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Future uncertain for only profitable urban farm in SF

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Little City gardens in San Francisco’s Mission Terrace is the only profitable urban farm in The City. Co-founder Caitlyn Galloway says the garden’s one-year lease is set to expire at the end of the month. (Michael Ares/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Caitlyn Galloway set out six years ago to prove urban farms can do more than unite neighborhoods. She wanted to show that a city garden could turn enough of a profit to sustain itself without fundraising or sponsorship.

“If farming is to be a permanent fixture in our city,” Galloway said, “then we really feel like coming up with a method in economic viability is very important.”

Galloway believes she has demonstrated such success with Little City Gardens at 203 Cotter St., where she earns enough selling the produce grown there to cover farming costs, as well as provide partial incomes for herself and another gardener.

But now the urban garden, which sells its produce to local restaurants like Tartine Bakery and Mission Pie, faces an uncertain future. Galloway’s one-year lease is expiring at the end of the month, and plans are in the works to build a private school on the narrow parcel. Starting in June, the farm will operate on a month-by-month basis until the property’s owner, Golden Bridges School, decides otherwise.

“I really do recognize that Golden Bridges, they are the property owners, they have every right,” Galloway said.

Meanwhile, neighbors plan to hold a demonstration on Saturday — independently of Galloway — calling for the school to make room in its design for the urban farm.

Golden Bridges School is at the tail-end of an environmental review of their proposed redesign for the site, said Jessie Elliot, a founder and administrative director of the school. Afterward, the project will head to the Planning Commission for approval.

“We have not issued any termination of the lease at all,” Elliot said, noting that they do not charge Little City Gardens to operate on the site. “We’re still trying to figure out what our timeline is.”

The school, which focuses on farming and outdoor education, hopes to partially open on the site as soon as next September before expanding from a K-2 into a K-8 as students grow older, Elliot said.

This year, families paid between $2,000 and $20,000 in student tuition depending on income, she said. The school currently operates out of two locations in The City.

Mission Terrace neighbors, however, are concerned about the potential traffic and noise that a new school would bring. They’re also worried that buildings would contribute to flooding in an area that is already inundated with water during heavy rains. The garden has reportedly helped absorb some of the rain to prevent flooding.

Golden Bridges replaced its first architect after neighbors levied this complaint, among other complaints, and have since proposed a design that covers campus roofs with greenery to absorb water, Elliot said.

Nancy Huff, who lives in the neighborhood, said noise could affect the more than 30 homes that border the garden when the the school opens.

“Everyone is pretty supportive of keeping the lot green,” Huff said. “If you take a drive through the neighborhood you’ll see a number of ‘save the farm’ signs in the neighborhood.”

David Hooper, head of the New Mission Terrace Improvement Association, said building a school there would take away a “major opportunity for education” for the neighborhood because Little City Gardens holds various community events and accepts gardening volunteers.

“It transformed that part of the neighborhood,” Hooper said. “Instead of people considering it to be a barrier, it became a unification.”

The last season has been particularly challenging for Galloway with her lease running out, since farming requires advance planning. Galloway won’t benefit from some produce she just planted for several months — if ever.

Yet Galloway’s fingers are still crossed for the future.

“I will continue to take care of this land as long as I’m able to,” she said.

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  • shawn_non_anonymous

    Noise? It’s extremely close to the freeway and the BART.

  • John O’Grady

    “David Hooper, head of the New Mission Terrace Improvement Association, said building a school there would take away a “major opportunity for education” for the neighborhood because Little City Gardens holds various community events and accepts gardening volunteers.”

    Nice ideals, but for gosh sakes, they are replacing it with a SCHOOL!

    And by the way; if they’re not paying any rent they are not profitable, period.

  • Not A Native

    You can’t criticize neighbors for wanting a park-like and publicly accessible sylvan area in their midst. If the lot had been developed with a building many years ago like the lots around it were it wouldn’t be possible. But since its there now, a different choice is possible.

  • Val

    Right. I don’t understand how coasting with free rent in a city with the highest rent in the country is considered a viable model. Misleading, irresponsible reporting to say farm in “profitable.”

  • Val

    And who pays? I’d like a greenspace on my block too, but why should another private land owner, especially a struggling independent school with an equity mission, have to subsidize it?

  • Jill Fehrenbacher

    Certainly the neighbors point of view is understandable, but Val is right, the school shouldn’t have to subsidize the neighbor’s desire for open space behind their backyards – the school owns the land and can do with it what they want.

    This article is also disingenuous because the complaining neighbors had nothing to do with starting the farm, nor do they have anything to do with maintaining it. Little City Gardens currently farms some of the space, and the school children farm the rest of it. Neighbors have nothing to do with any of it, and never have. If the neighbors really value that land so much they could have purchased it when it was up for sale.

    Even now, if they feel so strongly about opposing a school in their neighborhood, they should pool together to come up with the money to buy the land from the school and then run the farm themselves. Unless they are willing to do that, they really shouldn’t begrudge a “farm school” with a weekend farmers markets and community events replacing a commercial farm. It could be way worse for them – it could be a developer trying to build condos.

  • Not A Native

    Neighbors have a perfect right to challenge the conversion of the space to a less attractive/desirable use. If the property owner was proposing a recycling center or homeless navigation center on the property I’m sure you’d challenge their absolute right to do what they want with the property. Ownership isn’t entitlement, there are obligations….

  • Not A Native

    A land owner isn’t a sovereign with absolute authority over property. That’s the deal contained within a deed. Whatever the school’s finances are, which you have no knowledge about, doesn’t matter. The question of land use is a public matter and the public has the final say in what is an acceptable use. A land holder is entitled only to fairness and due process.

  • chasmader

    These NIMBYs will soon be changing their tune when they see how their property values rise, being within walking distance of an upscale, Progressive day school.

  • Judy B

    Interesting that neither the author, Michael Barba, nor any of the previous commenters asked or brought up the obvious matter: the parcel’s zoning.
    Does a school and/or a commercial farm fall under its zoning parameters?

  • Rick Popko

    Actually, I’ve talked to one real estate agent who said that property values can go down as much as 10% when a school moves into a residential neighborhood. Not everyone (especially people who work from their homes) want to be around a bunch of screaming kids and class bells from sun up to sun down.

  • Kerry Mission Terrace Resident

    The land is currently zoned for agricultural use… not for for a school. The developers are seeking a variance from the city to actually change the zoning rules.

  • Kerry Mission Terrace Resident

    If this were another state, perhaps a new landowner could do whatever they wanted, without any thought to those surrounding the lot. However, consideration for those around you, is a value that I’d hope we all recognize. This is a very close community made up of a mix of people, including a number of retired persons and has been considered a working class neighborhood. It is painful to have people from outside our neighborhood try to come in, take away a cherished place, and ignore our concerns (including VERY real flooding issues). Believe me, if we had the kind of deep pockets that are funding the development of this land, we would purchase the it. This feels very much to be another case of people with money ignoring the hearts and values of less wealthy folks.

  • Kerry Mission Terrace Resident

    It is painful to have people from outside our neighborhood try to come in, take away a cherished place, and ignore our concerns (including VERY real flooding issues). Believe me, if we had the kind of deep pockets that are funding the development of this land, we would purchase the it. This feels very much to be another case of people with money ignoring the hearts and values of less wealthy folks.

  • Jill Fehrenbacher

    So what you’re saying basically is that the people opposing the school dislike children – and don’t want to be around them, and that is the crux of this.

  • Kerry Mission Terrace Resident

    Have you seen the most recent plans that the developers have submitted? The series of 2-story buildings have space between them that will essentially act as echo chambers, magnifying the noise and going directly into the neighbors’ back yards. E gads!

  • Jill Fehrenbacher

    You call this a “cherished place” – but this is the same neighborhood group that fought against Little City Gardens when it was being established. Clearly it wasn’t “cherished” by them a few years ago. Apparently it is just “cherished” now that a school might be built on the land. How often are you on the farm, tending the vegetables, and helping to maintain the farm?

  • Alicia Langer

    The objections of the neighborhood have been as consistent as they have been consistently ignored. Increase in traffic and the disapperance of already limited parking; further strain on an already failing sewer system; no egress in the chance of a fire. The fact that noise is also a legitimate issue.

  • Alicia Langer

    What is your point?

  • Judy B

    Then it seems to me that that would be the basis for discussion of this parcel’s future.
    – Since the developer will be speaking with the Zoning Administrator, you (plural) should probably also make an appointment with him.
    – Make sure you all have marshaled all your arguments into a succinct and cogent presentation before you meet with the ZA. It’s a very delicate topic, and you do not want to appear to be anti-school.

    Did the developer have a Pre-App meeting with the neighbors?

    Make sure you follow the Planning Commission’s Agenda very closely
    so you can be in the Hearing Room when the Request for Variance is
    calendared.

  • Nancy

    Many of us actually do volunteer at the farm and while I’m not aware of any campaign against Little City Gardens when it went in, frankly, that’s beside the point and silly to bring up as a strike against the people who now want to save this unique property. The farm has become a point of pride and solidarity for the neighborhood.

  • Kerry Mission Terrace Resident

    We’re on it, Judy! Very much appreciate your advice.
    We are aware that some people are trying to paint us as anti-school or anti-kid, which is very much not the case. Some of us have kids, and the school itself seems like a fine one, it is simply the location is very bad. If the development were only a block or two uphill, where it would not impact flooding, and if were not kicking out the farm, having 200+ students, and putting buildings on the land… it would be very much welcome. In fact, when they first told the neighborhood association about their plans, they said it would be a small group of kids that would co-exist with Little City Gardens. During this time (before they did a 180 on this statement), the neighborhood was actually in support of the kids on site. :/

    Thanks again,

  • Nancy

    Thanks Judy. Many are following the development with the planning commission very carefully, thanks for your input. The school did not originally hold an official pre-application meeting with the neighborhood, but has convened twice to show the latest plans for the space. We are looking forward to working closely with all parties to insure neighborhood voices are heard loudly, and succinctly.

  • Alicia Langer

    This school is a terrible idea. Its 9 or 10 buildings will add stress to a flood zone by further straining an already over-taxed sewer system. It removes precious green space. It creates real bodily dangers due to lack of egress in the event of fire. Its proposed 200 students and roughly 35 faculty comes with 2 parking spots and an un-enforce-able “walking school bus” idea.

    The neighborhood has every right to object to and fight against this poorly conceived idea, particularly since in no subsequent meetings or interactions has GSB addressed our very real concerns.

  • Alicia Langer

    I remember no fight against Little City Garden and remain puzzled by your hostile tone here.

  • Pearl Tryntje Rapalje

    I have lived adjacent to the Little City Garden piece of land for 17 years and have loved it as an open space and especially loved it as a city garden. My husband, being a gardener himself, often goes out the back door of our yard and volunteers but even if we don’t, we support the LCG by subscribing to the produce which is of amazing quality. The school has frankly nothing to offer the neighborhood as it is Private and very expensive! We (the neighborhood in general) were all told in the beginning that the school would collaborate WITH the Little City Garden team and it would be much smaller and the school building would be an already established building in the neighborhood. Then a year or so later, we were informed of the present plans of the school taking over the land with the k thru 8 200 student school! There is no way this space is appropriate for a school!!! For one thing it has no egress for fire engines etc! I absolutely love kids, have taken care of them for 30 years and worked in and believe highly in education but that isn’t even the issue, we all love kids and education!!!! This space is NOT right for a school on so many levels! We also as a neighborhood, love the open space, and the garden and the peace and quiet that is so rare and we as neighbors will fight for this!

  • TJR

    Not only do those of us opposed not want this school in our backyards, we don’t want its traffic jams twice daily in our front yards, its mini-mall facade in the heart of our residential community. It’s not zoned commercial and it’s not zoned for a school. The plan is ill-advised, ill-fitting, an imposition and a slap in the face of the people who live here. Build a couple of houses in there, a condo or two, but spare the neighbors an eyesore with a footprint like a Wal-mart!

  • chasmader

    Actually, I am a full time Real Estate Broker, and I can give you empirical evidence that states otherwise, rather than anecdotes from your “agent friend”.

  • Alicia Langer

    Property values are not the issue here. Flooding, traffic nightmares, loss of greenspace, increased danger due to lack of egress, parking nightmares: in the words of Emerson, “money often costs too much.”

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    The freeway is loud. So loud, it would likely drown out other background noises like children playing. People who are sensitive to background noise don’t move next to freeways.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    I’m not criticizing them for wanting to keep the garden. I like the garden too. I’m criticizing them for moving next to a freeway and then trying to use noise as an excuse for preventing the construction of a school. I’m criticizing them for their obviously weak argument that leaves me wondering what their real objections are and why they aren’t expressing them.

  • Not A Native

    Well, its obvious that in an adversarial situation where you are the weaker party, misdirection, bluffing, and bravado are some of your best available strategies. It worked for the revolutionaries in 1776 and continues to this day.

  • sfmarkh

    Thank you for bringing up the fact that the school plans to grades 1-8! The proposed buildings are not enough to support a student body of this size. The noise will be an issue too. My home abuts the property and I am not happy.

  • sfmarkh

    No there is no freeway noise now.

  • Pearl Tryntje Rapalje

    Yeah it is patently absurd!!

  • sfmarkh

    The former owner wanted to build condos or housing there. The city rejected the plan mainly because of fire danger.The neighbors successfully opposed the plans too.

  • sfmarkh

    It’s zoned for agriculture use, not building schools houses or condos!

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    True. But fairness and due process include compensation for a government taking, which this may turn into if the public (government) denies the school a permitted use they were entitled to when they first purchased the property. [IANAL]

  • Not A Native

    Its no taking if the owner needs a conditional use permit. Zoning laws have been found by SOTUS to not be takings when they are backed by sufficient evidence of public good.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    And here we reach the limit of my knowledge since I don’t know what the specific zoning of that parcel is and how the zoning codes work in San Francisco, given my recent arrival.

    Zoning can be a taking, which was my rather simple point. It depends on the circumstances, which you demonstrate. But in this case, it’s really what the existing zoning was at the time of the purchase (reasonable expectation of the purchasers) and what it is after the neighbors are done protesting the school, if it changes at all. Uses that rely on extra conditional permits, as you point out, aren’t likely to be a taking since the use wasn’t guaranteed from the beginning.

    However, any use that is guaranteed by the current zoning would be a different matter. And the current owners, if denied their school, might opt to develop something explicitly permitted on the property in the hopes they might sell it and use the funds to locate their school elsewhere. In either case, the garden goes. The only way I see the garden remaining is if someone buys the property from the school.

  • Alicia Langer

    I would like to remain focused on the issues here. This line of logic is illogical argumentative and unproductive

  • Alicia Langer

    Please read my posts from 5 days ago. If you like I will copy it and paste it again. At this point you are attacking the neighbors and just being argumentative.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    ” The fact is that noise is also a legitimate issue…” — Alicia Langer

    So, is addressing the noise complaint legitimate or not? You seem to think so in one place and then call it “illogical” in another. And of course it’s argumentative as someone is making the argument that noise is an issue. But we agree that it’s entirely unproductive. It’s a bogus complaint that should never have been made and thus, it’s unproductive. When you buy a house adjacent to a large, urban freeway, complaining about noise is just crazy.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    A quick look at the SF zoning map says that the property is zoned “RH-1” and the land use page says “Vacant Lot Residential.” Parcel #6795A029 with 30,744 sq ft.

  • Not A Native

    Thanks. I think that mean a school is not a permitted use. The neighborhood has a objective legal basis to intervene.