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Questions Remain About City Garden Grant

A familiar story continues to grow new layers. 

Last April, 1240 Westminster Street was the site of a neighborhood tempest between farmer Than Wood of Front Step Farm and his neighbor Re-Focus, Inc, a non-profit that works with disabled persons.  Re-Focus sought to use city money from Community Development Block Grants to turn 1240 Westminster from what they characterized as a vacant lot into a garden.  The property was already being leased by Wood, who operated a small farm there.  

Opposition to the Re-Focus grant was strong. Then-acting Director of Community Development and Planning Garry Bliss writes in a summary to other city officials:
"In contrast to recent years when comment has been minimal in spite of widespread notice of the Public Comment Period, this year’s proposed spending plan received extensive comment. . . We received e-mails from 20 different individuals and several phone calls. The Public Comment Hearing was held on Friday, April 20th. It was attended by three individuals, including two speaking in opposition to the proposed urban farm grant. . . All comments related to a proposed grant to an organization which sought to acquire an adjoining lot for use as a community-based garden. Comments focused on concern for the impact this proposal would have on the urban farm currently operating on the site, Front Step Farm."

The apparent resolution of the story was covered by our colleagues at Eco Rhode Island. Providence's then-active Director of Planning and Community Development, Garry Bliss withdrew a city recommendation that Re-Focus be awarded the block grant, citing three reasons: Re-Focus misled the city about the property being vacant and abandoned, disingenuously claimed it was going to turn what was already a farm into a garden from scratch, and applied for funds to buy a property it already owned.

Shortly after the victory, supporters of Front Step Farm began to wonder if Re-Focus was going to get the grant money after all.

In an email dated April 30, 2012, forwarded by a community member who asked to remain anonymous, the community member wrote to Bliss, saying, "I've heard that refocus [sic] is getting a second crack at the grant money with a new application. Im curious- does this mean that it is not too late to apply for CDBG small pool grants? I am part of an urban agriculture group that would be very interested in applying for funds to further our work through programming and land security."  

Bliss wrote back to say that, "I have not been contacted by anyone at Re-Focus to date. We cannot accept new applications at this time." Re-Focus did go on to get grant money for the same project, although the timeline of when that happened remains obscured.

Although Re-Focus did not, in fact, receive funding for that fiscal year, it funded the identical project with CDBG grants the following year.

The community member who forwarded Transport Providence the emails felt that the city's announced rejection of funding for Re-Focus was out of step with their later approval of the funding, but emphasized that s/he thought no foul play was behind the move.

"I just think the city wants everyone to be happy, and doesn't want to stir up any controversy.  The city hates controversy. They think, 'okay, now we've got the Front Step people happy, let's take care of these other people'".

Garry Bliss no longer works for the city, so I approached other civil servants for a better understanding of the city's motivations.  At Valley Street Cyclovia I spoke with Sheila Dormody of the Sustainability Office. During that exchange she told me that Re-Focus had simply had to rewrite the grant with different wording in order to be awarded the money. Dormody was not explicit, but it seemed implied that the process happened shortly after the initial rejection. As my concerns at the time focused heavily around whether the property would stay a parking lot, I asked whether the city oversaw projects like the one at Re-Focus, and Dormody said that she would personally look into the project to see that it was properly using grant money.

In a September 3 phone interview, Dormody said, "I want to emphasize that the money awarded through the block grant program is not the same as the money used for Lots of Hope" referring to the city's program of removing surface parking lots for garden space.

Dormody emphasized that the reason the block grant recommendation had been revoked was because the property had already been in Re-Focus' name, and that the city set them up to get a different block grant for improvements to the space, rather than allocation of the space, as in the original grant proposal. Dormody wouldn't make a direct comment to the timing of the re-write, but did obliquely say that grants are usually awarded in the early fall following the beginning of the fiscal year. 

I asked Dormody to comment on the other remaining pieces of the grant proposal--that Front Step Farm was supposedly a vacant and abandoned land, and that Re-Focus was going to make said abandoned land into a garden.  What role did these have in the decision to grant (or not grant) money? Dormody declined to comment on whether or how these issues affected things, though they were central to the original decision by Bliss. 

A later written statement from Deputy Director of Communications Liz White said that "The scope of the grant changed after Re-Focus’ scope of work was deemed ineligible based on the status and acquisition of the property. . .In the 2013-2014 program year, CDBG funds will support numerous programs serving low to moderate income persons and neighborhoods, including youth programs, training programs, streetscape improvements, park improvements and others."

To some extent, our questions revolved around when the grant was re-submitted.  Did the city simply allow Re-Focus to re-write the original grant, during the same period, and get the same money? Did it wait until the following period? Early comments, though oblique, implied the former, while later comments the latter. Unresolved though the timing question might be, the larger issue is why any re-write of the grant would have been handled in such a nonchalant way. As Bliss' own words described, city officials rarely hear any comment of any kind on CDBG proposals, and yet on this particular project, strong opposition emerged. In one email to a supporter of Than Wood on April 19, 2012, for instance, Bliss writes, "It is important to note that at this point Re-Focus has not actually received the CDBG grant." That same day, he chides Than Wood by email with "The cards and letters continue to pour in. You might want to update folks." With such comment, and such an expectation that Front Step Farm update its base of support, why did the city itself deal with this issue in such a quiet, run-of-the-mill way?

We briefly spoke with the gardener at Re-Focus, who was tending one of the sidewalk plots. After introducing myself as a local blogger who was writing about the garden project, the gardener, who called herself Barbara, said that the plan in the future was to put raised beds on the plot. The property, which currently is predominantly a leveled gravel parking lot awaiting further construction, did not look like the garden. In fact, neighborhood concerns that the property would just revert to parking spaces after having been a farm was one of the things that initiated our research into the grant process.  I asked Barbara when the raised beds would happen. She didn't know.

"I find my work very fulfilling," said Barbara.

Asked if there were any difficulties to the project, she said, "The property was really a mess before we got to it. It was a farm before, but the last person removed all the plants and soil with a backhoe and left it empty when he left."

In the city's written comments from Liz White, it was emphasized that construction related CDBG projects can take several years to complete. "Work on [the Re-Focus] project is underway, with removal and disposal of driveway slab, tree stumps, then installation of a gravel base and loam-planting. Community Development staff will be meeting with Re-Focus this week to review and coordinate on the remaining work." The Re-Focus project, the city points out, is one of fifty such projects around the city, all of which fall under federal inspection guidelines. They also point out that they've been overseeing such projects for thirty-five years.

Community Development Block Grants are not limited to being spent to remove parking lots and create gardens, and in this case, a garden of some kind is being created. Supporters of Re-Focus might point out the social benefit of providing space for disabled persons to access gardening. A question remains about whether it's appropriate for a property that already was a garden to receive grant money to become a garden. That question, central to Bliss' original recommendation to reject funding to Re-Focus, has not been addressed in any of the city's public comments to Transport Providence


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