The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

A little red tape, not tilling, is Oakhill’s first task to make new community garden in a city park take root

In City Hall, New Bohemia on April 23, 2008 at 3:19 am

The Oakhill Jackson Neighborhood Association already has had its master gardener lay out the 20-by-30-foot garden plot on a piece of city park that the neighborhood and the New Bohemia group named Poet’s Park back in 2005.

Tilling is set for the next day or two, reports Michael Richards, the articulate advocate for the neighborhood and the part of it called New Bohemia.

Probably. City Hall still has a question or so.

No doubt, Richards and the neighborhood association are enthused about the idea of creating a brand new community garden. They want to use it as a demonstration plot for those in the neighborhood and elsewhere, including youngsters. They see it as a place to learn and to come to love gardening.

Two weeks ago, Richards attended the City Council meeting to talk about his garden plans, asking the city to let the neighborhood use one of the many vacant lots in a part of Oakhill for the demonstration garden

The part of the neighborhood he was talking about is the site for an emerging City Hall initiative called HAND – Housing and Neighborhood Development – in which the city is in the process of buying up a significant number of vacant lots. The plan is to provide incentives for builders to build on the lots.

Richard’s idea is that some if not many of the lots will remain vacant for a number of years, so why not put one of them to use in the meantime as a community garden.

Understand, the season has changed, the sun is up and the rain is coming down, and Richards wants to get to gardening.

City Hall doesn’t move quite so fast, nor should it, Sandi Fowler, the city’s neighborhood liaison, explained on Tuesday.

The city can’t just start tilling on public property. If the city gives the OK for Richards, what’s to stop 20 others from coming in and asking for permission to get other city-owned property for gardening? she explained.

In fact, the city follows policies that have been crafted by its policymakers, the City Council, Fowler said.

One of those policies has created a community gardening program in the city, a program that follows certain procedures.

The city, Fowler noted, has decided that it did not want vacant lots in Oakhill that it is planning to have builders build on tied up with a community garden.

Initially, she said, the city proposed one site off Otis Road for the neighborhood association’s community garden, a site which Richards said had too little direct sunlight. Fowler didn’t disagree.

Richards then decided to put the garden in Poet’s Park, a city-owned triangular space on 12th Avenue SE where the neighborhood association has maintained beds for prairie flowers the last couple years.

He said Tuesday he would have preferred a site a couple blocks away at 12th Avenue and Eighth Street SE with better sun. But he said Poet’s Park will do.

“We’re not trying to feed masses of people,” Richards said. The idea, he said, is to get more people caught up in the gardening bug.

By late Tuesday, Richards was talking about tilling, and City Hall’s Fowler was saying that no one had yet signed on the bottom line.

If the garden goes ahead – it sounds like that is likely – Richards said he will be a little disappointed and will move on from there.

“There are battles worth fighting,” he said, adding that fighting City Hall about being denied a first choice for a garden spot isn’t one of those battles.

Richards pointed to an earlier battle in the last year that proved successful. In that instance, the city finally required Penford Products to stop running a steady stream of semi-trailer trucks down Third Street SE in the heart of Oakhill and New Bohemia simply to have them park at the old Sinclair site to wait to unload corn back across the river at the Penford plant.

Richards, the neighborhood association and New Bohemia just two weeks ago also saw the City Council move ahead with a stalled plan to renovate Third Street SE between Eighth and 14th avenues SE. The section of street is the heart of the New Bohemia arts and cultural district.

But battles over that remain.

The New Bohemia group backs a modern street design, while some of the property owners want a more historic approach. And just two weeks ago, the council decided that it expected property owners to contribute to the cost of the project. When initially conceived several years ago, the Third Street SE renovation was going to be paid for by the city as part of the city’s plan to create a special arts district.


  1. In cities across the nation there are huge gardening programs specifically designed for inner city neighborhoods that utilize vacant lots, right of ways, and other spaces owned by the local municipalities. While budgets for human services are shrinking from the cost of fuel and higher and higher expenses resulting from all things associated with transportation, the largest hit is in finding food sources for low income people, many in the inner city. The world currently is facing a food shortage where millions will die as a direct result of crop land being converted to fuel supplies. In the constantly changing scope of what Cedar Rapids is doing in the Oakhill-Jackson Neighborhood, housing that was immediately going to be built and then sold has changed to we will sell the houses first then build. With the current debacle in the mortgage business, demand for any new housing anywhere may be taking a very optimistic view that currently is not realistic. In the meantime, land that is currently off the tax rolls is probably going to sit and wait till something changes in the mortgage market. Putting food in the hands of people who have little or no money with prices spiking higher and higher each day seems like a good thing to do. Leaving it open ended for everybody to take advantage of such a huge potential garden space would be an attempt to build community into the area and potential demand for a house where there is such a great place for people to connect with each other. This has to be better than the usual urban situation where the less you know about your neighbors the better. Leaving gardening space in a neighborhood could be a selling point completely over looked, especially in the current “grow your own and buy local” movement. There is also the possibility that if someone is going to find where this location is, to get a feel for the possibilities of living just across the river from food processing plants and usually up wind of a wet grain milling operation you have to get them here first. So gardening could be the attractive nusience that could do that. In the meantime, while the paradigms are shifting and everything food wise becomes more costly, having a source of fresh produce that can last into the winter might just be something important. The victory gardens which were so important to the war effort in World War II, could be the wave of the future. Being on top of this potential and using land that isn’t on the tax rolls might put us ahead of the curve and show just how progressive Cedar Rapids is. Doing the safe thing and covering every potetial possibility “someone” might want a piece of ground would have better been left in the hands of tax paying property owners rather than tax dependant municipalities, but that bridge has already been crossed. Now is the time to be more creative in utilizing the space we have purchased for the citizenry, rich and poor alike. It is the right thing to do.

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