Neighbors asking ‘Where’s the love?’ after threat to dismantle community garden on Valentine’s Day

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Rich Jenkins spends hours a week sweeping, planting, pruning and trimming the garden outside his door.

It’s not his garden, but a community-developed space that sprung up 11 years ago in one of the common spaces at the Forest Creek Village Apartments.

This week, Jenkins said his heart sank when he got an email from the property management company, saying the garden had to go.

The email sent to residents reads, “This is a notice that we [management] will be working on removing the community garden behind bldg. H on Friday 2/14/20. If you have any personal belongings you would like to save, please remove it immediately. Anything left in this area will be thrown away. Per the Lease Contract common areas are not to be used for personal use.”

Jenkins said when he moved in, there wasn’t much landscaping, so he and other neighbors stepped in.

“People come out all the time and meet each other. They started bringing chairs and things,” Jenkins said. “This is where we gather. Whether it’s for two minutes or hours. It’s very innocent. Austin ‘weird’ energy.”

View of community garden after many “personal items” had been removed. (Avery Travis/KXAN News)

Another resident, Jacob Garza, cited the garden as one of the reasons he decided to move into the complex, so the notice was disappointing.

“The fact that it felt very Austin,” Garza said, describing plants and pots on every balcony and patio, plus in the community space.

Garza is one of 160 people to sign a petition to try and convince the apartment to leave the space as-is.

Residents provided KXAN with a copy of the “Community Guidelines” and lease agreements they signed upon move in. The documents do state, “All common areas, including but not limited to parking lots, stairwells, breezeways, laundry rooms, courtyard areas and pools must be kept clear at all times of any trash, refuse, and any other obstructions.”

Garza and Jenkins both said they understand there are rules, but have questions as to why they are just now being enforced.

A look at the green spaces outside neighbors’ units: one as it was upon move-in and the other after three years of gardening. Their community guidelines require areas to be “kept clear of any trash, refuse or obstructions.” (Avery Travis/KXAN News)

Garza also wants the complex to allow residents to continue to garden and decorate the spaces outside their units.

“There was just kind of weeds and rocks,” Garza said. “I had hoped to do something with it, but it’s kind of not my call now.”

His neighbor across the way, Kate Lindsay, has been cultivating the ground right outside her door for nearly three years. She told KXAN that the property manager asked her to pull up all the plants from the ground, citing issues for landscapers and maintenance workers.

“They are trying to make it as easy as possible to manage, and our property in particular feels out of their control,” Lindsay said. “I understand where they are coming from.”

However, she said the area wasn’t landscaped when she moved in, and she just wanted to help beautify it.

“I probably wouldn’t have put a garden in it then because it would have had plants in it already,” Lindsey said. “The issue is they don’t do any real landscaping like this. If nothing else, I know I’ve improved the soil quality of the land where I live.”

Adriana Fontanez said she was told there were a few items in the area, like a fire pit, that the apartment considered a liability.

“So I was like, ‘What if we took out the fire pit and the broken chairs? Could the vegetables, peppers and herbs that are growing still have to go?” Adriana said. “And she said ‘yes.’ I don’t know if they are just wanting all of it gone, and for the weeds to come back? I don’t know what their end game is.”

She said many people had removed personal items from the garden, and they hoped it would be sufficient.

KXAN reached out to SMI for comment and has not heard back.

Jenkins called it a “clash of cultures,” that he has seen all over Austin as developments move in, and the “weird” moves out.

“It’s not Dallas energy or Houston energy,” Jenkins said. “It’s Austin energy.”

Austin has a program to start your own community garden:

  • Organize a steering committee of least four dedicated gardeners to oversee the creation and operation
  • Get educated and attend the Sustainable Food Center’s community garden leadership training
  • Find a location: the Parks and Rec Department has a list of city-owned sites that could potentially be available
  • Create a budget for how much your topsoil, tools and other materials will cost
  • Find a nonprofit to endorse your garden and to get liability insurance, utility accounts and the licensing agreement with the city
  • Connect with the community and make sure HOA’s, neighbors, schools and businesses are on board

Then you can apply for a permit:

The following items are required to complete your permit application. According to the city, you’ll need:

  • A written description of your proposed garden that includes why you selected your particular site and how the garden will serve community needs
  • Land use permission from relevant City of Austin departments and any other landowners
  • A list of steering committee members and their contact information, as well as a list of committed gardeners
  • A design sketch for the garden that includes locations and sizes of all trees in the garden area
  • By-laws or rules for your community garden, including a sample contract or membership agreement for individual gardeners
  • A project timeline
  • A first year budget and fundraising plan for your community garden
  • Letter of support or memorandum of understanding from a sponsoring non-profit.
  • Letter of support from the relevant neighborhood association for the garden site.
  • Letters of support from surrounding neighbors and other key stakeholders
  • Work with the Sustainable Urban Agriculture & Community Garden program to submit a water tap application for your community garden if a new water tap or meter is needed

Kate Lindsay told KXAN that one of the SMI representatives told her it could be possible to create a community garden at the property.

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