Wayne Clingman has a great idea for a large vacant lot on the city's near north side - and that's the problem.
Clingman (known on this site as "colt") wants to turn the site of the former Homeward Bound/Danish old folks home near Julian Thomas Elementary School into a huge community garden. He presented his plan this week to the city's Redevelopment Authority.
Clingman's vision is to divide the 2.3-acre property (click here for a map of the site) into plots and invite neighborhood residents to grow vegetables and flowers in the spaces. It wouldn't cost the city a dollar, he said, and he's already lining up support from group like Growing Power in Milwaukee and County Board Supervisor Jim Kaplan.
But the undoing of Clingman's plan may be its potential for success. The city has already invested $190,000 into the plot to acquire the property and tear down the former Homeward Bound, which was in disrepair. To make that money back, the city created a tax incremental finance district and intends to develop single-family housing on the land. Current plans call for 13 new houses, and the city has been working with an environmentally sensitive builder out of Milwaukee to plot out the property.
While the housing market is weak at the moment, particularly for new homes in high-crime areas, a couple of factors suggest development could occur in the future. First, the economy will come back and get people thinking about buying new homes. Second, Racine's KRM commuter rail station is within blocks of the site. If the train becomes a reality, the vacant lot could become an attractive buy for people looking to ride the train on a regular basis.
Given all of that, the city's biggest concern may be that Clingman's community garden is successful, said John Crimmings, chairman of the RDA. If the gardens take off it'll be harder for the city to sell the land for redevelopment. Opening the land - even if it goes undeveloped for five years - risks "taking away" a community asset when it comes time to build houses on the property.
"The more successful that garden is, the harder it is to sell it (the land)," Crimmings said. "The more successful he (Clingman) is, the worse it is for us."
Despite his concerns, Crimmings left the door open for Clingman to flesh out his proposal and bring back a plan for further consideration.
"I'm not debating at all that this is a wonderful idea," Crimmings told Clingman. "... It's a good thing, we support it, just not on this site."
And while Clingman has good intentions, his idea is underdeveloped. For example, he didn't have a plan for dividing up the plots and giving them out to residents. He also didn't have much to share on whether people actually want a community garden on the site.
RDA member Scott Terry asked Clingman if he'd asked anyone in the neighborhood if they wanted a community garden. Clingman said he planned to survey the neighborhood and find out.
Another problem is Clingman's relative inexperience. While he's had success working on film projects, he didn't have much to offer in terms of experience in running a community garden. Crimmings said that was a concern.
"Ideas are only as good as the people who run them," he said.
My impression from the meeting was Clingman has a good idea that needs to find a home. Community gardens have been successful in Racine and other cities, and there's a particularly strong movement now, with the down economy and a push toward healthy eating, to grow food locally. Clingman himself said part of the impetus for his his plan is that he grew up on a farm and wanted to bring that experience to an urban neighborhood.
Kaplan suggested the site could qualify for state or federal funds as farmland. Money is available to preserve farms, and smaller plots (like those available in cities) now qualify for the money.
But, ultimately, the city needs to make back the $190,000 it spent clearing the Homeward Bound site (which was a dangerous eyesore in the neighborhood) while thinking about its long-term housing plans and needs. There's not many large chunks of property in Racine to develop, so the few the city does have needs to be converted into tax base.
RDA member David Lange suggested a compromise. The city had talked about a "green" development on the land, and perhaps any new housing on the land could include a community garden to help the neighborhood.
More likely Clingman will have to find a new location for his community garden plans.