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Urban Sprawl Encroaching on the Last Farm in San Francisco

Times Staff Writer

The city has grown up around San Francisco’s last sliver of agriculture. Passenger trains running through a half-mile tunnel built beneath the farm in 1907 rattle the herbs a bit. Exhaust from cars traveling the street--once a little-used dirt road--that runs by the farm has scarred the lettuce in the past.

But until recently, it seemed that the three-acre Demattei family farm was resistant to the factors that closed down hundreds of other farms that once colored the city’s landscape.

Now the farm, since 1962 the city’s last, faces an uncertain future.

Three brothers fresh from Italy--James, Louis and Antonio Demattei--started the farm in 1902. In the face of rising real estate values, about two dozen of their offspring sold the single acre they still owned four months ago to a developer.

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The family continues to cultivate the other two acres, land over the tunnel owned by Southern Pacific Transportation Co., and a city-owned strip designated as an undeveloped street that represents a third of the farm. The family plants two kinds of lettuce, Italian spinach, radishes, leeks, chives, parsley, tarragon, rosemary, oregano, mustard greens and lots of sweet basil.

But an urban gardening group may force the Dematteis off part of this land to maintain it as farmland and prevent major development there.

Gaehwiler Construction Co. paid $375,000 for the Dematteis’ acre. The builder hoped to put homes on the site and sell them for $250,000 each. The plan called for paving part of the undeveloped street, and the total development would have meant the loss of half the original three acres.

San Francisco supervisors killed that idea last week, voting unanimously to permit only low-cost senior citizen housing to be built on the Gaehwiler acre, a plan designed to permit farming to continue on 90% of the land. The final decision lies with the Planning Commission, which is expected to adhere to the supervisors’ vote.

Developer Martin Gaehwiler Jr. has noted that “we’re not farmers” and that he is not interested in building senior citizen housing. He has said the company plans to hold onto the land until it gets the rezoning and building permits necessary to build the 18 homes he originally envisioned. “If (the houses) don’t get approved, maybe in 10 years they will,” he said. “The land will always be there.”

The San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), which tried unsuccessfully to buy the farm last year, has applied for permission to farm on the undeveloped street. The league may have an advantage over the Dematteis, who never bothered to seek city permission to farm on the street land.

“Either you have to negotiate a lease for use of city land or you have to cease and desist,” said Vincent Marsh, a city planner. The city’s Department of Public Works is considering SLUG’s application.

Would Donate Produce

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SLUG Executive Director Jay Kilbourn said he was pleased by the supervisors’ vote. His group doesn’t want to force the Dematteis off the land, he said, but it will pursue the permits.

“We’re an advocate of quality living, plenty of open space, rather than densely packed housing and more of the rat race,” he said, adding that SLUG would open the farm to school groups and neighbors, and donate produce from the land to the San Francisco Food Bank.

Kilbourn alleged that the only reason the family continues to farm the remaining land is to make the planned Gaehwiler development more palatable to the Planning Commission.

Ernest Demattei, the family spokesman, dismissed Kilbourn’s claim, saying: “There’s big money in vegetables now, but you have to work for it.”

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The family will continue farming the site, in the Bayview District about a mile from Candlestick Park, as long as it makes money, he said. If the league gets permission to farm the undeveloped street, the family would be entitled to farm only the land leased from the railroad.

Records of Southern Pacific Transportation Co. show one Demattei or another holding leases to work its land at least since 1947, and paying a nominal rent for the privilege. According to Jim Horstman, the railroad’s area manager, “it keeps the weeds down.” The railroad says it is not possible to develop the land above the railroad tunnel.

In fact, the soil over the tunnel is sandy and very tillable--perfect for farming, according to Demattei, whose father, James, ran the farm until he died last year.

“It always supported three families nicely, plus the workers,” he said. His father’s share of the farm income was about $30,000 a year, even after he retired from active management. (Family members do not live on the land, although many have homes nearby.)

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Demattei’s uncle Louis, the last survivor of the brothers who started the farm, suffered a heart attack in early June. His daughters now direct operations, although most of the work is performed by five migrant farm workers.


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