Just as the city can take away, the city can give.

Three months after a few poor farmers were kicked off a decades-old community farm for lack of permits, an empty parcel about a mile away is close to becoming southeastern San Diego’s first formal community garden.

Last month, the Southeastern Economic Development Corp. approved a short-term lease with a local nonprofit that plans to turn a half-acre of undeveloped city land in the Mt. Hope neighborhood into a local farm.

The nonprofit, Project New Village, has been trying since 2008 to bring a community garden to southeastern San Diego, which has plenty of vacant lots, but few places to buy fresh produce.

The nonprofit’s arrangement with SEDC is unusual because the agency, which is in charge of redeveloping large blighted swaths of southeastern San Diego, eventually plans to turn the property on Market Street near Interstate 805 over to a private developer.

But until the real estate market improves and the prospect for private investment in the neighborhood does too, the agency has agreed to allow the community garden — at least temporarily.

“This is land that eventually, as the economy recovers, will be something we get a request for from a developer,” said Brian Trotier, SEDC’s interim president. The property faces one of the area’s main thoroughfares. “The highest and best use of this type of parcel is not a community garden, but we want to let them get established, and in the meantime find a permanent arrangement.”

Diane Moss, director of Project New Village, said the idea for a community garden in the area was born in 2008, when she attended a workshop in City Heights about local food security — the ability of families to access nutritious food.

“I didn’t see anybody from our neighborhood or anyone of color there,” she said. “The issue was too important for us not to do something about.”

So she came back to southeastern San Diego and started talking to residents, SEDC, and City Councilman Tony Young about opening a community garden. She launched the People’s Produce Project with the goal of bringing fresh produce to southeastern San Diego.

The agreement to use a city-owned property came only after searching for privately-owned vacant land in the area, she said. Despite help from Young’s office and the promise of $50,000 from SEDC to get the project going, her group wasn’t able to find any land owners willing to let them use their property, even temporarily.

So SEDC volunteered the empty parcel.

The lease with SEDC allows Project New Village to use the city-owned land for three years at a price of $1 per year, with the possibility of two one-year renewals. The renewals will depend on whether the agency is ready to turn the land over to a developer, which the nonprofit understands will eventually force the garden to move.

By that point, Moss and Trotier both said, the nonprofit plans to have secured a permanent location elsewhere for the garden.

The City Council still has to approve the lease agreement, though Young said he will try to ensure that happens. The lease is expected to reach the City Council in January.

And Project New Village still has to secure the permits that will allow it to develop the garden on the land. It is designated for commercial use. Young’s office is working to amend a city ordinance that restricts community gardens on land not zoned for them. They hope to make an exception for temporary gardens on land in blighted areas, where a garden could benefit residents.

Moss said she hopes to open the garden early next year, first to neighborhood residents, then to community groups, then to anyone else who’d like to grow there.

“Southeastern San Diego has a large share of folks with chronic disease, and we can trace that right back to how we eat, and access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “We have far more fast food establishments than fresh food outlets here. This will provide a place for the community to grow their own.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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