Weeding out murals

In the ongoing battle between the Capital Area Development Authority (CADA) and those who tend the Mandella Community Gardens, the latest skirmish is over art and freedom of speech.

CADA has removed the murals painted by the people at the garden, citing two reasons: it was illegal for the gardens to post signs with no sign permit, and the signs were deteriorating. Tom Kigar at CADA said he asked the gardeners to remove the signs themselves or he would have them removed.

“The signs create a hazard and are unattractive,” he said, “although attractiveness is subjective. But as landlords, we’re just enforcing the lease.”

He said the gardeners could get a sign permit, something he said they have not requested. But according to Rita Gonzales, a supporter of the gardens, they have requested a signature from CADA needed for the permit application, but CADA declined that request.

“It’s our First Amendment right to put these signs up, and that right should not be taken away,” she said. “Most of the murals reflected people’s feelings about having the garden taken away.”

The 75-plot community garden has operated since 1971, but most of it is slated to be removed in the next year to make way for the Fremont Mews Project, which will include 95 condominium units. Some of the garden will remain on site, but most will be relocated.

CADA’s proposal, the Garden Preservation and Relocation Plan, intends to preserve 37 percent of the garden space as is and relocate the other 63 percent to a nearby lot, somewhere within 10 blocks of the present location.

“CADA talks about creating a win-win situation, where they would divide up the gardens and develop part of it,” Gonzalez said. “But if they divide the gardens up, it will no longer be self-sustainable. It’s all or nothing, and there is no in-between.”

She is one of the many vocal activists who have been fighting plans to develop the site for years. Emotions on the issue run high, and many of the frustrations of the gardeners were expressed on the now-removed murals.

In addition to expressing their feelings, the murals were a way to communicate what was happening to the garden. She estimated that collectively the murals represented at least 30 hours of work done by people in the community and members of the garden.

Located on Q Street between 14th and 15th streets, Mandella Community Gardens is many things: a place to grow food, a community gathering place, a sanctuary, and a memorial to its namesake, Ron Mandella.

She explained that the garden is home to 45 fruit trees, two owl families and a small bat population, all of which would be destroyed even by partial development. Several meetings and events have been held at the site over the last week as a last-ditch effort to call attention to the issue.

CADA’s board will discuss the sign issue at a meeting on December 21.