Monday, December 04, 2006

Community Conversations - Value Judgements

A week ago the city commission was asked to donate land that has been used for a community garden for the last 11 years so that affordable housing could be built instead. The request was based on the need for temporary artists visiting Sarasota as part of the cultural venues that Sarasota is noted for. The group that asked for the land indicated that they could fund a building but could not afford the land. They suggested that the Community Garden land on 6th and Central.

A number of gardeners asked that this particular lot be kept as a community garden. They argued that it not only provided green space within the city but that the gardener community crossed social and economic lines and provided a unique and wonderful sense of community. The gardeners have been working this plot of land for more than 11 years. The city has described the land as being in a "land bank" for future use.

Jono Miller, New College environmental professor argued that while affordable housing is important the community garden in Sarasota was also important. We should not have to give up one to get the other. Later he wrote the following e-mail on the subject:


Things happen. You meet someone and agree it doesn't make sense to have a serious relationship and 36 years later you're leaving a City Commission meeting to drive together to Tampa to pick up your soncoming back from college. A friend leaves an abandoned puppy with you for a weekend while she finds someone to take it permanently and fourteen years later you're wondering if house guests can smell the pee from your old incontinent dog. You pick a place to go to college and find, for whatever reason, it might be a place to live.

I'm sitting here with the most recent copy of the New College student newspaper, the Catlyst.

The lead story relates how student efforts to vote were thwarted. How after decades of being able to use the college address to vote, this year students had to use arcane dorm addresses (and re-register if they changed dorms!). Then on page four there is a story about two students who tried to vote for Jennings and when they got to the review page, their vote was gone.

Things happen. But these are our young people, many voting for the first time and this was their first experience with local government. That has nothing to do with you. Except imagine that context and then coming to your first public hearing.

Imagine being told not to get excited because nothing had been decided only to hear moments later that two weeks previously something HAD been decided, without any notification of the people being affected.

Imagine hearing the City Manager say he will always bring matters to the Board before letting those who will be affected know about it.

Imagine hearing the land was vacant, which it probably is from a real estate point of view, but certainly not in the sense of being abandoned or neglected – it is probably the most nurtured and fawned-over two thirds of an acre in the City. Imagine it is the first, and maybe only place where you feel safe talking with strangers in Sarasota because you share a common bond.

Imagine hearing that providing temporary residences for a couple dozen of out-of-town artists is apparently more important than the needs of about fifty people who live here in the City right now. Imagine being told it was play when it feels like work, or that people who speak on its behalf are elitists, or that it is about flowers and not food. Imagine elected officials who can only see it as they did many years ago, as a nasty sandspur patch, when the students experience it as a vital third place, where people from many walks of life meet and interact. For some, this month has seen their first vote and their first hearing.

For whatever reason, many New College students want to learn togarden. Its not really down the center line of what one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country is supposed to be doing.

But it is important to them. And I support it, not because I think they willbe feeding themselves, but because working in the soil is an act of faith, because it fosters humility, and because, usually, they have little idea what they are doing. Nowadays they are likely to sit intheir dorm rooms and Google "vegetables" and "Florida" and come across some list made by someone in Gainesville and then they find an online seed company and order seeds. I don't need to tell you how that works.

There is a garden on campus outside my window. But here students arejust talking to themselves.

I tell them they need to forget the computer and go downtown and find someone who knows what grows and talk to them. We are raising a generation that is not learning how to find real people who know something and ask for guidance. Sending them to Sixth Street has been one part of the antidote. If you want to call them elitists, that's fine --- some probably come from wealthy families and head to WholeFoods after struggling in the garden. But I'm telling you their"playing in the dirt" is just as important as moving off campus and"playing house" or being on a team and "playing Ultimate Frisbee" –all this playing is preparing them to be responsible engaged adults that can take care of themselves and their community. And while most of our students graduate and take off for graduate school or whatever,some stay, despite the housing situation and make Sarasota a morevibrant place to live. They fill any number of roles from waitresses and house sitters to teaching or selecting the films you'll be seeing at the Sarasota Film Festival.

I'm not asking you to set aside your affordable housing agenda so New College students can play in the dirt. (I think they may only have one plot anyway). I'm just telling part of the story of one of the 28 plots. I think it is obvious you decided several weeks ago what you wanted to do with this land without hearing any of the other stories. (Or consulting the Rosemary District neighborhood plan?)

That is flawed public process and if there is any way you can back up and do this right, I think you should. I think you owe it to the people you cut out of the process. You should have to listen to the other 27 stories before you vote to take this away or even to relocate it.

Relocation pits gardeners against park users, who will justifiably argue "their" park is being nibbled away. People take ownership and fight for things they care about. They get emotional.

Your comments last night reveal that you have set on this path without knowing all the facts, or at least without hearing all the stakeholders. Plain and simple, that is wrong and I think most of you can see that now. I expect more from my City Commission. I won't ask you to open your hearts, but I will ask you to spend some time in the community garden. I haven't been there since January, so don't take myword for it. See for yourselves.

And I will ask you to open your minds. We were told this entire site is about one acre. We all know you/we aren't going to scratch the surface of the affordable housing need with this one acre effort. This is about getting started. But you need to ask if you want to start by destroying community and alienating a broad cross section of this community. Less than 2/3 of an acre is the garden. Why aren't we talking about putting some units on the parking lot site and transferring the remaining units elsewhere to city or private property?

I can't remember ever heading downtown to oppose more units downtown.

I support downtown growth and affordable housing. I will show up to support rezonings if that what it takes. What's more I think a lot ofpeople would support adding a few units here and there in the RosemaryDistrict if it means we can and leave the garden. Instead of hiring landscape architects to design "green space" citizens have created it for free by themselves (with some mulch and water).

I know that eleven years ago you or your predecessors didn't intend for this to happen --for people to get attached to the "temporary"garden. But things happen. People have created a specialized densely-used "micro-park" where diverse citizens not only come to re-create but to have social interactions they can't have anywhere else. No one expected that.

But things happen. Go see for yourselves and be open to rethinking this. That's all I'm asking.


The SHT has an extensive article about the community garden in today's paper.

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