A new growing season has begun at Little City Gardens, a three-quarters-acre urban farm located in Mission Terrace, but this spring will yield more than fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers as the property’s ownership changes hands.
Abigail Coburn purchased the Mission Terrace property in late February, according to the San Francisco Assessor’s office. Coburn is a co-founder of a small Waldorf-style preschool and kindergarten that opened in February 2013 and is currently located
in the Mission district.
The preschool is run out of one of the teachers’ apartments, along with a private garden, and the kindergarten rents a space at a nearby church and the school aims to develop programs for first through fifth grades as their current pupils grow up. Eventually they plan build its campus in Mission Terrace on the hourglass-shaped lot at 203 Cotter St.
Tucked between homes on Cotter, Cayuga, Santa Rosa and Capistrano streets, it is zoned for building residences, so the new owners still need to get zoning changes and school permits approved before construction starts, Golden Bridges co-founder and administrator Jessie Elliot said.
Nevertheless, finding the undeveloped land was like a fantasy come true and future structures on the land will be minimal, Elliot said. “We want to preserve the outdoorness of it. We need a couple of buildings and a bathroom, and we’re thinking about building
an outdoor kitchen,” Elliot said, so that the students can continue help cook and bake what they grow.
The school’s curriculum is rooted in Waldorf philosophies that emphasize outdoor education, hands-on interaction with nature and learning about the seasons. “We spend a good portion of our day outside. Even the little ones tend the garden,” Elliot said.
Details have not yet been decided on how the school and farm will coexist but both parties seem to be hopeful about the future possibilities. “How can we create the space together, to be mutually beneficial?” Elliot said.
One idea is for the farm to continue growing and selling produce as a separate business, while providing an outdoor learning space for the students. “It’s just a pleasure to be next to it,” Elliot said about the farm.
For Little City Gardens, the partnership could bring stability. Caitlyn Galloway founded the farm in 2010 with her business partner Brooke Budner under a temporary agreement from the previous land owner.“In thinking long-term, this feels like a really positive outcome,” Galloway said. It is at least “now owned by people who will respect the soil.”
Even under a new state law that encourages urban agriculture, the farm’s long term future would still be uncertain. Called the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, it was authored by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, and passed in September 2013. The law reduces property taxes for owners who dedicate their undeveloped land to urban farming under five-year to 10-year contracts.
Ting attended a celebration at Little City Gardens in October, after the bill was passed. District 11 Supervisor John Avalos has also voiced support for urban farms. “Urban Agriculture is an important part of my vision for a healthy, livable San Francisco,” he said in a 2012 interview with the SF Urban Agriculture Alliance.
Just two blocks away from noisy Mission Street, Little City Gardens is a quiet oasis that Galloway runs with the help of one employee and a few weekly volunteers.
Many neighbors appreciate the transformation of the lot from an overgrown eyesore, with graffiti and dumped trash, to a thriving green space of food and flowers, according to testimonials on the farm’s website.
Before the farm existed, the lot only had “eight-foot-tall fennel weeds from fence to fence,” Galloway said. “Neighbors like thatit’s a secure, activated, beautified space.” Even before that, the land was once part of Cayuga Creek, long since directed into culverts underground in the early 1900s.
Old photos from the era show few houses and farms similar to Little City Gardens. While the school plans their campus, Galloway will continue growing her produce business this year.
She sells fruits and vegetables to a few San Francisco restaurants, including lettuces and greens, artichokes, strawberries, chayote squash and pineapple guavas, as well as fresh herbs and edible flowers.
For neighbors, she plans to sell flower bouquets in the style of community-supported agriculture boxes, which will include items such as colorful dahlias and ranunculus. “Selling only to restaurants isolates the farm from its closest neighbors,” Galloway said.
One neighbor, Fred Rinne, often pops through a wooden gate behind his bright blue house near the middle of the farm. He regularly tends one bed of native flowers that grow along the farm’s edge—poppies and asters grown from seeds he gathered in Glen Canyon and Twin Peaks.
He remembers what the lot looked like long before the farmers began improving it—a “sleepy abandoned lot,” he said. “One thing I like about this place is that there’s a spot for
these guys,” he said, as he spotted a small sky-blue butterfly fluttering between the farm’s thyme and fennel beds.
A community meeting about the future of the parcel is scheduled for April 21 at 7:00 p.m., at Ingleside Police Station’s community room. Mission Terrace residents are encouraged to attend, though space in the meeting room is limited.