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South Berkeley Community Garden May Soon Be History

Friday July 16, 2004

In the lush South Berkeley Community Garden, beside the stumpy, green lemons hovering over raspberry brambles and below the dangling figs, a butterfly circles around the “for sale” sign announcing that the 17-year-old swath of vegetation at Martin Luther King Jr. Way between Russell and Oregon streets is on the market. 

The good news for the 12 gardeners who farm the garden is that the real estate agent, Berkeley’s Red Oak Realty, and the trustee, Wells Fargo Bank, are giving the gardeners first shot to buy it. 

The bad news: The bank is asking the market rate price, $445,000, by July 26. 

Otherwise the roughly 11,000-square-foot L-shaped lot will be subdivided into two parcels, each big enough for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house. 

Some of the gardeners on Wednesday said that would be a bitter end to a plot that for years stuffed the stands at the Berkeley Farmers Market and served as a horticultural classroom to homeless residents hoping to learn a trade. 

“This is a very spiritual place, no other community garden has such a wild feel,” said Gavin Claiborne, a South Berkeley resident who has maintained a plot for two years.  

News of the sale did not come as a surprise. The gardeners knew their days were likely numbered when the plot’s owner, Weston Havens, died two years ago.  

The last of an old Berkeley monied family that were early partners in the Claremont Hotel, Havens—having no heir—bequeathed the proceeds of his family’s estate to three local universities: UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and Stanford. 

“We were told two years ago it would probably be sold, but it’s hard to make contingency plans when you don’t have much money,” said Daniel Miller, executive director of Spiral Gardens, a nonprofit that runs the Community Garden along with several other gardens in Berkeley and Oakland. 

Now the gardeners and some supporters are hoping to make one last ditch effort to save the tract. 

Leif Aamot, a gardener, said he has received pledges from three people and plans to establish a fund to raise money. 

Laurie Capitelli, a partner at Red Oak Realty and a candidate for City Council in November, said he would explore some avenues on the gardeners’ behalf. Capitelli planned to contact UC about the plot and also get in touch with a cousin of Haven’s, former Berkeley Mayor Jeffrey Shattuck Leiter, who was out of town Thursday. 

“It’s going to take an angel,” Capitelli said. “Open parcels are a rare commodity in Berkeley.”  

Already, he said, Red Oak has received telephone calls about the plot it listed last week, but no offers. 

Wells Fargo Bank wants all bids presented to the bank by July 26, Capitelli said. He hasn’t heard from bank representatives if they would be willing to give the gardeners more time to raise money. Wells Fargo declined comment for this story. 

If the garden is turned into housing, Berkeley would not have a shortage of public gardening space. The city, which several years ago became the second in the nation to incorporate public gardens into its general plan, has 25 community gardens, including public school gardens, said Karl Linn, who restored the Karl Linn gardens in North Berkeley. 

Six of Berkeley’s public gardens, Linn said, are secure because they are on city-owned property; the fate of the others is less certain. 

“It seems that every year you’re trying to save one garden or another,” said Miller. Two years ago, he said, a speculator purchased the garden he runs at 59th Street and San Pablo Avenue for $5,000. Miller’s group ended up buying it back for $25,000. 

For years Miller ran the South Berkeley Garden through a partnership with Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS), a homeless advocate group, until the group’s money woes forced Miller to go independent earlier this year.  

Spiral Gardens opened a new garden last year at Sacramento and Oregon streets, which offers some spaces to homeless residents. The South Berkeley garden no longer houses a homeless education program and has morphed into a traditional communal plot where gardeners rent spaces. 

Rasmussen said he never met Havens and negotiated the lease through a banker. “He told me the Havens have never sold anything as long as they’re alive so there was no risk of it being sold,” Rasmussen said.