Flower Farm’s Expansion a ‘Shining Light’ in Olneyville
May 15, 2023
PROVIDENCE — Things are blossoming at What Cheer Flower Farm in Olneyville, and it’s not just flowers.
Construction machinery, piles of concrete rubble, and half-destroyed buildings currently sit on land owned by the nonprofit that will eventually be covered with garden beds, rows of plants, and new buildings that will allow the farm to make full use of the 2.7 acres it owns in the neighborhood.
The demolition of the brownfield site and the expansion of the farm are being funded through a multimillion-dollar, three-year capital campaign spearheaded by the Rhode Island Foundation and brownfield remediation grants from the Department of Environmental Management funded through the state’s green bond.
At an event at the farm last week to showcase the work done so far and to lay out what’s ahead, What Cheer employees, state officials, and others involved in the work were emotional about the project and what it will mean for Olneyville, a designated environmental justice neighborhood that has long struggled with pollution and the illegal dumping of contaminated fill from the nearby 6/10 Connector project.
“It’s our hopes and dreams for what might be possible here,” Mayor Brett Smiley said. “This will reconnect green space to the economy. Olneyville is changing rapidly, and projects like this make it change for the better.”
The Magnolia Street farm grows and donates more than 100,000 flowers each year to hospitals, senior services, recovery centers, shelters, hospices, and food pantries. It also offers job training in the floral industry, and once completed, a new building will house classrooms, a floristry program, and kitchens, according to Joe Haskett of the architectural firm Union Studio.
The new construction and garden expansion will “elevate the floral industry’s ecological standards and practices while growing environmental, social, and economic capacity for the community that surrounds us,” said Shannon Brawley, What Cheer’s executive director.
In a sharp contrast to the way the neighborhood has been treated in the past, demolition at the site and the removal of the resulting debris are being done with an eye on the environment and the impacts on neighbors.
“We’re trying to recycle everything we can,” said Mark House of Verdantes LLC, an environmentally focused consulting company involved with the project. “Steel is being recycled.” He said the firm is working with the Providence Historical District to make sure no buildings of historical value will be torn down.
Among those buildings is the former Colonial Knife factory at 63 Magnolia St. When dealing with remediation sites like these, House said, “You’ve got to manage what may have occurred prior. We’ve got to manage the chemical waste that was used and the petroleum that was used to fire up all the equipment and heat the building. Our job is to make sure we understand what happened here, so that we can address it in the most cost-efficient way as we move forward.”
Terry Gray, DEM director, called the project a “win-win-win” for the area. “We’re getting a huge cleanup going. Otherwise, this would sit in the community as an abandoned site. Now, you’ve got this really vibrant site coming back. It’s bringing a lot of attention and activity — good activity — back to this part of Olneyville.”
Flowers, according to What Cheer farm, can help hospital patients have quicker recovery times, make people feel less stressed and less depressed, and can serve as a memory aid for dementia patients.
And, said farmer-florist Erin Achenbach, the farm’s expansion is bringing Olneyville into a worldwide movement. “This is the leading edge of what people want in their environments, and their weddings,” she said. “They want to be ecologically sound, they want to remove waste.”
A flower, Achenbach said, “sparks a memory, it sparks joy. That’s what we do here on a very basic level. We’re going to take this little spark of joy and create a shining light in this corner of Olneyville. This is for our community, our environment, for the advancement of all our neighbors.
“We’re being good to a neighborhood that deserves to be seen and treated better.”