|Crime concerns threaten County Digs project
THE MID-COUNTY MEMO
Multnomah County has maintained the 3,000-square-foot lot on the corner of Southeast 163rd Place and Main Street since 1992. Seeking civic uses for such surplus plots too small to build upon, Multnomah County instated the County Digs program in November 2007. Modeled after Portlands Diggable Cities, County Digs was proposed by Commissioner Jeff Cogen to transfer foreclosed and surplus land to the community for sustainable gardening and food production purposes.
The county disbursed urban planning grad students to identify possible sites that the Office of Sustainable Development then checked for cross-purposes. In the case of land acquired through foreclosure, the previous owner is first given the option for repayment. At the Centennial site, the original owner had since moved. After disqualifying this and other government uses, the site passed to the Greenspace Review Committee.
At the hearing Roger Meyer, former head of the Rockwood Neighborhood Association, introduced Patty Hicks, County Digs liaison for the Centennial Community Association, to the program. She volunteered to facilitate after hearing Cogen promote the countys hopes for it.
With the number of needy families in the area, we thought it might be something good for the community, so we went after it from that standpoint, she said.
As liaison, Hicks, with the help of CCA Chair Tom Lewis, compiles the specific criteria required for county approval. One such provision stipulates that a nonprofit holds the deed to the land. After months of interviewing options, Hicks and Lewis found that Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust aligned the closest with their communitys needs.
OSALT was formed as a nonprofit in 1995 to preserve rural and urban agricultural lands for sustainable agriculture, research and education. The organizations bottom-up structure allows the community to design their garden in consideration of their limitations and needs. The organization annually reviews that the land is used for sustainable agriculture with an education or research provision, but all maintenance and supervision responsibilities fall to a community-appointed site manager. The Centennial Community Association has yet to fill that role. Initially the association hoped to partner with an organization like SnowCap Community Charities or Human Solutions to educate and feed the neighborhoods needy. Now an individual with sustainable agriculture experience seems more likely, not only because commitments fell through, but also in sensitivity to concerns aired at the public hearing.
When the Human Solutions partnership appeared likely, Hicks and Lewis sent letters notifying nearby homeowners. They also canvassed homes within a 200-foot radius of the site as required by the county. Hicks recalled receiving mostly positive responses, counting only three in opposition. But when the association hosted the public hearing on the subject, all three were counted in attendance with a list of like-minded petitioners.
Scheduled second on the associations docket that night, the County Digs conversation followed a discussion on Centennials rising crime rate, during which almost everyone related tales of victimization. The crime subject would remain in the spotlight long into the next issue.
Hicks introduced the project and invited OSALT founder Will Newman to elaborate on his organization. Were here to help you turn the land into something beneficial for the neighborhood, and we have resources to help that happen once the neighborhood decides, he said. When the topic opened up for comment, the opposition all of whom live in immediate vicinity to the site began to air their concerns.
Their objections which they asserted are shared by nine others in close proximity ranged from parking concerns to pest control to mailbox tampering, but all implied the specter of crime.
Were not going to know who we are going to get in there, one resident said. There are strangers in our face, casing our homes, looking in our mailboxes.
Newman suggested instating rules to safeguard residents. We can make sure the people who garden there have to (live) within a two-block range or something like that.
Another neighbor responded, Our neighbors throw their garbage out there. Theyre not going to go garden there; theyre going to go smoke their crack or shoot up or let their kids go play there.
When Newman asserted that there were other people in the neighborhood, another neighbor informed him, I dont think youre going to get much support from neighbors on the street because were not involved with each other. She then explained that her initial objection arose from the Human Solutions proposal to use the garden for food and education for the children of struggling families. I have a pre-teen daughter. I dont want to leave her at home if were going to have strangers gardening across the street from my house. I dont think its safe.
For me, its a question of how (to) plan that garden so that doesnt happen, Newman said.
Lewis then facilitated what had become a heated argument. If the majority of feelings arent towards a purpose for this property, then (we) and Centennial neighborhood cant take the torch out for something that is not popular. You dont have to be defensive about it, he said.
The resident responded, We have to be defensive because were being shot down. You dont live across from this property. Your house has not been broken into. I dont think its personal to you; its personal to us.
I dont think the county is asking for something that is not going to be popular, Lewis said. However, a veto remains uncertain. Out of approximately 20 attendees, only eight or so weighed in, the opposition with the most force.
One of the reasons why the MAX platforms are a problem is that its the only public space anywhere within a large area and youre dealing with a difficult problem to solve. How do you get past people not knowing each other? You have some place for them to gather, one observer said.
We dont want to get to know them, an opposition member said.
We work hard to buy homes of our own, and we dont want the homeless or poor people coming in and planting gardens when they should be out looking for jobs. Who is going to do a criminal check on these people? We have little children in our cul-de-sac, and we want them to be safe, another said.
At this point Hicks stepped in. I have seen so many positive things from my own garden in my front yard where I talk to all sorts of people. I am a very social person, and I know that when I know my neighbors and they get to know me, then we start caring about one another and our neighborhood becomes safer. Thats one thing that gardens do, but I also understand your concern because I too was a victim of crime at our house.
You dont know how it feels because this would be in our face, not yours, a neighbor said.
I think its wise that we dont assume that its going to be the criminal element that is going to take over this land because we want people to use it who would be good neighbors, Hicks said.
We dont want other people to use it at all because its on our street and in our cul-de-sac, the opposition said. It should not be for the public to go there doing nothing.
Hicks tried to expel the oppositions insinuations when she was reached later. Its sad for me to see people so afraid of people they dont know. That is one of the things I am trying to change because if we dont know our neighbors, it becomes a dangerous place; then it is a neighborhood full of fear. We are trying to empower our neighbors. We need some healthy activities out here, and thats one of the things that would be nice to start. As for the fate of the project moving forward, Hicks responded that the new occupant of the annexed property had no knowledge that he could purchase it, so that remains a possibility. If not, we are going to get the neighbors together and sit down and ask them what (they) would like to see happen with this site.
This may prove difficult when the parties involved hold vastly different perspectives on the state of the neighborhood in general. Those in favor see an opportunity for community-building through altruism. The opposition deems any neighborhood attraction an invitation for more crime, and doubt that neighbors would participate.
For an experienced opinion, the Memo contacted Kim McDodge, site manager for OSALTs Ariadne Garden in the Albina neighborhood, to weigh in on the concerns raised. I have never had problems with the fears that these people have brought forward, she said, though the operative word is problems. She seemed unconcerned with the occasional intruder stealing food or leaving trash. Yes, we have rats and cats and raccoons and even worms and life in general. For McDodge, these glitches cannot eclipse the gardens benefits. Tell me that the place has none of the above problems right now in its present shape. The way to solve these problems is to have gardeners who will take this in hand in spite of the nasty realities of life.
McDodge recommended that Centennial neighbors construct a good fence around their plot, planting roses or gooseberries around the perimeter to discourage intruders. She also praised the assistance of people sentenced by a court to perform community service once a month; people whom she assured are lectured in advance that they cant go back and disrupt the neighborhood. The utilization of this option seems unlikely considering the objections of Centennial residents, but would they also reject the presence of horticultural students or vegetable-seekers?
During the crime conversation preceding the County Digs discussion, one resident recounted how his neighbors reclaimed a derelict park by forming a neighborhood watch and staging activities there. The persistent presence of local residents robbed the criminal element of covert space.
This delicate message was lost in the conversation that followed: Those engaged in illegal activities seek areas to practice undetected, preferably places where even neighbors count among strangers. A shared space where members of the community gather in the open, where even people from other regions will come to purchase or learn, may weed out the root causes of opposition fears. In the coming months, the Centennial Community Association will stage another open meeting, inviting neighbors to share their views on the best course for the future of this space too small to build upon, but large enough to grow.
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