Housing Complex

Wouldn’t It Be Great If the City Encouraged Gardening on Vacant Lots? Oh, Wait.

Yesterday, Councilmember and guardian-of-all-things-warm-and-fuzzy Tommy Wells held a marathon roundtable on urban agriculture in D.C., bringing folks from all over the city to describe how they cultivate their gardens. As precious as land is in D.C., there's actually still a lot of it that could be put to good use—the challenge is securing the right to put down roots.

As it happens, city leaders were aware of this opportunity 25 years ago, when Council chairman Dave Clarke—himself a well-known environmentalist—pushed through the "Food Production and Urban Gardens Program Act of 1986." The accompanying staff report cited an Office of Planning inventory of 20,000 available sites, and the bill directed the mayor to encourage the cultivation of those vacant lots by relieving owners of maintenance and insurance responsibilities in exchange for allowing them to be put to use for food production. It also aimed to include gardening projects in the Summer Youth Employment program, have the University of the District of Columbia to provide educational materials and technical assistance, and encourage food buying clubs and produce markets.

Well, the mayor at the time was Marion Barry, and his administration never published regulations as the law had directed, so it appears that Clarke's forward-thinking vision was never implemented. Steve Coleman, of the prodigious non-profit Washington Parks and People, hadn't even heard about it when I sent the legislation over. Which is too bad, because as Coleman learned in the long battle to create the North Columbia Heights Green, the obstacles to getting vacant lots into production are almost endless.

The main hangups are tax-related. Many vacant lots have gone to tax sale, and faraway investors have bought liens on the property, which have to be cleared before organizations can do much with it. Also, although land owned by non-profits isn't taxed, if a private owner allows their land to be gardened, it is taxed at the regular rate—and sometimes higher, if the District registers it as "vacant."

That doesn't really make sense, considering the salutary effect that well-tended green space can have on property values around it. Considering that they usually make no profit while making real estate more attractive, community gardens on undevelopable  land—like the oddly-shaped interiors of blocks—certainly shouldn't be taxed like vacant lots.

That's private land, though. Washington Parks and People is also targeting the gigantic, publicly-owned swaths of lawns behind fences in the District, like the National Arboretum, the Fort Circle parks, and the Old Soldiers Home. The latter does have a farm, Coleman says, but it's closed off to the public. He remembers seeing a gardener inside handing a canteloupe to children through the fence that surrounds it.

"You just feel like you're looking at Marie Antoinette with the cake," Coleman says. "Instead of giving people a canteloupe, can't we actually give people access to these federal sites?"

Read Coleman's testimony for the roundtable here.

Photo via NorthColumbiaHeights.org

  • danmac

    Interesting. The Bible Way Church has a large tax exempt property on 4th st NW between NY ave NW and L StNW which John Thompson and others had requested be made available for a community garden and there was no positive response. This property has been owned by the church since 1995 and remains vacant and tax exempt until 2023. If nothing else the City should review all the tax exempt vacant properties and tie the exemption to making the land available for community gardens until plans are approved to develop the land.

  • danmac

    Wonder how many if any of those 20,000 properties are still vacant?

  • K.O.

    This article gets a lot of things wrong. (I'm writing my thesis on community gardens in D.C.) First, Frank Smith, not David Clarke lead the charge on this initiative. As an urban planner and civil rights activist, he had an interest in increasing the livability of D.C.'s neighborhoods for the urban poor. Second, many gardens were established through this program, but few lasted because of the rapid gentrification during the period. For instance, one of the gardens was established at 14th & Irving, land that soon became much too valuable for even the noblest of public pursuits.

    I am kind of perturbed at your quickness to scapegoat Marion Barry...

  • Castle

    K.O. you mention the community garden at 14 and Irving. Isn't that the one that was paved over for the Giant that is there now? If so, that garden got a lot of use before Giant demolished it. I knew people who worked it and got food from there. I also knew other people who thought it was a waste. I never ever thought it was a waste.

  • Doug

    This is a really inefficient use of land. I think it's bad to encourage it actually.

  • adinaINdc

    Why, Doug?

  • @CCCAPrez

    The Bundy vacant lot on 400 b/o P St NW needs some attention and creative solutions from the local ANC Commissioner and higher up the food chain.

    CM Mendelson has already been out to do a site visit. Lame-duck and just plain lame outgoing Ward2 CM did jack about it for years.

  • Petworthian

    urban gardens get pushed out as development comes in that's the nature of a interim use, not a sign of failure.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    There is a community garden (for kids) on the grounds of the National Arboretum as well...

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