Controversy looms over potential community garden transfer

Boston Urban Gardeners has proposed giving Dorchester Gardenlands Preservations six Dorchester garden plots in varying states of repair. Officers of BUG have stopped returning Reporter phone calls, and some in the neighborhood are against the deal based on DGP's history.

"Dorchester Gardenlands has essentially wreaked havoc in this neighborhood in terms of open space," said Davida Andelman, who works at the Bowdoin-Geneva Health Center and is a longtime resident activist in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood where four of the plots are located. "They got large sums of money to maintain lands from the city and they did absolutely nothing to maintain them. The (lots) became public safety problems."

In one instance, according to Andelman, DGP sold part of the Stanley Bellevue Urban Wild to Joe LaRosa, a sometimes controversial real estate developer. After a series of negotiations, LaRosa was compelled to sell the lot to the city to be preserved as open space.

Joseph Ureneck, the founder of DGP back in 1978 and its present-day president, acknowledged this, but said he was not present in the organization when it happened. Pat Cooke, a board member since 2000, said the sale was necessary to pay off debts to the IRS caused by mismanagement by a former DGP president. He added that when the lot became city property once again, DGP deeded the part of the wild they still owned to the city for nothing.

"The sale of the Stanley Bellevue property was essential to clearing off the tax liability," said Cooke. "Having done that, we are focusing much more on the gardens."

Both Cooke and Ureneck said none of the current board members, including themselves, were active members of DGP when economic woes came to a head. Since that time, they said, the DGP has been reorganized along more responsible lines.

"The lady who was running it failed to see the handwriting on the wall," said Cooke. "She'd been doing that for 15 years. She was out of rabbits. It came down to having to get new people in and getting a more limited set of goals in place."

Formerly, DGP tackled both gardening and "social action." The latter included job training and construction work. "That was very ambitious," said Cooke.

In the new organization, the group set up a corporation called the Dorchester Home and Garden Trust. With what Cooke called 100% financing from the Boston Community Loan Fund, the trust built or renovated 9 units of moderate-income housing in three-deckers at 111 Erie St. and 134 and 52 Ellington St. Cooke said around $25 per unit per month is being added to the DGP coffers from this trust, which is also renovating two more units at 132 Ellington.

Over the summer, DGP has been helping out with BUG properties. DGP cleared out a lovely vine-covered area with benches at 10 Torrey St. that was seen as a public safety hazard.

"We hated to see it go," said Joan McCoy, a Torrey Street neighbor. "It was a beautiful garden… now we have virtually a vacant lot. But now the kids can't hide and do their mischief in there."

McCoy said the neighborhood just needs someone to keep the area clean and mow the grass now, and they're not "futzy" about who does it.

DGP also helped restore a water connection at a plot on Bullard Street, said Ureneck.

Some money from BUG, which has over $400,000 stashed away from the sale of its headquarters building in Jamaica Plain in 2000, is part of the deal, Cooke said, but also an area that DGP wants to negotiate before accepting.

"We've been operating for almost nothing for years," said Cooke. "It doesn't take a lot of cash to maintain these things."

Cooke said he had not yet looked into whether new fences, signage or soil would be going into the sites, many of which have rusty fences and no signage whatsoever.

Another group based in Jamaica Plain calling itself the "legitimate BUG" is pressuring the original BUG to give all the properties to the Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN), which has far more resources and funding than DGP. BNAN director Valerie Burns was mum on current negotiations to do so, but an earlier round of negotiations broke down because BUG was not willing to pay the $80,000 BNAN had assessed as the cost of making the Dorchester gardens active again.

BUG treasurer Helen Streider previously told the Reporter that they would like to use as much of the money as they can to create a foundation to support the creation of new gardens, not maintenance.

Another point of negotiation in the proposal would be the future of the 10 Torrey St. and 141 Westville St. plots, which Cooke said are less than ideal for gardening. BNAN previously questioned taking over either of those lots. Cooke did not rule out their sale or development into housing by the Dorchester Home and Garden Trust, but said instead that DGP would have to ask the neighbors what they'd like to see done. Related story: A matter of turf, Reporter, Aug. 30, 2007