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Sunnyside Residents and Property Owner Come Together to Turn Empty Lot into Composting Site

The new composting site on 45th Street, located between 43rd and Skillman Avenues (Courtesy of the 45th Street Composters)

Oct. 21, 2020 By Allie Griffin

A group of Sunnyside residents, a local nonprofit organization and a property owner have all come together to turn an empty lot into a composting site.

The ad hoc group of residents— who go by the name of the 45th Street Composters are collecting food scraps at an empty lot on 45th Street, located between 43rd and Skillman Avenues.

The Sunnysiders decided to start the venture after the city’s food scraps collection program fell victim to COVID-19 budget cuts.

The property owner and the composters came together despite a rocky start. The initiative was prompted after some of the 45th Street Composters — as part of a self-described band of “guerilla gardeners” — broke into the privately-owned lot in June and took it upon themselves to use it as a composting site and garden.

Despite the trespassing episode and an initial tense exchange, the owner of the lot, BH Village LLC, was willing to set up an agreement with the composters if Sunnyside Community Services (SCS) could come onboard.

The three groups have been in talks since June and last week a deal was officially struck.

SCS signed a one-year lease for the empty lot on behalf of the composters, who were given a key to the lot on Oct. 13.

“I’m just thrilled because to me it felt like a negative that turned into a positive,” said Judy Zangwill, Executive Director of SCS. “I just think it’s a great story about how people in the community came together to make something positive happen.”

The property owner and longtime Sunnysider Harry Otterman came to the negotiating table after some prompting from his nephew who works for Norcor Management, the company that manages the lot.

Otterman wanted to be a good neighbor but didn’t know much about composting. However, his nephew Michael Otterman is an avid composter.

The younger Otterman was sympathetic to the group of Sunnysiders as he too wanted a place to drop his food scraps amid budget cuts to the Department of Sanitation.

The Department has indefinitely suspended its brown bins collection and closed several of its drop-off sites due to cuts spurred by the pandemic.

“I was personally affected by the Department of Sanitation moratorium on compost and I was trying to come up with solutions in my own little world, in my own family,” Otterman said. “All that’s to say that I understood the problem because I was dealing with that problem myself as someone who likes to compost.”

The property manager spoke to his uncle about what they could do. The elder Otterman said he would agree to the composters using his empty lot if Sunnyside Community Services could be a part of the negotiations.

“There was no other community group that we felt comfortable proceeding with,” Michael Otterman said. “[SCS] was really our first and only choice for a partner to make this composting site happen.”

Norcor Management then worked with Zangwill, a friend of the Harry Otterman, to broker a deal. The management company’s lawyers came together with SCS’ lawyers to form a lease and memorandum from scratch.

(Courtesy of the 45th Street Composters)

The lease allows the 45th Street Composters to use the site to collect food scraps and create compost for a year, with the option to renew for another six months. SCS will pay $10 a month to rent the land, as an official lease requires a monetary payment.

The younger Otterman dropped off his own food scraps along with keys to the gate last Tuesday.

“I’m very proud that we were able to work together to provide up to a year and a half of community composting,” he said. “It’s my hope that the lease term will cover the shutdown of the curbside pickup.”

The compost site has proved popular among Sunnysiders.

The compost group has already built a mailing list that has about 200 people on it and there are about 50 people who regularly communicate on a Slack channel about the site, said Kristina Baines, one of the organizers with the 45th Street Composters.

Baines, an anthropology professor who lives nearby, said the composting site has really been an effort by the community for the community.

“I think it started out as just a place to compost since the city took away composting,” she said. “But it has grown into a group with shared values of how community can come together and work together to keep our waste in the community.”

Food scraps can be dropped off to the 45th Street lot every Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. In the springtime, the composters will also do some plantings in containers.

The lot — together with the Sunnyside Community Garden on Barnett Avenue — collect up to 2,000 pounds of food scraps each week, Baines said.

(Courtesy of the 45th Street Composters)

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