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Stalled NYC construction site becomes urban farm

Stalled NYC construction site becomes urban farm

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A real estate developer and restaurateur team up--using innovation and 6,000 plants--to create Riverpark Farm.

What to do with thousands of square feet of real estate where construction is on hold? Plant okra and eggplant, of course.

The Riverpark Farm at Alexandria Center was created this summer through a partnership between the Riverpark restaurant and the Alexandria Center for Life Science—New York City. The 15,000-square-foot farm is located at 430 East 29th St., in the future site of Alexandria Center’s west tower, where construction was temporarily suspended due to lack of financing.

Last week I spoke with Sisha Ortuzar, a Riverpark partner and co-founder of the farm, about the innovations used to keep the farm mobile, how New Yorkers can dine on fresh vegetables in the middle of the farm, and the one crop he’d like to plant, but can’t.

You’ve built an urban farm in an empty lot. How many of these sites are available in New York City?

There are over 600. It’s called the Stalled Sites Program. Because so many real estate plans were slowed down or stopped, instead of letting developers lose their permits, this program gives you a couple years to pause the development until financing can be obtained. You can do anything with this land until you’re ready to develop.

This plot of land eventually will be a building, so we wanted to do something that was temporary. So if we did a farm, it had to be able to be put up quickly and moved quickly when the tower went up. So we couldn’t put soil down like a traditional rooftop garden.

How did you end up partnering with Alexandria?

We approached them when we were first working on the restaurant at the Alexander Center. My partner Jeffrey [Zurofsky] sits on the board of Grow NYC, which is a nonprofit in the mayor’s office that runs all the green markets. We’d been trying to think about finding a rooftop. When we were doing Riverpark at Alexandria Center, there was a big plot of land that wasn’t being used at the time so Jeffery brought out the idea of doing a temporary urban garden. The Alexandria Center will be three towers eventually. The plan was to open two at the same time. but because of the economic downturn—this was in 2008--they just opened one. But the floor plan for the second tower is already laid out; so there’s this big clear space that’s ready for the tower to come in.

Grow NYC served as farm advisors. We hooked up with a design firm called Ore. Our challenge was to build a farm that’s movable and highly productive. They came up with a system that involved milk crates lined with a landscaping fabric that allows water retention and air circulation. Then we filled them up with soil and seeded them.

We pulled the trigger on it in May and planted everything in the milk crates in upstate New York. So we got the permits in July and we brought all the crates down--at 5 a.m., 11 trucks pulled up with 7,000 milk crates. Half are filled with soil and half go on the bottom because they’re elevated. We did some construction so people can see what’s going on inside—without having it open to the public—and we built a table for dinners.

How will the dinners work?

We’re starting on the 19th. We’re going to be doing family style dinners where we’re serving the food we’re growing at the farm, supplemented with protein from other farmer friends. The table seats 12, and it’s going to be casual and focused on the food we’re growing.

Tell me more about the innovation behind using milk crates to grow the vegetables.

The design team really looked at how we would design the perfect vessel to do this. I think if you got the best scientists and NASA engineers together, they also would have come up with a milk crate. It’s one cubic foot, which is about twice as deep as some rooftop gardens. They are super space efficient, no wasted room, they stack perfectly, they have handles on all sides, they’re cheap, and they’re easy to find.

Corn is the one thing I’d like to grow that we can’t now because it requires something deeper. But we have okra plants that are six feet tall. We have plants growing in 3,500 crates, but with radishes and carrots, there are several plants to a crate. So we have about 6,000 plants.

What does it cost to set up and run?

It’s a little early to tell. But because we’re doing it in partnership we have the use of the land. In a city like New York, that’s the number one expense. If a farm like this has to pay rent, it’s not going to happen. Other than that, it’s water and the farmers. We bought the crates from a company that makes milk crates from recycled plastic. Because we’re using the vegetables and herbs in the restaurant, we’re offsetting those costs. At a minimum, we know it’s not an added expense.

What happened with Irene?

We were in Zone A, and they did mandatory evacuation of Zone A. So Friday afternoon, we moved the crates inside the restaurant and ‘Witchcraft. So it was a huge effort but totally worth it because some of the plants that got left outside didn’t make it.

How many square feet do you have?

It’s a 15,000-square-foot footprint. Half of it is the showpiece portion and the other half is behind a wall and that’s where we do the nursery activities like turning the soil and composting.

How long will you be able to stay at this site?

We know at a minimum we have the full next season. Basically this is going to go until there is an anchor tenant for the new tower. We’re doing this with the anticipation that we can do it for a couple good seasons. We can dismantle and redistribute it somewhere else. Once the tower goes up we’ll find a permanent location for it.

It’s an experiment—to see how productive it is, how well it will do, how much people like it. So far they are really exited about it

How much is the garden yielding?

We have between 80 and 100 varieties of plants that include eight varieties of tomatoes, and six varieties of eggplant. We’re growing all the greens for the restaurant—salad and cooking greens, all the herbs, bell peppers and spicy peppers. We had too many peppers at one point, so we’ve been drying and smoking them to preserve for winter. We were harvesting between 50 and 100 cucumbers per day when it was really hot this summer.

It seems like this could be replicated pretty easily in some of the other open lots. Have you heard from developers interested in doing this?

We’re doing this because we wanted to create food for the restaurant and create a better environment here but we think it could be easy to replicate. It doesn’t have to be an ornate garden with deck and table like we have. One of the biggest expenses is labor. We have two farmers who take care of the plants. But if you get communities involved and people who are passionate about having fresh vegetables, you could easily build support for it.

In the middle of the city, do you worry about pollution?

That was a concern, and we did a lot of research. We spoke to a professor at Cornell who deals a lot with this and they thought what we were doing was completely safe. The biggest concern when you’re doing agriculture in urban environments is the soil. So we’re not using New York City soil. We’re using soil from upstate.

And the air in New York City, we found, is a lot better than you’d think, and it doesn’t really affect the plants. The only time you would be concerned is with leafy greens, but we’re harvesting everything at such a young age, you don’t have to worry about that. I feel like if the air is good enough to breathe, I don't know why it wouldn’t be good enough for the plants. But I’m not a scientist.

Photos: Ari Nuzzo

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure