With the persistent cold and wet weather, the growing season will likely start a little later for most gardeners this year. This week Miro and I spread some extra hay mulch on our new permanent raised beds (pictured above). I expect these beds will prove very useful for our late spring plantings when many of our other beds will still be too wet to access. It was nice to finally get out from behind the computer for a day and start thinking about gardening instead of fundraising. It’s always surprising how much administrative work it takes just to grow food with friends and neighbors. Over the past five months the bulk of my time has been spent writing grants, mailing letters, emailing, calling, and meeting with people, a crucial aspect of the work to be sure, but comically far removed from kneeling in the soil.
This year will be different than the past seven. Thanks to many generous individual donors, and contributions from the Bama Works Fund and the Rossetter-Cuthbert Fund in the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, we have the funding to purchase the supplies we need to begin the season. Next week, we plan to start framing the walls of UACC’s new passive solar greenhouse, thanks to our many Kickstarter backers. We’ll also be starting seeds for the first wave of spring crops. So far, however, we’ve not succeeded in raising the funds we need to hire any new employees or compensate the current one. This means that I too will be a volunteer this year. As a result, I’ll have a little less time to dedicate to UACC, as I will necessarily seek part-time employment, but it also presents a unique opportunity to rethink what we do this year, as an organization.
One of the things that has been on our minds here at UACC is the redevelopment plan that is being considered for the neighborhoods and land between Garrett Street and Elliot Avenue. The City has adopted the name Strategic Investment Area (SIA) to refer to the land that includes Crescent Halls, Friendship Court, the IX property, South 1st Street public housing, and 6th Street public housing. It also includes part of Belmont and the garage UACC shares with Community Bikes at 405 Avon Street, which is owned by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA). After only a year of meetings and discussions, some public and some private, the City Department of Neighborhood Development Services and the Cunningham Quill architecture firm created a 200+ page design plan for the SIA. During the City Council meeting on February 3, 2014, Council voted to add the SIA plan to the City’s comprehensive plan with only one dissenting vote from Bob Fenwick.
While the City made an effort to engage the public in the planning process, their outreach into the area’s lower income neighborhoods was insufficient. To the City’s credit, during the public input period, they held one meeting with residents at Crescent Halls, and one at Mt. Zion Baptist Church near South 1st Street, and one at 6th Street. However, speaking from the experience of having worked in these neighborhoods for the past seven years, I can say with some certainty that one meeting is not enough, especially when the future of your neighborhood is being discussed. While Crescent Halls, South 1st Street, and 6th Street residents have strong advocates within the Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR), the residents of Friendship Court have no similar neighborhood coalition. What’s more, the City did not hold a single public meeting with Friendship Court residents during the entire year-long planning period to talk about the SIA plan and ask for their input.
In an interesting twist of fate, the Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA), which has partial ownership of the Friendship Court property in partnership with the National Housing Trust, found itself in a situation similar to the residents of Friendship Court. The City did reach out to PHA, and they held a single meeting with four staff members in February 2013. However, that was the only recorded meeting they had prior to the presentation of the final SIA plan, which suggested a radical redevelopment of the Friendship Court property. In response, PHA has begun hosting monthly meetings at the Friendship Court Neighborhood Network Center to talk to residents about the plan, ask for their feedback, and to come up with something that better reflects the needs of the neighborhood.
I congratulate PHA and PHAR and their efforts to begin dispelling myths about the SIA and to empower residents to speak up in response to the proposed plan. I also applaud the courageous residents who got involved early, like UACC Board Vice Chair and 6th Street resident A’Lelia Henry, who sat on the SIA steering committee and faced an uphill battle as she advocated for the interests of her neighbors. I am thankful to Friendship Court resident Shelanda Green, who spoke twice at City Council meetings to voice her concerns about the cloud of confusion surrounding the SIA planning process. She has since attended the PHA-hosted neighborhood meetings to share her thoughts. UACC Board Chair and Friendship Court resident, Tamara Wright has also served as a voice for Friendship Court residents, attending the first of the PHA-hosted meetings and subsequently meeting directly with PHA’s Executive Director and Deputy Director to share her perspective and her hopes for the neighborhood.
Though the SIA plan has already been voted into the City’s comprehensive plan, this is by no means a closed discussion. This past Monday, A’Lelia and I had the good fortune of meeting with City Manager Maurice Jones, Assistant city Manager David Ellis, and Council Member Kathy Galvin to talk about some of our specific concerns with the SIA plan. Our overall goal was to draw attention to the fact that excluding residents of low-income neighborhoods from the planning process, even unintentionally, is an injustice that needs to be addressed in order to create a plan that would truly benefit the whole community. While we came to no conclusions during the meeting, we agreed to further discussions about how to better include residents going forward, thereby opening a new line of communication with those who have the power to influence change at the city level.
You can help by visiting the links below to learn more:
You can download a copy of the SIA final plan from the City’s website by clicking here.
You can see Shelanda Green, Nykia Walker and others advocating for the interests of Friendship Court residents at the City Council meeting on June 3, 2013, by watching the video of the meeting here. You can use the video index to go to the “matters of the public” section and then watch “council responses to matters of the public.”
You can see Shelanda, Nykia, Brandon Collins, UACC Board Secretary Mo Nichols, and others express their concerns about the adoption of the SIA plan to the City’s comprehensive plan by watching the video of the City Council meeting on February 3, 2014, here.
UACC exists because residents in the neighborhoods affected by the SIA have supported it and guided its vision. The organization relies on their leadership and input to ensure that our work remains relevant and respectful to the community as a whole. Because we are a community-led group, UACC is in a unique position to help raise public awareness about the SIA plan both among our constituents and within the broader community. It is our hope that by sharing information about the plan, and helping to raise the voice of unheard residents, we can inspire positive action.
Thanks for helping us cultivate healthy communities!