So many years ago now, I removed the lawn in my front yard. At the time I was reading a lot about food insecurity, food deserts, and front yard gardens. Had I waited a year or so I could have gotten some money to take the lawn out and replace it with drought resistant plantings because of, well, the drought. “Excuse me, Mister Water Company, is it too late to apply for that money?” In its place I built a number of planting beds which are now teaming with asparagus, blueberries, strawberries, my prized heirloom tomatoes and no less than 7 fruit trees.
Honestly, I built these boxes and planted food as a gesture of protest. At that time there were a number of articles of people all over the United States creating these architecturally designed, downright beautiful, front yard food gardens. I mean they were lush and green and a jewel of gardening. They were built from attractive, sustainable materials, sculpted over arches in a pleasing food topiary kind of way. Heck, I wish I had 1/10th that level of skill and motivation. Those front yards were beautiful. Only one thing. Their Cities told them they could not have them. There was actually an ordinance forbidding the planting of food in the front yards. So much for a Fee Simple Title to your own land.
I did a little research and it turns out that Vallejo has no written restriction. So planting boxes went in, plants grew up and every spring my neighbors stop and talk to me about how they love my garden. You know, I was actually spoiling for a fight with the City. I wanted someone to tell me that I could not plant food in my front yard. I wanted them to tell me that it drove down property values. That all of our front yards needed to be the same. “Go ahead, make me!” ran through my head in my imaginary argument with the Planning Commission. (Perhaps this is where I got the bug.)
Right around this time a couple of realities were starting to show themselves publicly. One was the conversation of food deserts and how our community planning process needed to change. The other was growing number of homeless encampments under freeway overpasses. For the last 20 odd years I have been in construction. I retired from catering on motion picture sets as it became harder and harder for me to put in 12, 14, 16 hour days; 6 days a week. Thankfully my union president signed my application for my contractor’s license and I immediately went about cleaning gutters, fixing broken pipes and replacing window panes until I built a business doing custom remodels, eventually restoring Craftsman and Victorian homes. Even though I had achieved a certain amount of success as a contractor I still considered myself a foodie at heart. Driving to one particular job in Berkeley I noticed a row of tents under the overpass at Gilman Avenue. Every day, a different person would sit in a chair next to the stop sign at the bottom of the exit, accepting any sort of handout. I had heard that giving money to people in rough conditions like this, most often went toward substances to be abused. So instead of handing over cash, I would make a double bag lunch, every day consisting of 2 sandwiches, 2 pieces of fruit, 2 packages of cookies and some bottles of water. Just a few days into doing this, one of the stop sign attendees told me how much they liked my sandwiches. Especially the tuna! (FYI) I had money to give them but this way felt better.
Around that same time a man in Los Angeles, Ron Finley – The Gansta Gardener, started planting food in the strips of land between the sidewalk and the street all over his neighborhood. The City told him to pay for a permit for each strip or stop. He refused. The debate about food deserts and bodegas was really flaring at this time. So much attention and pressure came to bear on the LA City council that they voted to allow food to be planted in those strips without permit, thanks, in part, to his efforts. NEWS ARTICLE I remember reading a story he told where he came out in the evening to tend to one of his strip gardens and found a woman harvesting food. She was embarrassed and apologetic for stealing his food. He simply told her, “It is there for you to take.”
Recently a new development for South Vallejo came before our Planning Commission. 132 units Residential Only, no grocery store. Wow. Did you know that the search term “food” can be found no less than 58 times in our General Plan? 2040 GENERAL PLAN It is often found next to or nearby terms such as, healthy, organic, or food desert. On page 3-3, of the General Plan, the first, the very first policy item POLICY CP-1.1 literally states:
Retail Food Sources. Strive to ensure that all households in Vallejo have easy access to retail sources of affordable healthy food, including organic options, such as fullservice grocery stores, ethnic food markets, produce markets, and convenience stores.
Just below that, on the next page, is:
Action CP-1.1B Update City regulations and explore incentives to attract a full service grocery store to South Vallejo and to any other identified “food deserts.”
In the arguments made that night at the PC, the developer and City staff were correct. The Business/Light Residential zoning for that area does allow for Residential Only based on a finding of compatibility. The PC voted 5 -1 that it was compatible. They were not wrong. It is what our laws allow and developers should have a reasonable expectation that we will abide by our own laws. One thing though, caught my attention. The developer discussed the profitability of the project, and rightly so. He stated, “That if he had a grocery store that would sign a 30 year lease then he would build the commercial space for them.” I was about to say to you, ”I wonder?” But I do not wonder. Since it was not required by our General Plan nor our Planning Code, he did not even bother to find a commercial partner. I cannot blame him. Our laws did not require that component.
What to do . . ? Enact ACTION CP-1.1B and update our City regulations. WE, the citizens, need to remove or more closely define: The Business/Limited Residential zoning definition, and ensure that the new Planning Code requires developments of a certain density to prove that they made a Good Faith Effort to find a commercial partner. I mean, did any one even talk to Grocery Outlet?
Until the next time,
p.s. Driving by those people on Gilman street everyday had a real impact on my life. So much so I had a tattoo placed on my right forearm because I knew, I was just one ladder fall away from joining them. “but for the grace of God” I, like you, believe that I am my brother’s keeper. Feel free to reach out to me to help organize a General Plan Amendment.