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Reed expansion plans jeopardize garden

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Sara Schmitt picks raspberries growing on her community garden plot at Reed College.  
The school’s plans for additional student housing may force gardeners to find their patch of soil elsewhere.

Portlanders love their gardens - if they are lucky enough to have adequate space and direct sunlight. Many of those who don't rely on community gardens. The interest in these gardens in Portland is great: More than 400 people currently are on waiting lists for a plot.

Community gardens started in Portland in 1975. Operated by Portland Parks and Recreation and a host of volunteers, they offer residents a chance to sign up for a plot of land in a communal garden for a nominal annual fee ($45 for a 20-by-20-foot space). In turn, they agree to maintain the land and plant it with produce or flowers. They can do what they want with their piles of zucchini or bushels of corn, and excess food is donated to local hunger relief agencies through a city program called Produce for People.

Of Portland's 30 local community gardens, Reed Community Garden (at Southeast 28th Avenue and Steele Street) is the largest (about four blocks long and one block wide) and among the oldest. Located on Reed College land, it was given as a philanthropic gift to the community in 1975.

Beautifully located with an expansive view to the west, it is close to the environmental zone of Reed Canyon, a refuge for birds and other wildlife and a tributary of Crystal Springs Creek. Its 155 garden plots produce flowers, vegetables and berries, of which nearly 2,000 pounds last year were donated to Produce for People.

But this resource may be bulldozed by Reed College's expansion plans.

In 1999, Reed announced that it intended to close or relocate the garden in order to build more dorms to accommodate the need of Reed students to live on campus, something school officials feel is important to students' quality of life. But until recently, the gardeners thought their gardens could still grow.

At a June 14 Bureau of Development Services hearing, Reed officials, its architect and lawyer, argued for approval of Reed's proposed master plan, which would lead to the garden's destruction, while more than 40 Eastmoreland residents and Reed community gardeners argued against it. There are many reasons these area residents oppose the plan, but the removal of the community garden is an important one.

Reed Treasurer Edwin McFarlane said the college has the 'strong desire and strong goal to continue a good relationship with neighbors,' but Bert Sperling, Eastmoreland resident and author of 'Cities Ranked and Rated' and 'Best Places to Raise Your Family,' called Reed's expansion 'a first step toward erosion of the neighborhood.' Sandra Wygant, also of Eastmoreland, acknowledged, 'Certainly those who own property can do with it what they like, including destroy it.'

Over the past year, Reed formed a task force and invited community members to their design meetings to discuss, among other things, the future of the garden. Task force member and Reed Community Garden manager Marilee Dea says: 'We were elated this spring that the plan included 80 of the current 155 garden plots. Even if we lost half the garden, we would still have a large garden at Reed. But it turned out to be only a false hope.'

Ed Hershey, Reed's public relations director says, 'We're more than committed, together with the city and the gardeners, to find alternative space for a community garden … and will continue to pursue this issue, to identify some space nearby.'

He described 'nearby' as 'somewhere in Southeast,' adding, 'In the long run, there is no open space available on campus large enough for a community garden.'

'If there's no room at Reed,' says Leslie Pohl-Kosbau, head of the city's Community Gardens program, 'we can relocate 10 of 155 gardeners to Brentwood … we do not have any other options in the neighborhood, and there's no funding available to develop a new garden. A garden that size would cost between $80,000 and $100,000.'

The public has until 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to submit written comments to the city. A decision is scheduled for mid-July.