Neighbors Turned Vacant Lot Into a Garden; Then the Bank Brought in a Wrecking Crew

For almost a year now, residents of downtown Fort Lauderdale's Flagler Village neighborhood chipped in their time and money on a community garden occupying a once-scrubby scrap of land. They built raised planter boxes and bamboo fences and just put in a new water line. They grew eggplant and broccoli and herbs -- bushels of fruits and vegetables to show for their weekly labor.

Then, early today, they discovered that their community garden had been razed. Workers showed up this morning and quickly disposed of the raised plots, the fences, the water line, and all of the unpicked produce.

The wrecking crew had been hired by the land's new owner, City National Bank of Florida, which foreclosed on the land last month. Without word to the neighbors who had built the garden, City National sent in its demolition team.

Kate Sheffield, one of the gardeners, discovered the razed land this morning. She was

shocked to discover a year's worth of work gone. "We knew all along that it wasn't going to last forever," she told the Pulp. "But we didn't think that it would just be a few months and then the garden would be destroyed."

Isabel Fernandez, marketing director for City National, said the bank didn't know the property had been used as a garden. The bank foreclosed on the property and three neighboring lots last month from the developer, who had financial troubles. Asked about the community garden, Fernandez said: "That's not the official use of that lot."

Downtown residents built the garden at 415 NE Third Ave. last summer after getting permission from the developer who owned the property, Sheffield said. What started as just a couple of patches of produce soon grew to 20 plots maintained by 15 people. Some came once a week, while others were there every other day.

The garden arrived at a time of resurgence for Flagler Village, a community of homes, apartments, and businesses (including New Times) north of Broward Boulevard and east of Federal Highway. It brought together a few like-minded residents who revived the neighborhood's civic association and began planning for beautification projects, more art walks, and monthly meet-ups.

Shortly after City National foreclosed on the property, a Fort Lauderdale code enforcement officer cited the garden on May 18 for overgrown weeds and trash. Gardeners came out May 27 and cleaned up the land. "We spent the day weeding -- in the rain -- to comply with the code violation," Sheffield said.

But Fernandez said the bank didn't know that the gardeners had cleaned it up. After the bank received the citation, it hired a crew to clean up the land without knowing that the workers would be tearing down a community garden. "When we got the property," Fernandez said, "it was not being maintained."

City National was founded in 1946 in Miami Beach and claims that it maintains a policy of community development. "Help build the community, and the community will help build the Bank," City National's slogan boasts. It has had its own history of financial troubles. In April 2010, it entered into an agreement with the Comptroller of the Currency after the government agency discovered "unsafe and unsound banking practices" due to shaky loans.

Finding foreclosed properties in Flagler Village isn't hard -- the housing bubble led to speculation in the neighborhood, and now several lots sit empty. When asked if she'd work on taking over another lot to build a garden, Sheffield mustered a bittersweet laugh. "I don't know," she said. "That's all I can say about that right now."

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton