Residents of Bartlett Park will no longer need to travel out of their neighborhood to get a taste of rural life.
A lot at Newton Avenue S and Highland Street serves as a dumping ground for trash, but Andrea Hildebran, a neighborhood resident, is leading a drive to convert the lot to a community garden. She said she hopes the land will not only yield flowers and fresh vegetables but a stronger sense of community.
"There's a lot of diversity in Bartlett Park, and the garden is a great opportunity to create friendships. It will allow residents more opportunities to meet and offers something positive in the neighborhood."
About 10 volunteers gathered at the site Wednesday afternoon after Green Florida, a nonprofit organization Hildebran began to help neighborhoods start community gardens, signed a one-year lease on the property.
Volunteers picked up trash, broken concrete and dead tree branches as they shared their vision for an oasis of green in the middle of their neighborhood.
Residents will pay a $25 membership fee and sign up for individual plots where they can grow their choice of plants. Hildebran said people unable to afford the membership fee will still have an opportunity to use the garden.
"Money will absolutely not be a barrier," she said. "We want everyone to be involved in the garden."
Hildebran said the garden will not only provide residents with safe, affordable, locally grown food, but may also increase property values in the area. She cites a New York University study of 636 New York City community gardens that found a statistically significant increase in property values around the gardens over time.
Tom Tito, president of the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association and a strong supporter of the garden, said the vacant lot has long been a dumping ground. Volunteers have cleaned up the lot two or three times in the past year and filled pickup trucks with garbage, he said.
"The garden would keep the area nice," Tito said. "It really is a blight right now."
Green Florida will pay the landowner, Mark Mobley, owner of Mobley Homes, $100 a month for the 110- by 105-foot lot, and the lease allows the group to buy the land for $40,000 within the next year.
Hildebran said ownership is important because many garden projects are bulldozed when landowners decide to build or sell to developers.
She said she hopes the organization can raise enough money to purchase the plot within a year.
"We want to make sure that when we invest years of our lives in making the garden beautiful that it will be there for the long haul," she said.
Green Florida faced other challenges as it planned for the garden. City zoning does not allow community gardens in residential neighborhoods.
Green Florida obtained a temporary-use variance for the plot. The city will require that the garden have a water source and that the property be fenced. Hildebran said she hopes the City Council will eventually change the zoning to allow community gardens, and Green Florida plans to present a petition to the council advocating a permanent change in the ordinance.
Council member Earnest Williams said he supports the community garden idea and that the city will continue to work with Green Florida.
"It's an excellent idea. It gives residents in apartments or with small yards an opportunity to go out and have a garden," he said. "The temporary use will let us see how it works."
Hildebran said work will begin in earnest now that a lease is in hand. In the next few weeks, volunteers will fence the lot and install a well. Several hundred tomato plants donated by Sweetwater Organic Community Farm in Tampa await planting.
"This is why we did it," she said, "so we can all be out in the garden together."
Michael Maharrey can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.