As we near the end of Downtown Greens’ 25th year, I wanted to share a story from the beginning of the organization. This story is about the nail-biting acquisition, through absolute auction in 1999, of the Upper Garden, which is the property located on the corner of Princess Anne and Dixon Streets.
I spoke to Lisa Biever (cofounder of Downtown Greens with Laura Shepherd) about the purchase of the land. To set the stage: Downtown Greens had been around for four years, two of those years as an official nonprofit.
Lisa Biever: “It was the early days and the Lower Garden was thriving. We were definitely getting momentum and we had started conversations about how to acquire the property at the Lower Garden because Downtown Greens didn’t own any of that either. We were a whole organization built on the people that own the land just being agreeable to us using it.”
THE UPPER GARDEN
“One day there was just a huge real estate sign in the ground,” Lisa recalls. The land, now known as the Upper Garden, had been approved for 18 townhouses.
“We were already testing water quality at Hazel Run which is right there. So we were thinking that development would not be the best thing for an already challenged water ecosystem. We decided to do something and Laura Shepherd is so good at momentum and drive. We decided we’d just do this fundraising campaign. So we made this prospectus and we would just go out and ring doorbells like we were selling Girl Scout cookies or something.”
The day of the auction arrived. Lisa and Laura (with the expert auction presence of Bill Beck) and several other hopeful buyers were there. I spoke briefly to one of those auction-goers who stuck out in Lisa’s head as a key reason that Downtown Greens ended up with the property. “I tell you what my heart, it was a heart-pounding event”
That aforementioned auction-goer approached Lisa and asked her what their top bid was. She told him and he assured her that he wouldn’t outbid them if nobody else did. He believed in the project and wanted to help. The bidding started and Downtown Greens got up to their upper limit and there was silence. NOBODY outbid them. Lisa continues: “Joe Wilson could have bought it and he chose to let it go to the Garden.”
And that is how they won the property: with the pledges and trust of many people in the community. Today you will find 1.74 acres of park-like open space instead of 18 townhouses.
“The first thing we did was we painted that big auction sign. We painted a big Thank You on it, and that’s Laura Shepherd, that was the first thing in her mind.”
As I look at all of the things that Downtown Greens’ open space provides, I am so grateful for the early supporters and the early organizers for seeing the wealth of opportunity and benefit that the upper garden space could bring to the entire community. Today it is helping to control runoff into Hazel Run--a tributary to the Rappahannock River, creating habitat for wildlife, providing a space for the community to enjoy for their mental health, wellness, and connection to nature.
Now the entire Downtown Greens property is under a conservation easement with the Land Trust of Virginia that protects it from development in perpetuity. If you want to learn more about Downtown Greens visit our revamped website www.downtowngreens.org
Written by Sarah Perry, Executive Director of Downtown Greens
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