Did the Hayes Valley Farm occupation help or hurt the cause of liberating urban space?

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Activists who occupied the former Hayes Valley Farm site held the space and posted this sign before being evicted by police.

Did the recent activist occupation of a temporary urban farming plot help “liberate the land,” as they claimed, or might it actually make property owners less likely to allow community-based temporary uses on land awaiting development? And did the farmers of this once-fallow land inadvertently provide a new toehold to challenge a proposed housing project?

Promptly after Hayes Valley Farm ended its three-year stint to make way for long-planned housing that would be built on the lot, a group of activists (many from Occupy San Francisco) calling itself Liberate the Land took residency for nearly two weeks, renaming it Gezi Gardens in solidarity with protesters at Gezi Square in Turkey. At 2am on June 13, Gezi Gardens was raided by police and the activists ejected.

The rise and fall of Gezi Gardens has had some people within the San Francisco urban agriculture community questioning whether or not the occupation was helpful in promoting the cause for more green space in the city. For some involved in the urban agriculture community, the end of Hayes Valley Farm reflects a not-so-distant future for other green spaces in the community.

Pastor Megan Rohrer is executive director of Welcome: A Communal Response to Poverty and project coordinator for The Free Farm, a community garden on St. Paulus Lutheran Church’s land on Gough and Eddy Street. That plot, temporarily turned into green space with permission from the landlord, St. Paulus Lutheran Church, is scheduled to end its three-year stint in December to make way for housing construction, much like Hayes Valley Farm.

The Free Farm’s land will sprout a housing project with all low-income housing units, whereas the project being built on the Hayes Valley Farm site will have 40 low-income units out of 180 total condos. Regardless, the possibility of a similar situation to what happened with Hayes Valley Farm has Rhorer on edge.

“I have a nervous feeling that what happened with Hayes Valley Farm may happen with my garden. I just want everything to end smoothly and peacefully,” Rohrer said. “I respect what the Occupy folks are doing in bringing awareness, but feel that what they did was a little disingenuous. Since the start of Hayes Valley Farm, there was an understanding that condos would be built over it. It was going to happen eventually.”

Longtime San Francisco activist Diamond Dave Whitaker was one of the people that occupied Gezi Gardens. He’s not sure if the occupation will be prove helpful to the urban agriculture movement in San Francisco.

“I’m not sure. What I do know is that Gezi Gardens was one of the few wild spaces left here,” Whitaker said. “Not everything has to be done within the law. Time will tell if what happened there helped urban agriculture here.”

Katy Broker-Bullick, a site steward at the 18th and Rhode Island community garden, told us the occupation of Gezi Gardens served to spark a dialogue about green spaces in San Francisco.

“I appreciate what the Occupiers are doing at Hayes Valley Farm in so much as it draws attention to innovative, community-based green spaces in San Francisco, and serves to foster a balanced, open discussion of the function and importance of such sites for community connection and innovation in urban spaces,” Broker-Bullick said.

Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-SF) is also weighing in on the discussion of urban green spaces in the city. Although he does not have a stance on the occupation of Gezi Gardens, he has made strides in trying to make urban agriculture more accessible with San Francisco’s Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, Assembly Bill 551. It calls for property owners to sign a contract that would zone their land strictly for agriculture for 10 years in exchange for decreased property taxes.

Ting doesn’t necessarily support those who occupied Gezi Gardens, but said this: “What I do believe is that we should be doing what we can to keep green spaces in San Francisco.”

Some groups in the city may respect what the Liberate the Lands attempts at occupying Gezi Gardens, but the politically active Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association wasn’t one of them.

On June 7, nearly a week before the raid of Gezi Gardens, HVNA President William Bulkley penned a letter to Mayor Ed Lee, pleading to end the occupation of that land: “The HVNA board of directors feels that the current situation on Parcels O and P places a health and safety risk to both the participants and our neighbors. We respectfully request that, as mayor, you direct your staff to take appropriate action in a swift and timely fashion.”

Yet Rohrer also said Occupy activists are a much-needed part of San Francisco’s urban agriculture community. “It’s because of the hard work from people who have been connected to Occupy that spaces, like the Free Farm, are running,”  Rohrer said. “We have a lot of Occupy folk who volunteer that put their hearts and souls into the soil.”

There are efforts to halt building on Gezi Gardens, though many of the people who had occupied the lot have “scattered to the wind,” Whitaker said.

Mona Lisa Wallace, an attorney working with Liberate the Land, is attempting to halt construction based on the grounds that an accurate environmental impact report was not done because the land was found to be exempt from a more current report. Wallace said the last report was done five years ago when Parcels O and P were classified as “disturbed land.” Since then, plants and wildlife have flourished on Hayes Valley Farm.

She said an appeal to the exemption from a current environmental impact report will be filed at the the Board of Supervisor’s office on Friday. “Over the years a habitat has been created for hummingbirds, bees, crows, and quail,” Wallace said. “The exemption from the environmental impact report does not free them from being in compliance with federal and state law.”

 

 

 

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