July 2, 2009

Community garden proposed for north side could work - and that's the problem

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.


  1. Will they include a pistol with each shovel?

  2. I think not. I believe that this area has a RIGHT to Green Space a critical component on the path to becoming a neighborhood.
    Study after study shows that property values can go up and crime rates can go down when Community Gardens become included in a neighborhood.
    Do we believe that ANYONE will be buying houses in that area anytime soon? There is no downside to this.

  3. It's sad that the city folks - and the paper - seem to dismiss this idea (a garden *on this site*) out of hand. People - especially poor folks, like in this neighborhood - are moving to gardening not just because it's cool, but because it's cheaper to grow food than buy it. Community gardens in Madison are so successful that there are waiting lists to get in. It would be nice if the city was willing to help out Mr. Clingman in surveying the neighborhood, instead of leaving it to him to prove the obvious.

  4. This is a great idea. No cost to tax payers, gets people together in a common cause and could build new friendships. When Racine has the money for the new homes in high-crime areas then move the garden at that time. I see no down side here.

  5. Wayne has a great idea and a lot of passion.I hope he can find a site(if not this one) that has residents within walking distance that are engaged in this project and who want to take ownership over a program that really can have a positive impact the community.

  6. I think this is a great idea. Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, teach him to fish and he'll eat for the rest of his life; give people a place to grow their own food and it'll relieve some of the pressure of high food prices and quality of life.

  7. I agree that RDA member David Lange could be on to something with a compromise. I understand the need for a tax base and a city recouping it's monetary losses, however, community gardens have proven to increase property values. Urban development often looks at the new housing or trade center ideas. Look at the number of cities that have built huge new convention centers that end up NOT bringing the draw developers had hoped for. Studies show that aesthetics matter. Water fronts, community gardens, parks. These things will bring people. If you build them...they will come.

  8. It seems to make sense. It not only can feed a lot of people nutritious vegetables, but it can become a community project giving the neighborhood a place where they can work together and create a bond - a place to take pride.

    Pride in the garden and the accomplishments can lead to other projects and taking back the neighborhood - this would be the real "win" for the city.

    Similar successful projects are operating across the USA, not to mention in Wisconsin. Beaser Park Community Garden in Ashland has just kicked off in 2009 while Kane St. community garden has been operating since 1998 and has distributed over 213,000 pounds of fresh, organically grown vegetables to La Crosse area residents.

    Healthy, happy and safe residents of a neighborhood is well worth the cost that has been paid for this area and much more.

  9. I think a community garden is a great idea. People are looking for healthier foods, and growing your own produce is as healthy as it gets.

    A community garden also builds a sense of community, which is sorely lacking in some of the more run-down areas. Crime goes up because people think "it's not my problem, I don't know them". With a community garden, relationships will grow as surely as the plants will. It can offer something to be proud of in their neighborhood.

    I truly hope that Racine will start allowing community gardens. It is a great way to bring something wonderful to our city.

  10. The city should remember it exists to serve the residents. by creating a community garden one increases the level of neighborhood interaction with a positive common goal in mind.

    I would say that 190,000 spent to clear the building so that the community can grow some of its own food and work together is money well spent, and should be considered an investment that will be paid back by having a more prosperous neighborhood.

  11. The city is being a bit short sighted. They think they need to gain taxes from every bit of space? We have so much vacant property that, that plan is flawed. We can attract people to buy the vacant properties by providing lesser crime and gardening. It is win/win.

    Don't despair over this could be this or could have been that. Right now it is nothing. Like a lot of other spaces within the city. We cannot hang onto every ugly corner lot because someone may come along in 15 years and want to develope it. They will be developing first in Kenosha and then because of lack of space come here?

    No, They need to want to come here before Kenosha. Lower crime, healthy eating, great neighbors working together and gardens.

  12. Wayne didn't have a solid plan yet. But I haven't seen Dickert's plan yet either and no one is freaking out.

  13. Clingman's plan might need a little work but far better then more slum housing.
    My thought is let him go for it. Our Mayor is thinking out of the box why not the rest of the city?

    BTW I have walked in that area after reading the story. This is no green space, would that be because the inner city is unworthy of Green Space in the eyes of this committee?

  14. I thought they were in favor of "Growing Power" type project. It has got to be inner city.

    The city is not going to be improved by adding a few low income properties. How much property tax will that really generate. The city is thinking small and out of fear.

    Improve quality of life and let people build better than low income houses on the remaining lots.

  15. No pistols needed with shovels. It is well known that getting the neighbors and others outside to garden will lessen muggings. I can testify to that.

    We have got to start somewhere to improve this city.

    We can dwell on how bad this is or that is or we can work toward improving it. Anon 11:58 record speed snide shot useless and shows ignorance.

  16. I am on the Board of Growing Power, whose founder Will Allen, is the feature story of this Sunday's NYT Magazine!


    I am also a partner in Sweet Water Organics Fish Vegetable farm, which involves a commercial upscaling of Will's aquaculture methods and the transformation of an industrial wasteland into a cutting edge, high value added urban agriculture enterprise.


    Here's Sweet Water's Web Site:


    Wake up, Racine! Mr. Clingman is offering you a 21st century project that addresses our economic and environmental crises.

    Urban agriculture for self-reliance and community building!

    James J. Godsil

  17. I saw the area you are talking about. It would make a great community garden. There are so many houses crammed so tightly in that area. Who needs more right across from the school. We all know what a nightmare traffic and parking are near all the other schools. Come on, Dickert lets get this started already. We are leaders not followers.