Free Farm Must Close, Greenhouse Needs Home

Dennis Rubenstein, the founder of The Free Farm known as Tree, moves plants out of the farm's greenhouse on Wednesday.  The farm is being forced to move out of the lot on Eddy and Gough Streets to make way for a church and a new affordable housing development.

Dennis Rubenstein, the founder of The Free Farm known as Tree, moves plants out of the farm's greenhouse on Wednesday. The farm is being forced to move out of the lot on Eddy and Gough Streets to make way for a church and a new affordable housing development.

A three-year-old community farm in the Western Addition that distributes free food in the Mission and elsewhere is being forced to dig up its roots to make way for a church and a new affordable housing development.

The Free Farm’s founder Dennis Rubenstein, known as Tree and the man who also runs Sunday’s Free Farm Stand in the Mission, said the St. Paulus Church had been a “wonderful” landlord during the time he ran the farm on a third of an acre at Eddy and Gough.

That lot became vacant after a 1995 fire burned down the century-old St. Paulus Lutheran Church. The church has been operating out of a temporary site at 1541 Polk Street and is now ready to go forward with its plans to rebuild, the pastor said.

The problem Tree faces now is finding a new spot in San Francisco’s heated real estate market. Most immediately, he needs a lot where he can relocate the farm’s 60-foot by 20-foot greenhouse, he said.

“We’re trying to move to the Mission,” Tree said on Sunday as he worked at the Free Farm Stand in Parque Niños Unidos on Treat Avenue near 23rd Street.

So far, however, none of the possible locations — including a temporary spot at 17th and Folsom streets — have come through. Like others fleeing high prices here, he may be forced to move the greenhouse to Oakland, he said.

Regardless, the five-year-old Free Farm Stand, which is also supplied by locals and other farmers’ markets, will remain open, he said.

The farm at Eddy and Gough has produced more than 10,000 pounds of produce from plant seedlings grown in the farm’s greenhouse and its sprawling outdoor garden, according to Tree.

On Sunday, some of those seedlings stood on a table at the Free Farm Stand for visitors to pick up. “We’ve been supplying seedlings and that’s how we have been trying to encourage” urban gardening.

Tree’s real estate troubles began last spring when church officials told him that the farm needed to move by September so that the developer could assess the property. That date was later pushed forward to January to accommodate the farm’s growing season, said Dan Soldberg, the church pastor.

“The life of the farm was always considered temporary,” Soldberg said. St. Paulus Church had always planned to return to the site to establish a home base.

Since then Tree has been working to find a new spot — most importantly, he said, for the greenhouse.

One idea was to move it to 17th and Folsom streets where the city recently went through a multi-year planning process to replace what has long been a parking lot with a community park.

The development of the park stalled this year because the city decided to first install a water storage system underneath the proposed park. The wet weather storage basin is designed to divert water during heavy rains. The latter often produces flooding in the low-lying region.

The planning and design process for the water storage system is expected to take one year and it is that year that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and Recreation and Parks are trying to fill with a temporary use, according to Jean Walsh, a spokesperson for SFPUC.

Once design is completed, any temporary use will be halted for the year-long project of installing the water basins. Afterwards, the permanent park will go in.

Over the summer, Tree submitted an informal proposal to the utilities commission, which is managing the installation project. He requested that the city house the greenhouse on the lot while he finds a permanent home for it.

“They considered my proposal,” Tree said. “They got back to me a month or so later and turned it down.”

No reason was given, Tree said. Walsh said Tree’s idea was one of many options the city is considering for the space. They are now also considering an idea from Rebar, a Mission-based design company, to install a parklet on the lot and build a space for food trucks.

“I believe we’ve moved away from the idea of a community garden on the site, although we haven’t seen a recent proposal and haven’t made a firm decision quite yet,” Walsh wrote in an email. Earlier she said that they had moved “toward an idea of a parklet.”

The city has allocated $70,000 from the department’s wet weather storage fund for whatever project they ultimately decide on.

Walsh said that Tree’s idea presented a problem because there is “no access to potable water to water a garden,” and they weren’t clear on who would manage it and how access would be made equitable.

The idea of a parklet and food trucks also raises questions, she said, adding that some people had “concern about food trucks” and asked questions such as whether a $9 burrito is “meeting the needs of low-income people,” and “is that accessible to the right audience?”

On the other hand, she added, “Some people love food trucks… I don’t know, we haven’t made a final determination.”

The decision, she said, would be made in consultation with all of the parties and she hoped that something would be decided by March.

A group called Amig@s of 17th & Folsom Park has formed against placing food trucks in the publicly-owned space, because that would only benefit people buying food and not the entire community, said Oscar Grande, a community organizer who works for People Organizing to Defend Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER).

Still, Grande thinks the park is not the right place for the greenhouse because it would only be a temporary solution, he said.

“What we really need to do is work with Tree and the community of volunteers to find a permanent space for the farm,” Grande said. “Otherwise we’ll be stuck in the same situation a year from now.”

Tree too would prefer to find a permanent home, but said the temporary nature of the 17th Street park would be fine and that the greenhouse fits the ultimate use of the park.

Tree fears that ongoing real estate speculation will make finding a permanent spot difficult. On the other hand, he also sees lots that have been empty for years.

On Sunday he pointed to a vacant lot at 957 Treat Ave., where small bits of land surround an old Union Pacific Railroad line between Treat Avenue and Harrison Street.

He has contacted the owners there, but Austin Fearnow, a property manager for Union Pacific Railroad, said the land couldn’t be leased because there is a question about who owns it and the property might be the subject of a lawsuit in the future.

“The railroad land would be ideal,” Tree said. “It would be a beautiful thing to have a greenhouse there.”

Other possibilities Tree mentioned include the lot on Alabama Street that is adjacent to Atlas Cafe and the lot at 1950 Mission St. that the Department of Public Works offered to Occupy SF in November, 2011.

If Tree can’t find a new home for the greenhouse in the Mission soon, he will likely give it away to friends in Oakland who plan to grow seedlings and share them with the community, he said.

While upset on Sunday, he also felt that his philosophy of urban gardening would live on and that something might work out. He explained his philosophy by saying that he knows gardening will not end hunger, but that he hopes his seedlings give people a start in something bigger.

“You can either whine or you can make a statement with your actions,” he said. “You can give people some help.”

Lydia Chávez contributed to the reporting. 

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