Sale of West Philly community garden causes stir

A beloved West Philadelphia community garden may be on the chopping block at Wednesday’s Redevelopment Authority meeting.

The authority’s board is expected to vote on the sale of 11,000-square-feet of green space at Powelton Avenue and Wiota Street to a developer who wants to build eight single-family homes in its place (about 1,300-square-feet would be preserved as a community garden) . The sale did not go through a bidding process, and the resolution to sell the property says the sale to AJR Endeavors LLC for $465,400 is “at the direction” of Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, who represents West Philadelphia.

On Tuesday, Blackwell said she did not authorize the sale.

“It really wasn’t my decision,” Blackwell said, adding that she went to a community meeting last year. “We went there and we spoke up for the community. Now we heard the city decided to put it up for sale and that a developer is willing to give part of it to the community.”

Jamila Davis, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, said that four of the six Registered Community Organizations in the surrounding area were in support of the sale of the garden to a developer. Davis said a community meeting was held in March 2016.  

The upcoming sale was news to John Lindsay, who started the garden in 1984 on vacant land owned by the Redevelopment Authority. On Tuesday, Lindsay said he found out about the proposed sale Monday, leaving little time to respond before Wednesday’s vote. 

“Jannie double-crossed us,” he said.

Though for years he has fought back developers who wanted to purchase the land, Lindsay said he thought he would be safe for this growing season. He said a few months ago a staff member in Blackwell’s office told him no sales were in the works.

Just last week, the garden produced its first harvest of the year, spinach Lindsay planted last fall and that survived the winter.

“I just can’t believe that they would want to wreck the best thing in the neighborhood with eight ugly houses. We’re inundated with that stuff over there,” he said. “I’ve got a dog walking thing going. I've got a park bench now. I’ve got a Little Library, one of those little boxes where everyone puts their books in.”

Amy Laura Cahn, an attorney at the Philadelphia Public Interest Law Center, which has advocated for the preservation of community gardens, said the news about the sale  “came out of left field.”

Cahn said she didn’t know whether there was community involvement in the decision.

"Big question mark to me on the direct sale," Cahn said.  “One would think it would be appropriate to get community buy-in on that kind of a sale.”

Pressed on the issue, Blackwell said that the Registered Community Organizations in the area voted for the sale. An aide later said that the vote took place last July and that West Powelton Concerned Citizens, Philadelphia Masjid, and Drexel Area Property Association voted in favor of the sale. The West Powelton Saunders Park Community Association voted against. 

“I don’t know how this will work out,” Blackwell said. “We’ll see what happens. … It’s going to be one of those things up to the last minute.”

Margaret McCarvill, board president of the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, said the garden had been eyed by developers before but she was unaware that a sale was “imminent.” The trust had the  garden in its acquisition pipeline.

“We’re not against development, but we do see some of these gardens as being neighborhood gems,” McCarvill said, adding that if the garden is sold, “Where does another open space open up out there?”

The Redevelopment Authority board meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. at the authority’s office, 1234 Market St.