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Housing Authority dresses up neighborhoods
Fockele Garden Company installation crew members Ramiro Juarez, 30, below, and Antonio Pantoja, 27, install a cistern at Lanier Terrace Apartments Monday. The cistern is a rain water holding tank that filters gutter water and stores the water for landscaping purposes. The cistern ultimately saves on city water use. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Residents of Gainesville Housing Authority apartments have noticed the grass getting greener on their sides of the sidewalk.

Angela Harbin, a resident of Spring Street Apartments on Jesse Jewell Parkway, noted the new view from her front porch Tuesday.

"That’s the first time, you know, we’ve had flowers," Harbin said.

Harbin has already taken it upon herself to water the garden that Fockele Garden Co. installed as a part of the Gainesville Housing Authority’s Curb Appeal project this week, and soon she will be one of the resident volunteers in charge of the garden’s maintenance.

Fockele Garden Co. recently installed landscapes in portions of five of the Gainesville Housing Authority’s apartment complexes across the city as part of a multiyear project that is intended to improve the look of the areas and get the residents involved in taking care of the property, said Julie Evans, vice president and co-owner of Fockele Garden Co.

The garden company planted about 30 to 40 different plants at the Housing Authority’s Spring Street, Butler, Atlanta Street, Melrose and Harrison Square apartments this month.

The plants were chosen based on their drought tolerance, long blooming seasons and residents’ requests for flower color and shade trees, said Evans, who was the lead designer on the project.

"We’ve had a really positive response from the Housing Authority and residents," she said. Judith Escamilla, executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority, said she has been planning the project ever since she started working in Gainesville two and a half years ago.

"I think it’s important for us to enhance and be a good neighbor to the communities in which we’re in. ... I would want us to have a positive impact in the neighborhoods where we’re at," Escamilla said.

"We don’t want to be an eyesore of the city. We want to be representative of other neighborhoods."

In a regular survey Housing Authority residents take, residents said they noticed there were trees, bushes and playgrounds in other neighborhoods in the city, Escamilla said.

"Our apartments didn’t have many of those things," Escamilla said.

Because of funding limitations, the Housing Authority decided to improve the apartment complexes in sections. This year, the authority spent about $70,000 improving the aesthetics of the neighborhoods, Escamilla said.

Along with improving the aesthetic value of the city’s Housing Authority, the project also promotes water conservation. Fockele Garden Co. is installing nine 1,100 gallon rainwater harvest tanks in the five apartment complexes that will be used to catch rainwater and irrigate the gardens.

"In a 1- to 2-inch rain, we could easily collect 1,100 gallons of water off one of the roofs from a standard building," Evans said.

Along with being eco-friendly, the rainwater harvest tanks will make it possible for the Housing Authority to sustain the landscaping project in a time wrought with budget cuts.

The project also opens the door for residents to start community vegetable gardens at Harrison Square and Melrose apartments. Escamilla said having a community vegetable garden has been successful in the past.

Already, resident volunteers are being trained to water the gardens properly and some have stepped up to start the vegetable gardens, Escamilla said.

"Children enjoy gardening. They feel like they’re helping out," Escamilla said. "... It gives them a sense of ownership in their neighborhoods."

Harbin has already taken it upon herself to water the flowers in front of her Jesse Jewell apartment just because she likes them, and her mother, Geraldine McDowell, is grateful for Escamilla’s efforts to improve the Housing Authority.

"She’s been doing a beautiful job," McDowell said. "Ever since she took over, this is the first time this have ever looked like this."

And Harbin’s sister, Ala Harbin, agrees that things have changed since Escamilla started her Curb Appeal project.

"Before, it was looking a mess, and a lot of trash was out here," Ala Harbin said.