The wild, undeveloped piece of land behind Wheatley Middle School on San Antonio’s East Side was just a headache at best for the surrounding residents when they began asking Bexar County to do something with it more than four years ago.
When County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) took office in 2015, he had lots of ambitious plans, and one key goal was to make that 10-acre tract of wilderness into an attractive asset for the East Side.
Four years later Calvert is finally seeing that dream become a reality. He and architect Debra Dockery recently unveiled some of the first renderings for his plan to turn the land into a place he calls Greenies Urban Farm. Along with a farm, the green space will include an orchard, event venue, and a new location for Bexar County’s Texas A&M Agrilife Extension program.
The process of purchasing the land from Union Pacific Railroad has been years in the making, since before Calvert was elected, the commissioner said last week at an event hosted by the Urban Land Institute at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.
Residents of the area have long called the area the Goonies, Calvert said, in reference to the popular 1985 film that tells the story of a group of kids on a wild and sometimes dangerous adventure. That nickname inspired the name Calvert gave to the revitalization project.
“From the Goonies to the Greenies,” Calvert said. “We’re going to transform that overgrown area from scary to a harvest.”
A short distance west of the AT&T Center, the land faces Sherman Street, behind Wheatley Middle School, and is bordered on its backside by rail yards, with Menger Creek meandering across the property.
The timeline for the construction of Greenies is still uncertain as the architecture plans aren’t finalized yet, but the project could get underway within the next year. Calvert said it should be complete about 12 to 18 months after breaking ground.
“We have more than enough money to get it all done,” he said.
Purchasing the land from Union Pacific cost about $800,000, Calvert said, and Bexar County has allocated about $2 million from the general fund for creating the Greenies Urban Farm.
Relocating the Agrilife office from its current location on the North Side will save the county $20,000 a month, Calvert said. As agricultural experts, the staff will be invaluable partners in helping run the farm, but they won’t be solely in charge. The county is planning to hire an actual farmer, and Calvert said he’s already had discussions with some local farmers about the job.
Dockery has partnered with Bryan Mask of Dunaway Associates, which is working on the landscape architecture for the urban farm.
Dockery said she and Mask were excited to work on the project because they have both spent their lives living on farms and ranches and continue to work their love for land around their busy careers.
“We know that fewer children have had the opportunity we had to grow up with the land, understanding how the land feeds us and how our food arrives in the grocery store,” Dockery said. “The urban farm will be an important demonstration garden and possible incubator for folks who may become interested in farming.”
The space currently allocated for the farm and orchards is about 5 acres, Dockery said, making roughly 50 percent of the entire tract dedicated just to growing food.
What the county will do with the garden’s produce isn’t set in stone, but as with every other aspect, Calvert has lots of ideas, including sending some to the nearby clinic operated by the University Health System, selling to a possible on-site restaurant, and donating to a food bank or families who don’t have access or the ability to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We are in a food desert on the East Side,” Calvert said. “And so there’s an element that we want to be able to provide those who may not have a grocery store with fresh fruits and vegetables. Get them away from Cheetos, get them into fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Calvert also has hopes of incorporating livestock into the plans for the space, and reviving a 4H program.
“I’d like to have cows, horses, chickens. Maybe not pigs,” he said, laughing.
Calvert is planning for Greenies to be not only a place for education and recreation but also economic revitalization and showcasing the best that San Antonio and Texas, especially Texas vineyards, have to offer. He hopes some of the orchard can be used for wine grapes. Future educational offerings could include lessons on how to make beer or wine.
Not far south of Greenies is the Garcia Street Urban Farm, a 4.1-acre plot that will serve as an educational and food production hub operated by several partner organizations, including the San Antonio Housing Authority.
Urban farms have been popular in other parts of the country for years now, and have proven to be a powerfully attractive amenity, especially for younger people looking to become homeowners.
Scott Snodgrass and his partner Clayton Garrett created Agmenity, an urban farm design, installation, and management firm and see urban farms as moving past being a trend and becoming as essential to neighborhoods and master-planned communities as pools and community centers.
Agmenity currently manages the urban farm in the newer master-planned community of Harvest Green in the suburbs southwest of Houston. Snodgrass said as many as 53 percent of Harvest Green homeowners chose the neighborhood because of the appeal of the farm. It also has an unusually young demographic, with the majority of residents being under 35.
Garrett said people’s reasons for living near a farm or in a farm-themed neighborhood, known as an agrihood, can vary widely, and a lot of times just comes down to being a cool factor for many residents.
But regardless of whether they are choosing to live near a farm for health, nostalgia, or status, the urban farm is undeniably attractive to today’s homebuyers, and this could be good economic news for the Eastside neighborhoods around the Greenies farm.
“It’s actually the restoration of the bread basket of the city,” Calvert said. “The eastern half of the county is the bread basket of San Antonio. It is historic farmland.
“What’s old is becoming new again, and it is the rebalancing of a community that from the days of being on plantations as slaves to the present time has had a self-reliance on farming and living off the land, so it’s exciting to transfer such a legacy to many future generations.”