By Josh Brokaw
The future of Ithaca Community Gardens is in question, again, since Cayuga Medical Center announced the purchase this June of the Route 13-facing Carpenter Business Park property that includes an option to buy the property on which the Gardens sit from the city.
By spending $10 million to buy Carpenter Business Park from previous owner Maguire Family of Dealerships, Cayuga Medical won it away from competitor Guthrie Health, of Sayre, Pennsylvania*. What Cayuga Medical Center and developer partner Park Grove Realty LLC plan to do with the property beyond the “compact, mixed use” development promised in a June press release is still unclear. What is clear so far is that Cayuga Medical is expressing a strong preference the Ithaca Community Gardens move to Cass Park, off the two-plus acres that gardeners have cultivated since the mid-1980s.
“We’ve met with [CMC] three times,” Dan Hoffman, former city attorney, said at an August 29 meeting of community gardeners, “and the line has always been the same. And that is we want the gardens to move and Cass Park is a great place.”
An ad hoc group of community gardeners started meeting on August 20 to prepare a strategy for defending the gardens against any moves not in its best interest. This reporter attended two of the group’s meetings last week at Cornell Cooperative Extension, where about 15 gardeners, mostly the same faces, showed up each night.
When the Cass Park option was mentioned, many gardeners shook their heads at the thought. The suggested grounds were found to be too soggy for softball fields, the gardeners say, and were underwater during August’s heavy rains. There’s clay three inches below the surface. And the location, across the inlet, would make the Community Gardens less accessible to its traditional base of gardeners in the Northside, Downtown, and Fall Creek neighborhoods.
“The option of Cass Park is untenable from the get go, it’s D.O.A.,” gardener Michael-Vincent Crea said on August 29,as the group sketched out arguments to convince the public and city officials of its position.
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The gardeners are not fixated exclusively upon staying on the exact same land; several advised continuing to analyze the situation and keeping minds open to possibilities beyond “stay” at the current location and “go” to Cass Park.
“The developers at some point are going to present a site plan – it’s going to look a lot different if they have garden land versus not having garden land,” said Paul Mazzarella, recently retired director of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, at the gardeners’ August 31 meeting. “It’s not going to be they’ll give us a site plan and then we’ll decide on it or vice versa … We could give up some. We could move the whole thing to another site, or we could end up with nothing.”
“Cayuga Medical is a powerful part of our community, so our leverage might not be unlimited,” another gardener added. “We might come to the point where we don’t want to burn all our bridges and are forced into a situation where it’s a yes or no.”
Ending up with no land for the Community Gardens is the greatest fear of gardeners; the 2.12 acres of land they occupy now is owned by the city, rather than the Gardens’ parent non-profit organization, Project Growing Hope. A “path to permanence,” as in acquiring land that Project Growing Hope owns outright, is a goal for the Community Gardens. With developers coming and going at Carpenter Business Park, the gardeners feel their position to be unstable.
The Community Gardeners have shown some flexibility in the past: the Project Growing Hope board decided in June 2016 to agree in principle to a land swap with Maguire Family of Dealerships over the opposition of some individual gardeners to building an auto dealership there. The key to that agreement was Maguire’s promise that Project Growing Hope would not only stay in the same location, but would receive title to the land.
Right now, Cayuga Medical holds a first option to purchase the Gardens’ property, if Common Council should decide to terminate the Gardens’ 20-year lease signed in 2013 – or, in a less likely scenario, if the Project Growing Hope board should agree to a sale. The option, which extends until February 2022, was included in the sale of Carpenter Business Park from the city to would-be developer Cynthia Yahn in 2002. The option-holder would have received a $70,000 price at that time, and the cost was tied to the “Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) for the Northeast Urban Region” – making the cost now to be about $96,250 for the parcel, according to gardener Sheryl Swink.
Moving the Gardens to Cass Park would also require the city find more park land. The city must maintain a certain amount of park land, and “alienating” park land for other uses requires the city to find substitute land.
“That’s a lengthy process that involves state approval,” Alderperson Seph Murtagh (D-2nd Ward) said, “and I don’t know if [Cayuga Medical] has come up with a concrete timeline they want to do it by … They’re very preliminary conversations at this point.”
“Cayuga Medical is the first developer I’ve seen [at Carpenter Business Park] that has money and potentially has a project in line with the city’s vision,” Murtagh continued. “The challenging thing is community gardening is certainly in line with the city’s vision … The best case scenario is the garden and Cayuga Medical come to some kind of agreement, then we decide to move forward.”
For now, the Community Gardeners will continue to meet and organize to plan out flyer campaigns, outreach to media and Common Council, and study the feasibility – or unfeasibility – of the Cass Park site. With their next meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on September 7 at the Henry St. John building, 301 S. Geneva St., the group wants to hear a better option from Cayuga Medical than a field “not fit for softball,” as gardener Pat Shea put it in a memo to media.
A whole list of arguments for the Community Gardens’ importance took shape on a paper pad during their meetings last week, arguments that could be used in public comment at meetings and in any necessary campaigns. One gardener described the Community Gardens “like a hub of a spoke” in the wheel of local food production. The donation of over 1,000 pounds of food last year, giving low-income people and refugees an open-air place for gardening and recreation, and their entirely volunteer existence for more than 40 years were other suggested talking points. Then there’s the argument that, perhaps, the gardens are doing just as much for the community’s health where they are than any potential clinic Cayuga Medical might build.
“The hospital is secondary health care,” one gardener said. “The garden is primary health care. There’s no cost and it involves so many things that prevents illness.”
*The bidding war between Cayuga Medical and Guthrie is common knowledge, it seems, among those who deal in city development matters. “There was a competition between Guthrie and Cayuga Medical, and I think that’s what drove up the price,” Murtagh said. Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency director Nels Bohn also spoke freely of the competition between Guthrie and Cayuga Medical Center, as did Hoffman.
Update, September 7: Given some discussion online about this story, it seems important to note that the Community Gardens’ footprint is mostly or entirely within an area where building any structure is prohibited, because NYSEG has power lines on the property. (The city of Ithaca bought the entire Carpenter Business Park from NYSEG in 1986, and the restrictions are in the deed.) Parking and green spaces are acceptable uses in the Gardens’ area. According to Bohn, there are about four and a half buildable acres on the Business Park property that Cayuga Medical now owns.
Featured photograph via Facebook, Ithaca Community Gardens page. Scroll down below our modest pitch for contributors and funding to see the purchase option that Cayuga Medical now holds.
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