Community effort grows into garden

It took a tussle with Caltrans, 281 signatures and a lot of sweat, but a vacant lot in Potrero Hill has been transformed from a neglected patch of soil next to a freeway offramp to a flourishing garden.

A community group originally proposed a garden on the land a decade ago, and submitted a proposal to Caltrans, but that plan was rejected and the idea was abandoned.

The land sat untouched until December, when neighbor Annie Shaw, who knew nothing of the group’s original plan, began eyeing the land near Pennsylvania Avenue and 18th Street. Shaw’s husband wanted to move somewhere with space for a garden, but she was not eager to move.

With some advice from staff at Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park and some encouragement from friends and neighbors, Shaw put the first plant in the ground near the offramp in December.

Soon, word spread. The neighborhood united behind the project and several volunteers started to show up. A call for donations on Craigslist elicited enthusiastic donations of dozens of plants, a bench, an archway, a trellis and stair steps for the garden.

Since there seemed to be so much community support for the project, Shaw decided to figure out what it would take to make the garden legitimate. She contacted Caltrans, which owns the land, and it initially seemed interested in supporting the project.

But then Shaw received word that Caltrans officials were worried about the liability. They were considering shutting down the garden, she said.

“I thought, ‘Wow, if there’s ever a time in my life that I was going to form a petition, I suppose this is it,’” Shaw said.

She collected 281 signatures and arranged a meeting with Caltrans. After months of back-and-forth dialogue about the project and uncertainty, the San Francisco Department of Public Works heard about the conflict and offered to step in, accepting liability for the land and ensuring the project was well-kept.

Public Works Deputy Director of Operations Mohammed Nuru said it was an obvious step to take, since The City is trying to encourage community garden and beautification projects with its Street Parks program.

“This was an easy one for us,” he said. “Many of these projects we get into we have to go and secure resources and get water for it and deal with logistics. This one, a lot of the work was already done.”

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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