Garden on the surplus property page of its website.

Although the community gardens program is operated by Portland Parks & Recreation, the property in the Cathedral Park neighborhood in North Portland is owned by the water bureau. Publicly identifying property as surplus is the first step in selling it under new policies adopted by both the water bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services earlier this year.

The listing prompted the Cathedral Park Neighborhood Association to write to Commissioner Amanda Fritz on April 22 requesting that the parks bureau buy the garden property from the water bureau. It is located at North Edison Street and John Avenue.

“The Cathedral Park Neighborhood Association urges Portland Parks and Recreation to purchase and preserve the Johns Community Garden to ensure that it continues to support the health, welfare and food security of the residents it serves for many years to come,” according to the letter signed by Jennifer Vitello, chairwoman of the association’s safety and livability committee.

“There’s a lot of development planned for St. Johns that we’re working with the city on. The least they can do is leave us our garden,” Vitello said during a recent tour of the garden, located on a hillside at North Edison Street and John Avenue. Several new apartment buildings and row houses line the streets around it. More are planned in the area.

No other community gardens site has been posted as surplus by either the water bureau or BES. But comparing community garden addresses with ownership information available on shows that five other community gardens are on properties owned by the two bureaus. In fact, the rest of the Johns Community Garden is on property owned by BES.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jacob Bard waters his familys plot at the Johns Community Garden in St. Johns. The Water Bureau has posted most of the site on its surplus properties page.

City says don’t worry

The water bureau is overseen by Commissioner Nick Fish, who is also in charge of BES. He pushed the two bureaus to adopt the new surplus property policies after Southwest Portland residents complained the water bureau had sold a used water tank to a private developer without adequate public notice. Fish agreed and says the new policies are intended to provide far more public notice on properties declared surplus by the two bureaus. In addition, the policies give other city bureaus the first chance to buy the properties before they are offered to private parties.

Liam Frost, Fish’s liaison to the water bureau, says the bureau is not actively pursuing the sale of the St. Johns property at this time.

“Just because it’s listed doesn’t mean it’s going to be sold,” says Frost.

Frost also says the water bureau has not yet begun to assess the other properties currently being used for community gardens. They include the Hazelwood Community Gardens at 1017 S.E. 11th Ave. and the Sabin Community Gardens at Northeast 19th Avenue and Skidmore Street.

Jim Blackwood, Fish’s liaison to BES, says that bureau has not yet begun assessing its four properties currently being used as community gardens. Blackwood also says that maintaining the properties as gardens could be consistent with the bureau’s stormwater management responsibilities.

In addition to the portions of the Johns Community Garden, BES owns the Furey Community Gardens at 11820 S.E. Reedway, the Kenton Community Garden at North Houghton Street and Burrage Avenue, and the Sellwood Community Garden at 2033 S.E. Harney St.

But Johns Community Garden volunteer Helen Ost is not reassured the properties will never be put up for sale. She remembers that when Fish announced the new surplus properties policy, he said the goal was to sell properties no longer needed by the two bureaus to reduce future water and sewer rate increases.

The Sewallcrest Community Garden at Southeast 31st Avenue and Market Street is listed as owned by the city of Portland, not a specific bureau.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/RODNEY BENDER - Plot holders and volunteers from Hands on Portland recently spent a day getting the Johns Community Garden ready for planting season.

Gardens provide multiple benefits

The Community Gardens program allows Portlanders to rent individual plots in 50 gardens throughout the city. It is intended to provide multiple benefits for the participants, including low-cost food, exercise and a sense of community.

“Many of the gardeners are older women who are no longer in the workforce and their partners have died. Gardening is one of the few activities they have where they socialize with other people,” says Vitello.

Most of the gardens are on properties owned by the parks bureau. Some are on properties owned by churches and nonprofit organizations, and a handful are on properties owned by private businesses, such as the Kennedy Community Gardens at the McMenamins Kennedy School at Northeast 35th Avenue and Jessup Street.

According to the Cathedral Park Neighborhood Association, the Johns Community Gardens was one of the three original gardens to become part of park bureau program when it began in 1974. It is next to Cathedral Park, overlooking the Willamette River in St. Johns. Vitello and Ost both worry that makes it a prime location for residential development. Several apartments have recently been built or are under construction in St. Johns.

Because the water bureau and BES are funded primarily by water and sewer ratepayers, they cannot give away their surplus property or sell it at a discount, even to other city bureaus.

“Surplus properties must be sold at market value to protect the ratepayers,” says Blackwood.

That could prove challenging for the parks bureau. According to the water bureau’s surplus property page, its portion of the Johns Community Garden was appraised at $225,000 in 2011. It is probably worth more now, given the economic recovery and resurgent housing market.

In fact, the water bureau seems to assume the parks bureau will not purchase the property, if and when the sale occurs. It says the parks bureau “will be responsible for removing the community gardens” before the sale closes.

The city’s Office of Management and Finance is in the process of adopting a policy for all bureaus regarding the sale of surplus properties. The public comment period ends May 22. Ost used the opportunity to protest the potential sale of community gardens properties.

“It is difficult to explain to a Johns community gardener that the Johns Community Garden, where he leases a plot from the city, and pays for using that plot to the city, that has been used for 40 years is now declared a surplus city property. That just does not make sense,” Ost wrote.

Ironically, the complaints come after Fish worked to increase the number of community garden plots when he was in charge of the parks bureau before Fritz. The 1,000 Gardens goal was reached and celebrated in 2012 on Oct. 24, National Food Day.

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