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LOCKPORT – An Erie County group with big ideas about how gardening could help Lockport’s most run-down neighborhood may get a chance to put its plans into practice soon.

Imagine Community Gardens is seeking to convert three vacant lots on Washburn Street into public gardens this spring.

The city Zoning Board of Appeals granted the variances for the plan Tuesday.

The city Planning Board will consider the project Monday, and the Common Council may vote at Wednesday’s meeting to call a public hearing on a special-use permit, which would likely be held at the March 20 meeting.

Imagine is a nonprofit organization that chose Lockport for its pilot project because some of its members are also members of the Chapel at CrossPoint, the Amherst megachurch whose Lockport branch holds Sunday services in the Historic Palace Theatre.

Both Chapels are involved in the project to the extent of having some members claim space in the gardens, working last month alongside residents of the Lockport neighborhood designated as a high-crime Impact Zone by Mayor Michael W. Tucker.

The founder of Imagine, Robert J. Zima of East Amherst, is a Chapel member.

“We’re a company that wants to connect suburban churches to city churches,” said Zima, who lived in Lockport for 25 years.

“We only happen to be using our contacts,” said gardening expert Richard M. Tedeschi of Buffalo, owner of Jacrist Gardening Services of Clarence.

Imagine has signed purchase contracts on three adjoining lots on the west side of Washburn Street, numbered 221, 225 and 227, near the Harrison Place business complex, according to Imagine’s attorney, Thomas H. Brandt.

One is owned by the city, one by a Toronto woman and the third by Donald G. Kaufman, who also owns the Washburn Street Meat Market across the street.

Kaufman said that he bought 221 Washburn as a parking lot for his business but that he paved only half of the 40-by-90-foot lot. Now he will sell the unpaved half to Imagine.

He said he’s in favor of “anything that can help that neighborhood, spruce up that corner. They’ve been cracking down in that whole area with the Imapct Zone, and it’s working. This is going to be a big help to that neighborhood and to the city.”

“You’re going into an area that is challenged, to say the least. I’m worried about security,” said Allan W. Jack of the Zoning Board.

Tedeschi, a Chapel at CrossPoint member, said that a 4-foot-high chain-link fence will surround the garden, mainly to keep animals out.

The plan includes the construction of a 40-square-foot toolshed, Brandt said.

Zima said there will be 25 garden plots in all, measuring 4 by 12 feet: 15 for residents of Washburn Street, Evans Street and Elmwood Avenue, and 10 for Chapel members, half from the Lockport branch and the other half from Lockport residents who attend the Amherst location.

The plots will be subdivided into groupings of five, where three local families and two church families will presumably meet and bond over gardening.

“We want them to take ownership. This is their garden,” Zima said. But Imagine will provide all the seeds and seedlings for free, and pay the insurance and other costs, such as providing a drip irrigation system. In all, about $35,000 is being invested in the project, Zima said.

Tedeschi said he has created three gardening themes of flowers, vegetables and herbs.

Working with a Niagara County master gardener to be lined up by Cornell Cooperative Extension agent John A. Farfaglia, growers will use organic fertilizers and high-yield varieties to be chosen by Tedeschi.

Organic topsoil is being donated by C.J. Krantz of Clarence, and Dawn E. Trippie of Thompson Bros., another Clarence business, will provide the plants, Tedeschi said.

The gardens will be planted in raised beds a foot above the actual ground level. Tedeschi said the specially chosen plants and soil should produce consistent results.

Barbara Clawson-Cole of Buffalo, executive director of Imagine, said the not-for-profit group has notions of creating other gardens in 2014.

Zima said that there might be another in Lockport, one in Niagara Falls and three in Erie County.

Clawson-Cole said Imagine intends to work with Greenprint, a Niagara University group that she said has been given five acres of vacant lots in Niagara Falls by the city.

Imagine also will look for churches to partner with in the communities where it expands.

In Lockport, Imagine teams will go door-to-door in April to look for Impact Zone families who want to garden.

“The participants have to agree to give 10 percent [of the produce] back to the community,” Zima said. Applicants who miss out on being among the 15 families chosen for garden plots will receive the “first fruits,” he said.

The gardeners also will be offered instruction in how to properly cook and preserve veggies, workshops that also will be open to the general public, Zima said.

“Community gardens are huge all over the nation. It reduces crime,” Zima said. And they also address the issue of a lack of fresh produce in stores in poor urban areas.

“I live in that area,” Jack said, “dnd I’m really excited by it.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com