By Shelby White September 28, 2018 at 3:00 AM
Central Pennsylvania Business Journal

Corey Fogarty envisioned vegetable gardens growing atop parking garages operated by the Lancaster Parking Authority.

When Fogarty pitched his idea in 2016, the authority liked it but told him it needed the space for cars.

By 2017, Fogarty, board president of the Lancaster Urban Farming Initiative, had a new idea: a vertical greenhouse, one that rises up rather than spreading out.

It was suggested to him by former Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray, who had seen a picture of one in Wyoming. Gray asked Fogarty if he could build something similar in Lancaster, Fogarty said.

“I said, ‘Yeah, if you give us the property, sure,’” Fogarty said.

If all goes according to plan, a hydroponic vertical greenhouse could open in the city by fall 2020 on a sliver of land along West Orange Street in front of the Prince Street garage.

The Lancaster Urban Farming Initiative is developing the nearly $17 million project in partnership with local firms and Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole in Wyoming.

“This wasn’t even something that really was anticipated in anyone’s long-term plans,” said Larry Cohen, executive director of the Lancaster Parking Authority. But, he added: “It will just be another unique, interesting dynamic for folks to see in the city.”

Planting seeds

Gray once received an unsolicited architectural rendering of townhomes on the vacant parcel next to the Prince Street garage, Cohen said.

The land, though, didn’t have enough room for townhomes, Cohen said.

But it had potential for something else.

Gray asked Cohen if the city could include the parcel of land in its strategic plan, in hopes of making use of it.

“And I was like of course. Why not?” Cohen said. “This is a massive parking garage, so something that could go in front of it to break that up and provide something more sidewalk-worthy would be terrific.”

Gray ended up telling Fogarty to use the vacant lot between the Prince Street garage and the sidewalk. The lot, Cohen said, runs about a city block and is currently being used for water run-off.

Fogarty pitched the vertical greenhouse to Cohen and the parking authority board in 2017.

“I said, ‘Wow that’s making use of unusable land. That’s kind of genius,’” Cohen said.

But at that time, Cohen said, one thing was missing.

“We said, ‘How are you going to pay for this thing? How is this thing going to function like a business? I mean, how much money can you make selling lettuce?’” Cohen said.

He told Fogarty to go back to the drawing board and come back when he had financing in place.

“He spent the next year really pounding the pavement getting funding in line for the project,” Cohen said.

Fogarty came back this summer with financing in place. It includes private equity, state grants and help from banks, Fogarty said. He declined to disclose the amount.

The Lancaster Parking Authority approved plans to lease the vacant land to the Lancaster Urban Farming Initiative, Cohen said.

Details of the lease remain to be negotiated, Cohen said, but the parking authority will retain ownership. He noted that the parking authority will most likely lease the land for free.

While he believes Fogarty has a tight business plan, Cohen still wants to have a plan in place if the project doesn’t prove successful.

Hopefully the vertical greenhouse is successful, he said. But if it isn’t, the structure will need to have the ability to be transformed into something else, like an office building, for example.

The Lancaster Urban Farming Initiative is building on the work of Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole, among the first projects of its kind in the U.S.

Stacked for growth

Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole is among the first farms in the U.S. to stack three greenhouses on top of one another.

The stacking allows Vertical Harvest to create three micro-climates and grow a range of crops, including tomatoes, lettuces, chives, radishes and micro-greens such as chives, chervil and cilantro.

The greenhouse was built, in part, to address Jackson Hole’s short, four-month growing season – and to address the town’s 78 percent unemployment rate for people with physical and developmental disabilities, said Nona Yehia, co-founder and CEO of Vertical Harvest.

A town councilman had shown Yehia and her business partners a 0.1 acre property in 2009, suggesting that they build a greenhouse there. It runs alongside a parking garage, like the piece of land being used in Lancaster, Yehia said.

“I think he thought we would put in a one-story hoop house and extend the growing season and employ a few people,” said Yehia, who was a partner at an architecture firm at the time.

But Yehia and her team wanted to employ as many people as possible, grow as much food as possible and do both year-round.

“And that’s where the idea to go up came from,” Yehia said.

Construction began on the Jackson Hole greenhouse in 2015. It opened in 2016 at an overall cost of $3.8 million in all – a fraction of the roughly $17 million cost of the greenhouse in Lancaster.

Vertical Harvest grows 10 acres worth of food year-round and employs 16 people with disabilities.

“My whole life I’ve been very aware of our capacity as a culture and a society to nurture and be inclusive with this population,” Yehia said. “Finding meaningful, consistent, inclusive work at a livable and competitive wage is very difficult.”

The Lancaster Urban Farming Initiative reached out to Vertical Harvest two years ago for help with replicating its model, Yehia said.

At the time, however, Yehia and her team were not fully confident that the model was scalable and replicable, she said.

But now they are. And the knowledge gained in Wyoming will come in handy on the Lancaster project, which also will employ people with disabilities.

“We’ve covered the whole gamut of how to bring one of these projects from inception to reality to success in terms of identifying the goals that we want to achieve and achieving them,” Yehia said.

Her hope, she said, is that a model like Vertical can become part of the infrastructure for any urban community.

“Yes, there’s farming happening all around the urban center,” Yehia said. “But can you bring farming to the urban center? And is that important? And I think that this project is saying yes. Both of those things are important.”