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University Village Residents Fight for Their Gardens By F. TIMOTHY MARTIN Special to the Planet

Friday October 07, 2005

Gardeners at the UC Berkeley’s University Village in Albany are finding themselves with more on their minds than what to plant for the approaching winter season.  

That’s because a 32-foot-wide swath along the oldest and most productive edge of their decades-old community garden may soon be turned into a parking lot as part of the next phase of an ongoing $95.3 million redevelopment project, which is slated to last from September 2006 until August 2008. 

Adding to gardeners’ concerns, another component of the project threatens to limit their access to the remaining plots during construction. 

The site’s developer, Citrus Heights-based contractor J.R. Roberts Corp., has proposed using the northern half of the garden as a staging area during a later stage in the project. According to that plan, workers would need to uproot many additional garden plots, as well as demolish nearby Dowling Park, a grassy field and play space used by resident children. 

As news of the impending changes filters to the Village’s 80 or so gardeners, many here have begun to express their opposition and are vowing to take action. 

“It’s horrible that the university is doing this,” said Rebecca Stevenson, a folklore major at UC Berkeley who has worked a plot in the community garden for the past year and a half. “It shows that families aren’t valued by the UC Regents. Our sense of community isn’t valued.”  

The potential encroachment on the garden comes as the university moves forward with plans to redevelop older portions of its 58-acre University Village. First acquired in the 1950s and further developed in the 1960s, the Village was meant to provide affordable housing for UC families. But a number of Village apartments have been found to contain lead paint, asbestos and mold, and are set to be replaced with 582 units that will be more modern, but also more expensive to rent.  

University officials said they are aware of the gardeners’ concerns. In response they have held several working meetings with garden manager Walter Baum, and have offered to consider options that would keep the garden open during construction, albeit on a limited scale.  

According to a letter obtained by the Berkeley Daily Planet from UV Project Coordinator Tom Nowak to garden leaders, those options include building a new entrance gate to circumvent the construction site. The new gate would allow access to the remaining portions of the garden for the duration of the project, though liability concerns have thus far prevented the university from offering a guarantee that gardeners would have any access during the two years of construction. 

In fact, garden advocates say they’ve been offered soil improvements and other concessions if they agree to allow the university to keep the entire garden closed during construction. 

The Nowak letter also mentions a proposal by garden advocates to spare the 190-foot long space being considered for staging at the garden’s northern end. They instead advocate the use of less desirable land along a 20-foot-wide fire road on the garden’s western perimeter. 

When questioned about the proposals, however, UC spokesperson Christine Schaff declined to comment further, saying only that “nothing has been decided” and that the university was “still looking at options.” 

Garden advocates say an increase in the Village’s planned density is to blame for the decision to claim such a large portion of their garden for parking. They say they have proposed alternate parking arrangements with Nowak (including parallel parking instead of head-in), but for now no compromise has been offered. 

“High-density housing makes sense in a lot of environmental ways, but you have to make sure to leave room for a little humanity. It takes good planning,” said gardener Damon Cianci. 

At a meeting held on Oct. 1, garden advocates shared information and circulated a petition that they plan to send to individual members of the UC Regents. Others promised to go door-to-door at the Village to call attention to their situation. It was also an occasion for many to reflect on the importance of having a community garden. 

“Here kids are free to wander around, explore, pick berries … it offers them experiences that urban youth are lacking these days,” Cianci said, adding, “when we looked around for an apartment this was one of the draws for us.” 

Others spoke of their strong personal attachment to the garden.  

“Coming out to the garden is as important to me as doing yoga each day. It’s a spiritual exercise,” said Sean DeHaast, who moved to the Village last May and says he spends time in the garden each day. 

DeHaast points out that the community garden also helps families of foreign students supplement their income while giving visiting parents and grandparents an opportunity to contribute expert gardening skills acquired in their native countries. 

“A lot of gardeners have extended families who are feeding their families with the plots,” said DeHaast. “For some of us it’s recreational, but for others it’s economically important.”