NKCDC backtracks on booting community garden

Frankford Avenue Garden future hangs in the balance as NKCDC reconsiders agreement.

Turning over a new leaf?: Nick Fury, a volunteer gardener at the Frankford Avenue Garden holds up a poster of the letter sent by NKCDC stating it would not renew its MOU with gardeners and the premises would need to be vacated by May 6. PHOTO: NICK FURY

By Max Marin

Over the course of a few hours last week, the New Kensington Community Development Corporation threatened to expel a community garden, apologized, reversed course, and is now in the process of negotiating a secure future for the East Kensington green space.

The Frankford Avenue Garden has had a rotating cast of stewards over the last decade. Members of Circle of Hope church have been maintaining its five unfenced plots on the 2600 block of Frankford Avenue for the past several years. As is the case with many long-tenured green spaces across Philadelphia, the gardeners don’t hold the deeds to the once-blighted land, despite their strong sense of community ownership.

But they didn’t expect NKCDC’s tersely worded letter on Thursday, April 6, telling them in no uncertain terms that their welcome had expired.

It was an unusual move for an organization that champions its aboveboard community engagement. Nick and Amanda Fury, two of the garden’s stewards, were stunned by the nonprofit’s lack of notice. They raised awareness on Facebook, and Nick Fury even had the letter blown up on a five-foot poster to display at the garden.

NKCDC owns two of the garden’s five lots, which are sandwiched between three lots owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Garden stewards have long been in negotiations with the two agencies, as well as Councilman Mark Squilla. In 2015, a memorandum of understanding was reached by all parties for the use of the garden.

In the unexpected letter, Wesley S. Cascone, president of NKCDC’s board of directors, notified Circle of Hope that the memorandum of understanding had expired. It would not be renewed, Cascone wrote, and the gardeners would have one month to “remove their possessions” from NKCDC’s two central parcels.

Meanwhile, both the Redevelopment Authority and Squilla’s office said they had no intention of uprooting the garden at this time.

“We’re not kicking them off the [PRA-owned] lots,” said Sean McMonagle, Squilla’s legislative assistant. “I hate to say it, but the government looks like the good guy here.”

Each year, the garden produces roughly 50 pounds of fruits and vegetables, with an emphasis on native plants. Community members are encouraged to harvest what they need, and leave some for others.

“We didn’t necessarily know that [NKCDC’s] letter was happening, and we are not asking the gardeners to leave our parcels,” said Jamila Davis, a spokeswoman for the Redevelopment Authority.

When first reached by phone on Friday, Cascone said that NKCDC had no immediate development plans for the land. He stood wholeheartedly by the letter.

“There’s no support of this garden outside of the people who are gardening it,” Cascone told Star. “There’s not that many people doing it either.”

He also cited the drug use, homelessness and crime that notoriously plague the area as well as the garden space — a liability for the nonprofit. In the same breath, he said that NKCDC’s move to end the agreement marked a “sad course of events for the neighborhood.”

Neither garden stewards nor neighbors disputed the problems, but they did take offense to Cascone’s portrait of an unloved garden.

“I’m not sure why [Cascone] discounts the neighbors of the garden,” Amanda Fury said. “They like having the green space. They don’t like the drug activity on the block, but they like having the green space. I haven’t talked to a single person that said they’d rather the garden be bulldozed than have the green space there, so [Cascone] must be talking to a very different group of people.”

Peter Springstead, who has lived adjacent to the vacant lots for 25 years, called the garden an “asset.” Retired, he spends most of his days on the block listening to music and observing the street life.

“I know all the neighbors on the backside of the garden,” Springstead said. “I think they’re all fond of having the garden here. Of course there are small problems, and of course the rhetoric gets a little heavy, but it’s not about the garden.”

This quarter of East Kensington is experiencing a deluge of development, with newly constructed homes listing as high as $400,000. On the block of the garden, many nearby renters relocated after a New York-based developer purchased several apartment buildings, some of which were renting single rooms. Across the street, construction crews recently broke ground on 30 new townhomes, and a 178-unit mixed-use development called Woods Square is slated for development on the former Woods Brothers lumberyard.

In subsequent interviews, Cascone said again that he was unaware of residents who supported the garden, and questioned whether they were “owners or renters.” And yet, in the midst of backlash, NKCDC, the Redevelopment Authority and Squilla’s office confirmed they returned to the bargaining table that would help keep the garden in place.

Cascone said NKCDC is now open to negotiate a new MOU for the upcoming growing season, while the longer-term land use arrangement gets sorted out. Why the mixed messages?

“The fact of the matter is I just resolved this matter that’s been going on for 10 years,” Cascone told a reporter, adding that he believed a “thank you” was in order rather than criticism.

Cascone said he had apologized to Nick Fury for sending the letter without notice. He also asked Fury for an apology for sharing false information with a reporter from Star Newspaper regarding when NKCDC actually obtained rights to the land.

Until recently, gardeners and even some city officials were under the impression that NKCDC acquired the lots after the community garden had already been established.

That would be the case if NKCDC purchased deeds to the two parcels in March 2011, as real estate records indicate. But back in 2001, the development corporation had signed an agreement through the city’s somewhat defunct Donor Taker program. It took a decade to secure the actual deed, and according to Fury, the original binding agreement wasn’t shared with gardeners until last month.

Maria Mendez, a Kensington-based realtor whose office sits blocks from the garden, said that an equitable agreement from 2001 could have the same legal standing as a deed. “It’s not that they acquired it the time, but there was a contract,” she said.

Fury said that he is looking forward to renewed negotiations and an agreement in writing. A spokeswoman for the Redevelopment Authority could not confirm the details of ongoing negotiations, noting that all land transfers must be approved by the agency’s board.

Years back, NKCDC sought to exchange its two garden parcels with the city in exchange for a half-acre of land north of the Lehigh Avenue corridor, where the nonprofit is about to open its new headquarters, but Squilla’s office balked at the swap.

More recent negotiations have focused on a lot swap between NKCDC and the Redevelopment Authority so that the garden may continue operating on at least three contiguous parcels. But in this case, a municipal statute mandates that NKCDC would have to develop those parcels within two years, or risk losing them.

NKCDC is raising money to create an orchard just a few blocks north of the garden. According to the fundraiser, the Frankford Avenue Gateway will feature cane fruit, shade trees, and “a pervious parking area with recycled concrete for pop-up shops to utilize.”