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November 2, 2015 Focus Real Estate

Urban farming takes root in Hartford

PHOTOs | JOHN STearns Martha Page (right), executive director of Hartford Food System, and Dan Gregory, farm manager for Grow Hartford, an HFS program, are seen in late October at Grow Hartford's farm at the Swift factory site in northeast Hartford.
PHOTO | JOHN STEARNS Plans call for converting Hartford's former Swift factory site into a hub of food, job training and health, including a rooftop garden and commercial kitchens for area businesses.
PHOTO | JOHN STEARNS Grow Hartford's farm at the Swift factory site is a fertile producer in an economically challenged neighborhood.
PHOTO | JOHN STEARNS Dan Gregory, Grow Hartford's farm manager, shows young plants growing in a high tunnel greenhouse, at Grow Hartford's Swift factory farm site.

More vacant parcels and derelict buildings across the country are returning to productive use as urban farms and other food-related enterprises, according to a recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Urban Land Institute.

It's a movement evident in Hartford, too, from community gardens dotting city neighborhoods to veggies growing at onetime industrial locations like the former Swift Factory site in north Hartford, where plans call for a food-centered project to energize the economically challenged neighborhood.

“Are we likely to see barns and silos dotting our cityscapes?” reads the report, “Emerging Trends in Real Estate,” from PwC and ULI. “No, that is hardly the point. What is important — and trending — is the new vision that has urban land as that most precious and flexible of resources. The idea that the end of one productive use of a real estate asset spells the extinction of value and the sunsetting of opportunity is an idea whose time is over.”

Hartford has been at the forefront of encouraging urban farm use, according to Martha Page, executive director of Hartford Food System Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to finding long-term solutions for access to affordable, healthy food.

The city solidified that support in a zoning code change last April “to very specifically articulate support and parameters around both urban farming and community gardening,” Page said. “Our zoning code now supports this activity in a very forward-thinking way.”

Among Hartford Food System's programs is Grow Hartford, which harvested more than 21,000 pounds of produce from its urban lots last year, with food going to many low-income households and community service organizations, and sold at the Hartford Food System's North End Farmers Market and in its Hartford Mobile Market, a bus launched last December to bring healthy food to underserved neighborhoods year-round. The farms also serve as urban classrooms to educate the community about food and nutrition.

Urban farming is a good use of open space, Page said, noting that even asphalt lots can be farmed with raised planters.

“If somebody wants to build some wonderful tax-bearing [development] at the corner of Park and Main Street, I would have a hard time arguing that farming on the corner of Park and Main is a higher and better use,” she said, referring to the site of one of Grow Hartford's four farms. “On the other hand, those [developments] take years to materialize and in the meantime, if the land is vacant, farm on it. If you've got people who want to farm it, as long as it's feasible to do that, it is certainly a better use of land than just having it sit there vacant and I think it makes it more marketable in a way.”

Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at ULI in Washington, D.C., said food is becoming a more important part of real estate development around the country, from rooftop gardens to edible landscaping, farm-focused housing developments, urban food markets in former industrial buildings and more. He outlined a dozen such projects recently featured at a national conference.

“I don't think there's any chance that this is going to replace agribusiness or large-scale commercial agriculture,” McMahon said. “Cities still need to think about preserving farmland on the urban edge. We're not going to supply all the food needs of our cities just by rooftop farming and things like that, but what it does do is it takes derelict land and derelict buildings and gives them a new lease on life.”

Swift factory

A new life is envisioned for the Swift factory, a former gold leaf manufacturing facility on Love Lane in northeast Hartford, the city's poorest neighborhood, plagued by high unemployment and higher rates of health problems.

Community Solutions, which took ownership of the 2.6-acre site in 2010, plans a project there, Made at Swift, that will be a “game-changer for Hartford and the Northeast neighborhood,” according to an executive summary of the project for the federal Strong Cities, Strong Communities Challenge for which the project was awarded $100,000. “The Made at Swift project is an example of how investment in the food sector can spur economic development on several different fronts.”

The project — with Community Solutions, Hartford Food System, Billings Forge Community Works and the Social Enterprise Trust (reSET) as partners around the idea that good food is good business — has a food, jobs and health focus, according to Patrick McKenna, Community Solutions' project manager.

He called it a three-legged stool of “revitalizing abandoned property, creating income and opportunity, and also increasing healthy food access in the neighborhood.”

The site includes a Hartford Food System garden. Next to that is the factory, which has a 20,000-square-foot roof suitable for a rooftop garden and solar array. Inside, the vision includes commercial kitchens local businesses could run, a shared kitchen young entrepreneurs could rent hourly, shared storage and refrigeration space, and kitchen space for local food trucks and food nutrition classes, McKenna said, hoping the building's shell and core rehabilitation can be completed in 18 to 24 months.

Additional buildings at the complex could be used for light manufacturing, like furniture making and a community center, which might include a local coffee shop and bakery.

“The goal is to create businesses or industries that are going to be accessible to people in the community,” McKenna said.

McKenna sees urban farming spreading in Hartford, particularly with the emphasis on locally grown food, with the northeast neighborhood positioned to exploit that trend with its numerous vacant spaces.

Knox’s impact

Another Hartford nonprofit, KNOX, also has played a significant role in the local food movement.

It has transformed acres of vacant lots into edible, productive gardens to combat food insecurity in the city and currently oversees 22 community gardens that serve 350-plus families, according to its website.

ULI's McMahon sees a convergence of trends, from going green, to interest in local products, sustainability and food.

“People are starting to think about food and agriculture,” he said. “It started off really just as sort of a niche, it hasn't gone totally mainstream, but it's certainly taken off. It's kind of like the new golf. It's like an amenity that really is differentiating real estate projects and products from each other.”

Hartford Food System's Page said urban farming and community gardens expose people to farming in a way they might not otherwise see, helping individuals understand their relationship to the land and food system, and where food comes from and how it's produced.

“And all of those things are really, really beneficial and you can reach a whole lot of people with that type of perspective in cities,” she said.

McMahon added that transforming formerly fallow spaces, often loaded with character and offered cheap, can have a domino effect, too.

“It starts to play a role not just in providing food but in sort of tipping a neighborhood into a much more productive use,” he said.

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