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West Bluff Neighborhood In An Uproar Over Community Garden's Razing

The vacant land at 622 W. Main St., which, until yesterday, was home to the Renaissance Park Community Garden.
Renaissance Park Community Association NFP via Facebook
The vacant land at 622 W. Main St., which, until yesterday, was home to the Renaissance Park Community Garden.

Members of a West Bluff neighborhood group say they're "shocked" and "heartbroken" by the removal of a community garden near the corner of W. Main and Sheridan.

The Renaissance Park Community Garden stood for about a decade on the parcel owned by the adjacent Mobil gas station. But on Thursday, city contractors removed the garden and placed many of the items in storage.

Adam Gasper, the treasurer of the Renaissance Park Community Association, said they were taken aback by the move.

"Our garden is like a safe haven for everybody," Gasper said. "It's like the heart of our neighborhood. And it's a big loss for everyone."

Ross Black, the city of Peoria's Community Development Director, said the garden was once well-tended, but said there's been "no maintenance" of the community garden over the last year and a half.

"Instead of produce growing, there were weeds, litter, garbage. It was a mess," Black said. "The gas station owner was having his employees go out and pick up as much as they could, but ultimately, it just became too much work for something that really just has nothing do with owning or running a gas station."

He said the city has made attempts to reach out to the group over the community garden's condition, to no avail.

"The property owner, and the city, frankly, was left with no other option," Black said.

But Gasper said they received no emails, phone calls, or social media messages regarding the impending demolition. Renaissance Park Community Association President Per Ellingson said he didn't find out the garden was being razed until receiving calls from neighbors as it was happening.

Gasper said while the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented any of the usual large events or gatherings usually seen at the Renaissance Park Community Garden, it was still being maintained regularly on a smaller scale.

"We have a gardening coordinator. He's been there at least once a week since all of this has been going on to maintain things and make sure things are still OK, and things are situated the way they need to be," Gasper said. "There were still plants in there. There was still produce in there for our neighbors who need it. We just didn't have a big event to bring people out for safety reasons."

Gasper said he and other members of the Renaissance Park Community Association believe gatherings of people experiencing homelessness on the garden property may have been a motivating factor towards its removal on Thursday.

"We support those people as human beings. The garden was being used sort of as a shelter for people right now. People were hanging out there. People were staying there," said Gasper. "I think that was also a big part of this. There was homeless people using the garden as a form of shelter in this crazy time."

But Black said it was the upkeep of the property, not the housing status of the people gathering there, which led to the garden's removal.

"Unfortunately, whoever was in that garden area, whether they were homeless or not, they were not doing a whole lot to tend to this garden or keep it clean, which is what really created this situation in the first place" Black said. "It's great to have a community open space where people can sit and enjoy being outside. But when that results in broken bottles, garbage, litter, and other discarded things, it's no longer a community asset. It's a detriment to the community."

The property was sold by the SLG Cohen Foundation to Muntaser Assad of Milwaukee in 2016. Attempts to reach Assad or his company, HH Taxes, for comment, were not immediately successful. The business's website redirected to a placeholder page when reached on Friday. A Facebook page for the business was last updated in June.

But the Renaissance Park Community Association said they're thankful to the gas station owners for hosting the community garden for the past decade. Instead, they blamed the Second District City Councilman, Chuck Grayeb, for what happened in a press release issued Friday.

Grayeb hasn't returned a call requesting comment, but in a Facebook post, he said the city and conscientious business owners don't permit untended gardens, but he supports those with the capacity and work ethic to stave off blight.

"Citizens who live in the area should not have to watch folks urinating and defecating as they drive by or witness drug deals going down," Grayeb said.

Grayeb said the city will work with any "responsible organization" if another plot of land is offered.

The gas station is reportedly looking to expand. Gasper said the owners informed the community association of that several months ago, but had indicated they planned to work with them. Grayeb thanked the gas station owners for allowing the garden to remain for so many years, but said the city has no authority to compel them to allow a garden to remain on any remaining land following the expansion.

Black said the table, stage, artwork, and watering equipment from the community garden were preserved to return to the community association.

Gasper said several people have already reached out to help the neighborhood association find a new permanent home for the community garden.

"The silver lining of all of this is that the people of this community are the biggest asset," he said. "And they're all super-amazing...[W]e're definitely going to rebuild. We're definitely going to keep going and try to make that neighborhood a better place," Gasper said.

A sit-in and supply drive is scheduled to take place at the former site of the community garden, 622 W. Main, at 7:30 on Friday evening.

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Tim Shelley is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.