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A three-acre, $5 million piece of land owned by the D.C. Housing Authority is getting a makeover into an urban farm that will feature a garden, a nature trail, and a plaza.

On Saturday, hundreds of volunteers from local agencies, companies, and organizations pitched in to lay the foundation for the East Capitol Farm. The partnership aims to transform a vacant lot into the city’s “largest-scale urban farm,” directly west of the Capitol Heights Metro station.

As the wind stirred up dust from the ground, workers bustled across eight “zones” on the site that will each contain a different design element created by nearly 20 architectural firms and general contractors. The farm, though far from complete, is meant to serve Ward 7 residents with fresh produce, public art, and meeting spaces among other community benefits like education on gardening and aquaponics. The University of the District of Columbia has signed a three-year lease for the land as part of an urban agriculture program, after which point it may be converted into something else entirely—hence why many of the farm’s features must be “portable.” Saturday’s “Build Day” was organized by the District of Columbia Building Industry Association, a local nonprofit trade group.

“It’s very important not just to build [the site] and walk away, but to have it programmed and have it activated and keep people engaged with it so that it’s operating smoothly and properly maintained,” says Sharon Bradley, owner of Bradley Site Design, who was a design co-chair for DCBIA’s Build Day. “It means high volume of produce in a food desert. It means impact.”

Ward 7 has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the District. Partners hope the urban farm will become a community asset and bring Ward 7 residents a few of the economic benefits the rest of the city has seen in recent years. As part of that vision, local residents will be able to grow their own produce in the planned community garden and sell it at farmers’ markets; they’ll also be able to take their kids to what will effectively serve as a park and public-art space.

José Benitez, an associate at design firm RTKL and another Build Day co-chair, explains that the site used to be a housing complex that was demolished seven or eight years ago. His firm was responsible for the storm-water management zone at the southeast corner of the lot. When his team started digging, they found concrete from the past development, which they had to work around; otherwise, the area was “mostly a blank slate,” allowing designers to be creative. The general contractors procured building materials, including concrete, gravel, sand, and grass, he adds; UDC will manage the community garden and follow-up logistics in the coming months.

“As a preservationist, I think the best way to preserve things is to make them useful instead of putting them in a plastic box,” explains Dana Litowitz, an architectural historian and member of DCBIA. “It’s interesting that way back this area used to be rural, outside of the city limits. It’s going to have this garden-oasis feel for an area that’s become much more urban—that’s great.”

It remains to be seen how UDC will manage the site after Saturday’s volunteers have gone back to their weekly schedules. Sabine O’Hara, dean and director of land-grant programs for UDC’s College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences, says the urban farm is part of the larger issue of food access and distribution in D.C., adding that some of the produce already planted on the site—such as kale and fall vegetables—will be shared in part by a food truck that will drive around Ward 7. But given the small scale of the farm, it will be basically impossible to grow stock produce like corn or soybeans, and big-batch grains like wheat.

“When you do urban farming, the first constraint is land,” she says. “We don’t have space. So we can’t spread out like you could in Nebraska or even rural Maryland. For us, everything has to be designed with an eye to how can we maximize the efficiency of the land. And that means we have to not just grow food, but then double dip in the land, get the biggest bang for your buck.”

  

And because UDC is a public university (“we’re notoriously underfunded!”O’Hara jokes), it’ll have to rely a lot on local partners, including nonprofit organizations and community groups, to make sure the farm comes to fruition. On top of the priority list? Getting topsoil ready for next year’s harvest.

“As every farmer will tell you, even though it may not be as visible, spring season requires a whole winter of preparation,” O’Hara says. “So that’s what we’ll be working on over these next months, with the neighborhood and community partners. The work begins when today is over.”

Photos by Andrew Giambrone