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Project Leaf Pushes for Green Space, Urban Farms, in Alameda

Project Leaf volunteer Nanette Burdick. (Project Leaf Blog)

Project Leaf volunteer Nanette Burdick. (Project Leaf Blog)

Melanie Wartenberg, co-director of Project Leaf, a grassroots Alameda organization that formed around the issue of redevelopment of the former Island High School Site, wants you to know that the group is interested in promoting urban farming throughout Alameda, not just in the neighborhood around the old school.

Project Leaf has been petitioning the City of Alameda, and the Alameda Unified School District, to turn the former school site on the 2400 block of Eagle Avenue into some kind of green space, preferably a community garden.

However, Ms. Wartenberg, a mother of one and a resident of the Alameda neighborhood surrounding the site that she and her neighbors lovingly refer to as “the Wedge” – so-called because of its shape created by Park Street, Tilden Way and Blanding Avenue – told Action Alameda News that Project Leaf’s goal is to move urban farming and urban greening forward across the City of Alameda.

“This is not just a neighborhood issue,” she told Action Alameda News. “There are other urban greening efforts that would help Alameda catch up to other cities around us.”

Wartenberg and her neighbors formed Project Leaf in 2010, when they learned about a $368 million Statewide Park Program run by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, through which grants were available for the creation of new parks and recreation facilities in underserved communities.

The Wedge, with its mix of residential, light industrial and commercial uses has no parks and is isolated by Tilden Way, a broad thoroughfare, and Park Street.

The group learned that as a formal non-profit organization, they could apply for grant money, and began a nine-month planning process, ultimately engaging over 500 residents from all over Alameda about what would work best on the old high school site.

“A park or community garden were the ideas that came up most often,” Wartenberg said.

The group also approached former Alameda Recreation and Parks Director Dale Lillard about a public-private partnership on the grant application but were turned down, so they plowed forward on their own.

The Alameda Unified School District gave them a necessary letter-of-intent to sell the property to the non-profit, to support the application, and by July of 2011, they had prepared a complete grant application and submitted it to the state, drawing grant review officials to Alameda twice to discuss their proposal.

In April of 2012, however, the state denied their application. Wartenberg suspects that the group’s lack of operating history was a factor in the decision.

A listing of grant recipients on the State’s website shows that the majority of grantees were city agencies or cities and counties proper.

Wartenberg is still optimistic about the potential for a public-private partnership with the City of Alameda regarding the Island High School site, and Project Leaf is still engaging with the City of Alameda and the school district to figure out how to green the property. The group believes that a green space use would offset the environmental impact of other uses in the neighborhood.

City officials, she said, tell her that down-zoning the property for parkland would be problematic, as it would have the effect of devaluing the property, possibly harming the property owner. (The school district, in this case.)

Some Project Leaf members would like to see the school district keep the property and turn it into an outdoor education and environmental science facility, to complement the district’s science curriculum. That, Wartenberg said, would be in line with Project Leaf’s philosophy and the group would support it.

Last year, Alameda City Council approved an ordinance that re-zoned the property as a special multifamily residential combining zone district, exempt from long-standing housing density restrictions in Alameda.

If Project Leaf can’t steer the parcel into green space, they’re going to set their sights elsewhere.

The group has been an active participant in the City’s public outreach exercises regarding the planned park use of the former Alameda Beltline rail property, and its five-member governing council includes residents from across Alameda, not just Wartenberg’s neighborhood.

“There’s a huge deficit of community gardens in Alameda, other nearby cities are far in advance of us,” Wartenberg said. She acknowledged the Bay/Eagle Community Garden and the Alameda Point Collaborative community garden, at the opposite end of Alameda, but said that there is more that could be done.

On April 16th, Alameda City Council will hold a final vote on zoning changes to support the Park Street North of Lincoln plan, which encompasses the Wedge neighborhood.

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