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Group weeds through red tape, brings Gardens at Bragaw to life

Michelle Theriault Boots
Pennelope Goforth started tending the roses earlier this spring on site of the expected community garden on the corner of Bragaw Street and East Fourth Avenue. Goforth is exited about the community garden.
Anchorage Daily News
Lettuce grows on the a plot tended by gardeners on the expected community garden on the corner of Bragaw Street and East Fourth Avenue.
Photos by JR ANCHETA / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS

J.P. Goforth and her neighbors were tired of staring at garden beds overrun with dandelions and chickweed in the community garden plots promised years ago to her Mountain View neighborhood.

This summer she and a few other guerrilla gardeners at Bragaw Street and East Fourth Avenue weeded the corner of an enormous concrete planter and started planting lettuce, zucchini and squash on their own, hauling water from home in buckets.

The reasons that the plots had been abandoned were not completely clear to the neighbors. They had heard it had something to do with legal wrangling between the state, which built the gardens as part of a highway overpass project, and the city.

"You guys duke it out," describes the prevailing mood within the community, Goforth said. "We're going to do our thing."

This June, the Anchorage Community Land Trust, a Mountain View-based community development organization, signed a legal agreement to take over management of the garden from the municipality. They plan to call the site the "Gardens at Bragaw" and will rent 40 plots complete with access to water and moose-deterring fences next summer, creating Anchorage's newest community garden. Residents of nearby neighborhoods will get priority for plots.

"It's going to be kind of a community exclamation point," said the land trust's Kirk Rose.

The organization has received a $100,000 legislative grant and a $25,000 Rasmuson Foundation grant to fund the project, which is being headed by an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, Erin Hardy.

"I want it to be full," she said.

The plots have lain fallow for the past few summers because of a legal knot between the state Department of Transportation and the city. The state started setting the concrete for the garden in 2007 as part of a $47 million overpass to connect Mountain View with Bragaw Street.

The concept for a community garden, along with a walkway and other park-like elements, came from the community council, said Sean Holland, a project manager with the DOT. The state finished the project in 2009, he said. Because the DOT doesn't manage or maintain parkland the plan was for the municipality to take over.

Both sides agree that a complicated legal process involving a transfer of responsibility had to take place before the gardens could get up and running. It involved the state and several city departments. What's not clear is why that took years.

A call to city attorney Dennis Wheeler was not returned.

Meanwhile, the plots sat empty and neighbors grew weary.

"It seemed like such a waste," said Patti Kurtti, who lives nearby.

Employees and residents at an assisted living home across the alley built their own small log planter after nothing materialized with the garden last summer. That planter is now stuffed with rhubarb and other plants.

"It was supposed to be a focal point and then it just got caught up in this legal battle that makes people feel powerless," said Rose, of the land trust.

In February, the land trust and the city started talking about a new management plan. The choice to have the land trust run the garden wasn't for financial reasons and the legal delay was unrelated to that decision, said city park superintendent Holly Spoth-Torres. Three existing community gardens cost about $5,000 each for basic maintenance like water and trash removal. The cost is covered through the $35 fee to rent a plot for the season, she said.

The nonprofit was the best choice because its members expressed interest and could provide more programming -- like a planned tool shed and communal plot with programs for schoolchildren -- than the city can at the moment, she said.

All the plots at the existing city-run gardens are full, Spoth-Torres said. There's a waiting list of 20 people.

Residents like Goforth hope that the gardens will build connections in a neighborhood without many yards or chances to chat with neighbors. The land was once blighted by old, run-down apartment buildings that sometimes functioned as drug houses, she said.

"This will be a community builder," she said. "It's a kinship thing about digging in the dirt."

People can start signing up for plots next March or so, Hardy said.

Until then, neighbors are dreaming of what those gardens will contain:

Vegetables and flowers for Patti Kurtti. Peas, carrots, onions, rutabagas and turnips for J.P. Goforth.

Anything, really, other than dandelions and chickweed.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News