Noe Valley Voice November 1997

Builder Vows To Protect Community Garden

By Steve Steinberg

A Noe Street neighbor and a developer apparently have come to terms on how to preserve the community garden at Noe and Cesar Chavez streets.

Cress Forester, who has spent a lot of her free time this past year taking care of the 13-year-old garden, became alarmed about its future after an Oakland developer bought the adjacent property at 1344 Noe and announced plans to tear down the existing structure and build a large, three-story condominium in its place.

"I was afraid the contractor would use the garden as a staging area for his devel-opment and leave it in ruins," Forester said.

Forester was also concerned that the construction work would impede the neighbors' access to the garden and result in the removal of several trees on the sloping bit of land.

However, after speaking to developer Gerry Agosta in September, Forester said she was very much relieved. "I feel he plans to keep the garden in nice condition and not trash it up. He also said he would get an arborist in there to try to save the trees," she said.

Agosta, who bought the property about a year and a half ago, said he became interested in the site in part because of its location next to the community garden. "It's a great place to live," he said.

At the time of the sale, the house was uninhabited, having been condemned by the city after a 1995 slide of the hill behind the house. The mudslide sent rocks and other debris into the cottage's back patio, forcing two tenants to evacuate. (See "Soaked Hillside Gives Way," February 1995 Voice.)

Agosta said neither the city nor anyone else wanted to invest in shoring up the hill, which also overlooks the community garden. Finally, Agosta agreed to fix the hill himself rather than sue the city to compel it to undertake repairs.

In order to shore up the hill without going through the community garden, Agosta says he must first tear down the present house -- which he says is in great disrepair and taking on water. After the hill is stabilized, he plans to go ahead and build his two-unit condominium.

He says that only one tree in the community garden will be affected by his project. That tree, which is encroaching on his property, will have to be trimmed back. But, he stresses, it will not be torn down.

He also plans to build a temporary fence, separating his construction site from the garden, to ensure that workmen will not inadvertently encroach upon it. The one element of the garden that will have to go, he says, is a grapevine that has wandered onto his property.

Agosta also faces an additional challenge, from neighbors who claim the size and style of the development is out of character with the street.

Pat Calder, who lives at 1334 Noe St., says she and other neighbors will protest Agosta's proposed condos to the San Francisco Board of Permit Appeals.

Meanwhile, Forester has also requested her own city hearing, this one with the Department of Public Works, which has jurisdiction over the garden. She says that even though she trusts Agosta, she feels a hearing "won't do any harm and will make sure Agosta does what he says he'll do."

Forester, a body-mind therapist, started taking an interest in the community garden last September, after noticing that it had become somewhat overgrown. She began clearing trash and weeding and pruning trees.

Although she has no particular background in gardening, she says working at the site "has been a real treat and also a way of contributing to the community."

Forester says the garden was begun and initially maintained by "lots and lots of neighbors," but it was especially nurtured by Friends of Noe Valley activist Miriam Blaustein, who lives nearby. At one point in the 1980s, the Friends of Noe Valley attempted to turn the land into a small park, to no avail.

Because the 60-by-40-foot plot is on undeveloped city property -- Cesar Chavez comes to a deadend at Noe Street, then continues to Castro above the hill -- the Department of Public Works provides water and tools for the garden and also picks up cleared brush.

The garden is home to three species of palm tree, pine, eucalyptus, plum, and magnolia trees. It also contains passion fruit and honeysuckle vines, lilies, and other flowers. "It offers fine views of the Bay and the city, and a peaceful setting to sit and enjoy those views," says Forester.

There are no vegetables being grown right now, Forester says, but that sort of cultivation might be feasible in the future.

Over the years, she notes, as some of the early enthusiasm for the garden waned, smaller, changing groups of people have taken care of the plants and trees. Currently, Forester believes, she is about the only person working to preserve the garden.

She would welcome any neighborhood help and also thinks the donation of a bench or two would be nice.

If you would like to offer support (or a bench) for the community garden, call Cress Forester at 826-2135.