Building a Farm Where a Freeway Used to Be

mulch_3.gifMoving mulch on the old Central Freeway on-ramp that is becoming Hayes Valley Farm. Photo: Matthew Roth
A few weeks ago in San Francisco, a number of urban farmers opened a gate in a chain-link fence at Laguna Street, between Oak and Fell Streets, and entered an overgrown lot that has been unused for nearly two decades. The farmers brought with them steaming piles of mulch, which they cast over the edge of the ramps formerly used by cars to enter and exit the elevated Central Freeway spur above Octavia Street, arranging the soil in rows for planting vegetables and filler crops.

Since the Loma Prieta earthquake made the Central Freeway unsafe for travel, leading to its eventual removal and the re-design of Octavia Boulevard, those ramps have been one of the more poignant reminders of a distant vision of San Francisco, with freeways crisscrossing the urban environment, whisking motorists above the unfortunate city dwellers below. 

The new Hayes Valley Farm (HVF) inverts the paradigm and reclaims the space for city dwellers, if only temporarily. "We call it 'freeway to food forest,'" explained Chris Burley, Project Director for HVF and former organizer of My Farm. Burley was joined by nearly fifty volunteers at a HVF work party Sunday. "We're trying to create a successful, sustainable urban farm in the heart of San Francisco."

Burley and several other organizers were approached by Mayor Gavin Newsom's Office of Economic and Workforce Development (MOEWD) last year with the idea to transform the unused lot into a farm. The HVF received a $50,000 grant from MOEWD for the first year of the project, money that comes from the operation of parking facilities along Octavia Boulevard. Burley expected to work the farm for between two and five years, depending on when the economy turns around and the land is developed.

While the city owns the property, the MOEWD has selected Build, Inc, to develop it when they secure their financing. According to Richard Hillis at MOEWD, the site will be broken into ten parcels and built as 50 percent affordable homes, 50 percent market rate. Because the housing construction market is so bleak right now, said Hillis, the city worked with the neighborhood groups to develop a plan for activating under-utilized lots, starting with this very visible one.

In addition to the community benefit of a farmers market and mobile food vending, the city benefits from having the lots used by the farmers. "It helps us save money on cleaning them and maintaining them," Hillis said.

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