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August Miller, Deseret Morning News
Emily Aagaard, executive director of Wasatch Community Gardens, announces Thursday that the garden will be sold unless community raises sufficient funds.

Kevin Emerson's garden features summer squash, chives, parsley, cucumbers, carrots and even golden raspberries. He grows tomatoes, too, but says this year's crop was just OK.

Emerson's modest harvest likely isn't much different from those of others along the Wasatch Front who share his love of gardening and the resulting fresh produce, perhaps with the exception of the golden raspberries.

His garden, however, is fighting to survive in an area where high-density residential buildings and other development are the dominant crop.

Emerson and a few dozen others do their gardening at the 4th East Garden, a leased quarter-acre parcel of green space where community members have been planting, tending and harvesting crops for more than 25 years.

It's a way for people who live in downtown apartments and condominiums to have their own little backyard garden — without the back yard.

"It's a haven of open space amidst downtown," said Emerson, a 4th East gardener for about two years. "I live downtown. Without this garden, I wouldn't have a place to garden."

That's what worries Emerson, his fellow gardeners and Wasatch Community Gardens, the nonprofit agency that manages the 4th East Garden and three other community gardens. Unless the group can raise $250,000 by March 2008 to buy the land, crops likely will give way to concrete.

"It's essential that we purchase this property, and we hope to have the opportunity to do that," said Emily Aagaard, Wasatch Community Gardens' executive director. "We're relying on the community for that opportunity."

The parcel of land at 553 S. 400 East where the garden was being leased was sold in March to Community Development Corp. of Utah. Also a nonprofit group, CDC bought the land with the intention of building an affordable housing complex, unaware that Wasatch Community Gardens had been seeking to purchase the land.

"Unfortunately, we had these two competing interests, and I wouldn't suggest that one is any more important than the other," said Darin Brush, executive director of Community Development Corp. "We're trying to do affordable home ownership and neighborhood revitalization, which is our nonprofit's mission. They're wanting to preserve that as a garden and open space, which we respect."

Shortly after purchasing the property, Brush said he met with Aagaard, promising to sell the land to Wasatch Community Gardens if an alternative site could be found. In the meantime, CDC agreed to lease the property to the group until March 2008 for the next-to-nothing price of $100 for the year.

An opportunity for WCG to purchase the 4th East Garden property emerged a few months ago when Community Development Corp. won a competitive proposal process with the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City to build 9th Street Place, a mixed-use, mixed-income project on the old Sure Appliance site at 153 W. 900 South.

It is the largest project ever taken on by the nonprofit development group, Brush said, making it necessary to focus all attention and resources there and providing an opportunity to sell the 4th East Garden property to Wasatch Community Gardens.

CDC is seeking only the $250,000 it paid for the property in March, and it has given Wasatch Community Gardens a year to raise that.

Aagaard said the agency has received $20,000 in strong donation commitments to save the garden, as well as another $50,000 in soft pledges. The group also has applied with Salt Lake City's open-space preservation program, which last week put $615,000 toward a $1.4 million purchase of 12.7 acres below the "H" rock and east of Foothill Boulevard to keep as open space.

Wasatch Community Gardens is hoping to get a 50 percent match from the city, with funds coming from the $5.3 million bond approved by Salt Lake City voters in 2003. The group also hopes to tap into the $24 million of bond money for preservation of open space approved by Salt Lake County residents in 2006.

"This garden is so rooted in the community," Aagaard said. "Community members are the ones who created it, and community members are the people who have sustained it for more than 25 years. It's the community members we call upon at this time to help us save this garden."

For more information about saving the 4th East Garden, go online to wasatchgardens.org or call 801-359-2658.

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com