The community garden across the street from First Presbyterian Church has helped feed 30 families for six years, yielding 2,000 pounds of fresh food with every harvest.
But the church is also trying to grow, in its landlocked Near South location a few blocks from the Capitol.
“We want to be a downtown church in the neighborhood, staying in the neighborhood, serving the neighborhood, doing our ministry in the neighborhood,” said Alicia Henderson, a member of First Presbyterian’s governing body.
Space is tight. The church already has three parking lots — two alongside its building, one across 17th Street — to serve its 325 members. When it hosts a bigger event, a funeral or wedding or concert, its guests are forced to search the streets for open spots, or park more than a block away at McPhee Elementary School, Henderson said.
So the church has come up with a plan to keep a garden growing and add 20 parking places closer to its front door.
First, it will demolish a pair of century-old houses, one of them the 4,000-square-foot former home of a state auditor. Then, at the end of this year’s growing season, it will move the garden from 18th and F streets to 17th and F, where the houses now stand, and pave its old location.
The idea started taking shape late last year, when the homes at 919 S. 17th and 1637 F St. went on the market.
“They’re in very poor shape. We thought this would be a place where we could have the community gardens and not lose beautiful houses,” Henderson said. “Because they’re not beautiful.”
The homes have leaky roofs, water damage, peeling paint and falling plaster. The bigger of the two — once home to Thomas Benton, Nebraska’s auditor in the early 1890s — was divided into apartments.
Neither is in a national or local historic district, so they’re not subject to review or protection. They’ve been altered so much they probably wouldn’t qualify for historic designation, said Ed Zimmer, the city’s historic preservation planner.
They’ve also been the source of 18 police calls in the past five years, with officers investigating disturbances, larceny, littering and child abuse.
Still, the church, which paid $112,500 for the properties earlier this month, is sensitive to its surroundings. The Near South Neighborhood Association was formed in the 1970s to protect its old and historic homes, which were being razed and replaced by apartment buildings.
Henderson and Ben McShane-Jewell, executive director of Community Crops, presented the plan to the neighborhood association’s board Monday night.
The association is familiar with the homes, and familiar with First Presbyterian’s longtime role in the neighborhood, said Vish Reddi, the association’s president.
The group doesn’t have any official jurisdiction, so it didn’t take any formal action. But it generally supports the plan, Reddi said.
“There’s no other alternative at this point but to take them down. We are comfortable with what First Presbyterian presented to us.”
Board member Marcie Young is generally in favor of the idea, but she knows some association members don’t want houses to disappear. That’s part of the trade-off of living in a densely populated neighborhood in the center of the city, she said.
“We want green space, we want parking, we want affordable housing. You can’t have all of those things, because there’s no land. We have to work in the confines of what we’ve got.”
That’s how the garden started. First Presbyterian originally bought the land for parking, but never developed it. In 2011, it partnered with Community Crops and Jacob’s Well, a faith-based nonprofit that serves those in need in the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of demand in that neighborhood for this program,” McShane-Jewell said. “A lot of apartment-dwellers, people with limited access to fresh produce.”
The neighborhood association helps sponsor the garden, and it pledged another $500 Monday, Young said.
She’s grateful the church is spending so much to save a piece of green space. The homes and their demolition will cost about $200,000.
It could have just paved over the garden, or bought the homes for even more parking.
“They could have said, ‘Sorry, guys; we need this parking. Too bad, so sad.’ But they didn’t. They’re being good neighbors.”