Schuylkill gardeners pelted by construction site debris want back in

Gardeners who tend to their veggies at a shared community garden along the Schuylkill River off of Spruce Street in Fitler Square had a nasty surprise on Friday when they found a padlock separating them from their plants.

The Center City Residents Association (CCRA) locked up the Schuylkill River Park Community Garden at 25th and Spruce streetstwo months after reports started coming in that debris was falling from the nearby construction of Dranoff Properties’ One Riverside Park, a new 22-story, 82-unit luxury condominium building in the Fitler Square neighborhood.

“Random crap has flown off the place,” said Al Kelman, 72, a “mostly retired” gardener who has been growing tomatoes, herbs and hot peppers in the garden for 19 years. He said he found a two by four with a nail poking out in his lot.

“It’s crazy. … It’s a building designed by Dranoff that comes incredibly close to the edge of the garden,” he said.

Items reportedly started falling into the garden in April, such as a wood board, plastic tubing, nails, stones and gravel. The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections found no safety code violations on the site, but after a series of meetings, the CCRA elected to lock up the garden.

On Monday, during a CCRA meeting in Trinity Memorial Church, a compromise was reached. Representatives of INTECH construction offered to construct a fence blocking off a northeastern section near the construction site, while gardeners tentatively agreed to not use the garden during construction hours, from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays.

“We are 100 percent committed to making this garden safe. We know it’s a major inconvenience to have construction next to your garden,” said Andrew O’Donnell, INTECH project director.

“During working hours, I can’t sit here and tell you 100 percent that someone’s not going to drop a two by four. There’s always human error,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing my kids up against that building during construction hours.”

The building’s window wall on the south side will be completed by Labor Day, O’Donnell added, ending the risk of falling debris.

A CCRA task force is finalizing the agreement and acknowledgement of risk form gardeners will be asked to sign. The garden is expected to reopen late Wednesday or early Thursday, said CCRA president Chuck Goodwin.

The garden is in high demand. The wait-list for a six-year lease on one of the plots in the garden is about 50 people long, an estimated two to three years.

“We don’t have a backyard. Being able to go a short distance from home and grow produce is really important to us,” said Jim Wells, a member of the garden’s steering committee.

Gardeners don’t just grow food for themselves. About half the plots are reserved for City Harvest, and gardeners are encouraged to donate any excess veggies. The garden donated about 1,100 pounds of produce to City Harvest last year.

For the 86 leaseholders who use the garden, any delay reopening the garden is feared to have a detrimental effect on their gardens during the current heat wave.

“We all take gardening very seriously,” said Kelman, who expressed concern that his veggies might die over just a few days.

To resolve that concern, a skeleton crew from the garden steering committee has been watering all the plots in the garden since it was officially closed.

“We’re praying for rain,” Wells said.

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