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Urban Farming Reaches for the Sky

Parking in San Francisco could get more expensive without early-bird discounts
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Parking in San Francisco could get more expensive without early-bird discounts
Commercial farmers eye rooftops, but height limits stand in the way

Urban farming is set to take on some of San Francisco’s sacred cows.

With little land available, commercial urban farmers are eyeing the city’s rooftops. But they’ll have to contend with San Francisco’s beloved height limits, which are often at the center of bitter development debates.

The for-profit Sky Vegetables is considering installing a large hydroponic vegetable operation on the top of a massive parking garage at 12th and Kissling streets in San Francisco. But the greenhouse would poke above the 50-foot height limit for the neighborhood.

The height limit issue is something that San Francisco officials will be talking about as they rewrite the antiquated zoning code to accommodate the growing urban farming movement this fall. The Bay Citizen reported last week on how two scrappy farmers — Brooke Budner and Caitlyn Galloway of Little City Gardens — pushed the city to start changing its laws to make it easier to farm in the city.

“It's something that we're looking into,” said AnMarie Rodgers, a city planner. “We would be very cautious with any amendments to the height controls to the city — they've been very carefully sculpted and the city is very attached to them.” San Francisco's growth-averse neighborhoods often recoil at large buildings and other exceptions to the city's height limits.

Sky Vegetables reflects the buzz around urban farming. It's based in Boston, and its president is a lawyer named Robert Fireman whose last business venture, Consumer Card Marketing, rode the popularity of gift and store cards. Currently, Sky is installing its first farm on top of an old shoe factory in Massachusetts. 

Although there are plenty of rooftop gardens, Fireman said that Sky is aiming for the big time. “You hear about rooftop farms, you know a little dirt on top of a hotel — that’s not us,” said Fireman.

Sky made a presentation to the San Francisco Planning Department earlier this year, explaining how it would grow lettuce, herbs and other vegetables in a greenhouse on top of the SoMa parking garage. Also included in the possible proposal: “green walls with corporate logos using bougainvilleas,” said planner Paul Lord — all-natural advertising that could get around the city’s strict sign ordinance, he joked.

Mike Yohay, who runs Cityscape Farms in San Francisco, is also looking into commercial rooftop greenhouse farming. His version would use aquaponics, a method of farming in which vegetables are grown in water full of fish waste that’s circulated from fish tanks. Cityscape plans on using catfish and bluegills to fertilize the crops.

Yohay said that he’s looking at various locations now, including rooftops in the city.

“It’s a great location, in a sense, because there’s no shade, you’re not worried about pests,” said Yohay. “It’s just a part of the city that’s underused, so why not convert it into a productive area? Plus we pay rent, and someone can monetize space that’s not being used right now.”

There are downsides of commercial farming on the rooftops. One is the weight on the buildings when it comes to earthquake safety. The other is height. Yohay said he hopes the city takes rooftop gardening into account when coming up with the new rules.

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