New Development to Uproot Urban Farm, Staff Still Seeking Answers


UPDATE 05/06/2020: According to a post on Grow Green Rochester's Facebook page Wednesday, Rochester Management Inc. has assured the Grow Green Team that heavy construction will not begin until August or September. Grow Green Rochester will be staying in the neighborhood and moving to a new location a few blocks away. Grow Green says that SWAN, Woodrow Hammond, and Zion Hill remain "unresponsive."

(WXIR-Rochester) “Kids right behind the greenhouse come and play. The middle brother, one of the questions he asked the most is ‘Can I help?’ It’s impacting the future of these kids.”

This is just one fond memory Rawson Duckett has from his time with Grow Green Rochester. The community garden-turned-farm was started 16 years ago by SWAN--the Southwest Area Neighborhood Association--on a small plot of land it owns on Samuel McCree Way.

But now the urban farm's manager fears that could all be over.

Last Thursday, Duckett stopped by the site with program manager Sarah Denham to find garden beds marked with spray paint.

“We went to water and we show up and there’s spray paint everywhere to show electrical boxes and gas lines and outlines of where buildings will be and they all had the little RG&E flags," Denham says.

"So as we are watering, I decided to call to see why, because they ended up being in our tomato bed, across a bunch of strawberry plants we just planted, over a bunch of our edible flowers, throughout different garden beds and on...a bunch of garden beds that just had fresh soil that now can’t be used.”

Excavator tracks through hugelkulture beds

The call to RG&E led to a call to Dig Safe NY. While they could not go into much detail about the construction, Dig Safe passed along their information to development company Rochester Management Inc. Denham soon received a call back.

“I was told that they would be building a senior living facility apartment complex for Zion Hill [Missionary Baptist Church] and that they had gotten permission [to begin work] from Woodrow Hammond, president of Zion Hill," Denham says.

"The land is still owned by SWAN, we checked, and the surrounding is still owned by the city, and we still technically haven’t been told by SWAN or Zion anything that’s happening. Only the construction lady is why we know that this is happening.”

Adding injury to insult, Denham and Duckett say they returned the following day to find that a CAT excavator had been driven through garden beds and the food forest.

City Council Green Lights Development

Last September, Rochester Management Inc, the company behind the controversial Cobbs Hill redevelopment project, submitted a proposal to the City for a multi-story senior housing complex on the site where the Grow Green farm is located. The senior living facility would be run in partnership with Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church, which is located just across the street.

City Council unanimously approved the zoning request in October, after a public hearing with no speakers.

Then, in November, Duckett says SWAN Board President Woodrow Hammond approached him and Denham to see if the farm could provide a profit of $18,000 this year; if not, SWAN was looking to sell the land the farm is located on.

The garden is a non-profit operation funded by community donations and grants, so Duckett says they told Hammond that wouldn’t be possible.

Duckett says that was the last they heard from SWAN and that he and Denham were blindsided by the start of construction work without prior notice.

Neither SWAN nor Zion Hill have responded to requests for comment.

According to the City’s development app, the Zion Hill senior housing project is still in the design phase, but construction is proposed to begin at the end of 2020.

A Neighborhood Fixture

The Grow Green Garden has been at its present location for over 16 years. The plot has a greenhouse, edible forest, and garden beds tended by the surrounding community.

Program manager Sarah Denham says it has become very rooted in the Southwest area and 19th ward neighborhood.

“Last year and the year before we had monthly events. We have seed giveaways, plant giveaways," Denham says. "Everything that we grow with the kids we give to them to take home or give to neighbors or to St. Marys, Peace Village..."

Duckett and Denham say community response in the last week has been overwhelming, with some people donating funds, and others suggesting new spots to relocate to.

The Grow Green staff are currently weighing their options. But salvaging what they can--including the three-year-old pear trees which are ready to fruit for the first time--is a top priority.

Denham is hopeful about the possibilities a new space could bring, including more community involvement.

“There’s gonna be bigger and better opportunities," she says. "Even if we move, it means we can move things and put it the way that would improve it, install new things and get new community members involved that weren’t involved beforehand."