Long standing San Jose community garden approved for demolition

A long-standing community garden in the middle of San Jose is in danger of suffering the same fate as other green spaces – suffering at the hands of tech-fueled development.

But the garden’s caretaker says what’s at stake is deeper than soil, and could impact the city’s soul for generations to come.

At the corner of Race Street and Garland Avenue in Central San Jose, is one of the last, self-sustaining green gardens in the city.

“I believe we’re connected to nature,” said Alrie Middlebrook.

Nearly 20-years ago, she started renting at the site, and built what’s known as E.L.S.E.E. – a near half-acre environmental lab with 75 indigenous grow foods; an aquaponics garden; birds; insects, and even poultry, all living and growing together in a symbiotic circle. Middlebrook said her years-long masterpiece represents future city living.

“We have to make changes and we have to make them now. And this place, this place -- Silicon Valley – should lead the world in this movement,” she said.

Movement is on the horizon, just not the kind Middlebrook believes is in anyone’s best interest.

Wednesday, San Jose’s deputy director of planning approved the landowner’s request to demolish the garden. It would be  replaced with a 5,600+ square foot retail building. The new building would be a stone’s throw from the planned Google hub – and the garden sits on land valued at $4 million.

“While the community had very compelling testimony and was very emotional bout the [garden], which [is] much loved in the community, the applicant is within his rights to pursue construction a small retail complex on the site,” said Cheryl Wessling of the San Jose Dept. of Planning, Building & Code Enforcement.

Legal rights conflict with the will of the community, with some members stopping by the garden to show support.

“As time goes on, more and more places like this are becoming built up,” said an area resident named Jack. He declined to give his last name, but seemed eager to sign-up for information about the garden.

Pieces of land within San Jose city limits are also becoming more expensive.

Middlebrook’s initial rent at this site was $1,500 per month. It’s now $8,000, and Middlebrook says she’s behind by about $3,000 each month. Still, she says this is bigger than a half-acre, and will have a deeper impact than another building.

“It’s teaching how our planet works. It’s getting kids connected to the local ecology. And anybody who lives on this planet and eats, needs to know about what we’re doing here,” she said, as she did work around the garden.

Middlebrook is appealing the city’s ruling to the full planning commission. But while she waits for that final ruling, she’s hopeful the mayor can broker a deal or give her more time to form a consortium of interested parties that will not only help her save the garden, but also accelerate a growing movement.