LDS Church will spare a Salt Lake City community garden

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeff Porucznik walks around the Salt Lake City community garden where he and his family have grown fruits and vegetables for years. The LDS church has changed its plans to pave the garden for parking, likely sparing half the 1.5-acre lot.

One of Salt Lake City’s oldest community gardens has won at least a partial reprieve from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ plans to pave the 1.5-acre field for a parking lot.

Those plans sparked fierce pushback from residents of the historic neighborhood near the University of Utah.

Church officials believe the 33rd Ward meetinghouse, which is home to three Latter-day Saint congregations under a recent reorganization, can get by with far fewer parking stalls than they originally anticipated, according to church spokeswoman Irene Caso.

"This adjustment will allow for more than half of the vacant lot to remain accessible to the neighborhood for gardening. The future parking requirements of the building will continue to be evaluated as needed," Caso said. "The church hopes this gardening tradition will continue for the foreseeable future, growing both produce and neighborhood relationships.”

Gardening at the site west of Rice-Eccles Stadium sprouted from a 1976 General Conference sermon by then-church President Spencer W. Kimball instructing the faithful to grow their own food.

“Berry bushes, grapevines, fruit trees — plant them if your climate is right for their growth. Grow vegetables and eat them from your own yard,” Kimball counseled. “...Study the best methods of providing your own foods. Make your garden neat and attractive as well as productive. If there are children in your home, involve them in the process with assigned responsibilities.”

Congregants took those words to heart and converted an old ballfield behind the 33rd Ward, at 453 S. 1100 East, into what became and thrived as the Outreach Community Garden.

The church’s flexibility elated Esther Hunter, chairwoman of Salt Lake City’s East Central Community Council, who helped mediate between gardeners and the church.

“They have been awesome. It has been rewarding. It has been a win-win, collaborative process,” Hunter said. “We are not done. There are a lot more things to discuss.”

Church officials will discuss the revised parking plans at Thursday’s community council meeting at 7 p.m. in Judge Memorial Catholic High School.

Driving the need for additional parking is the shift resulting in three east-side Latter-day Saint wards meeting in the 33rd Ward building. Church membership in Utah’s capital is dwindling, forcing it to adjust wards in the very city where the religion took root in the West 172 years ago. Accordingly, the historic University and Douglas wards, each with about 350 members, will now use the 33rd Ward building at staggered meeting times.

Gardeners, who had previously been under an order to remove their belongings and equipment from the property by Dec. 31, packed a November community council meeting to present possible solutions that could solve the church’s parking crunch, while saving the garden. Some were displeased that the church had not queried the ward members about their willingness to forgo driving to worship services and other measures that would reduce the need for parking.

According to Hunter, a 33rd Ward member, local lay leaders have since been seeking members’ views. She noticed more congregants walking to services after the garden dispute arose.

Garden leaders expressed relief at this week's news and praised the church's willingness to save as much of the garden as possible.

“We are pleased that the church has recognized the value that community gardens bring to the community,” said longtime gardener Jeff Barrett, "and we hope that our engagement going forward will build relationships and lead to an outcome that the church, the gardeners and the neighborhood can be proud of for decades to come.”

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