Tioga United, the local community association, was startled, too.
It sued, and in January a Common Pleas Court judge ruled the city never should have granted developer Harold Thomas a variance for seven attached houses on the 0.38-acre lot.
But with most of the modest, vinyl-sided houses now occupied and Thomas appealing the court decision and refusing to talk to them, neighbors say they are angry, frustrated, and feeling disrespected.
Thomas, president of T.J. Properties Inc. of Springfield, Delaware County, "never informed the community of what he was doing until it was too late," says Verna Tyner, Tioga United's treasurer.
Neighborhood leaders say it was only in March 2008 - when Thomas applied for a variance to build two more houses on the site than local zoning allowed - that they learned he had acquired the garden and 25 other city-owned lots in Tioga two years before as part of an affordable-housing project.
"We don't want to discourage development," said Daryl Hollinger, a member of Tioga United and a local Democratic committeeman. "But we don't want people coming in and saying, 'This is what we're going to do whether you like it or not.'"
Thomas declined requests for an interview, saying he had been so advised by his lawyer.
Last month he filed an appeal with Commonwealth Court, asking it to overturn the Common Pleas Court ruling.
Ownership of city-owned vacant lots - even those with established community gardens - can flip without much warning when a developer comes in, warns Terry Mushovic, executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Association of Philadelphia.
She advises garden groups that use city lots to apply annually for a city license to use the sites. "Then, if a developer comes in, it creates a red flag that means the garden group should at least be notified."
The Venango Street garden was not licensed, Mushovic said.
A former contractor, Thomas turned developer in the early 1990s and has developed several successful low-income housing projects in West Philadelphia, according to Deborah McColloch, director of the city Office of Housing and Community Development.
He also is no stranger to the politics of development in Philadelphia.
In 2006, the year he won the help of City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller in acquiring the 26 vacant lots in her Eighth District, Thomas and his partners contributed at least $9,000 to Miller's reelection campaign.
Two officials from Matz Land Transfer, the title company he used for the land deal that included the Venango Street garden, gave Miller's campaign a combined $4,000 in 2006.
City officials familiar with Thomas' acquisition of the Tioga lots say that it was done legally, and that the nominal $1 cost per site is standard for developers committed to building affordable housing.
Last week Miller vigorously defended her role in helping Thomas acquire the properties, some of which have been on the city rolls since the 1970s. She said she had devoted $7 million of her district's $10 million in Neighborhood Transformation Initiative funds to creating affordable housing in Tioga.
Miller also said she was unaware in 2006 that the community garden at 1925-33 West Venango Street was among the lots she had helped transfer to Thomas.
"Mistakes happen," she said. "But I would hate to see this one problem [with the garden] turn all my effort into a negative."
Community leaders say the outcome could have been happier if Thomas had engaged better with neighbors.
They include four Sisters of Mercy, members of a Roman Catholic religious order that has served the poor of Tioga and Nicetown since the 1970s.
In 2004, their newly incorporated Mercy Neighborhood Ministries acquired the former warehouse at 1939 W. Venango St., immediately adjacent to the community garden, and began converting it into a "green" and sunlit $7 million day-care center for children and adults.
Sister Ann Provost, executive director of the Mercy Family Center, said that during the renovation she had expressed interest in acquiring a section of the garden for parking and a drop-off site for the center.
"We didn't want to take the garden away," she said during a recent tour of the building. "We were just talking about possibilities. . . . Then [early in 2008] we found out it was no longer available. It surprised all of us."
That June, after two hearings, Thomas won a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment to build two more houses on the garden property than regulations allowed; ZBA lawyers later called it a "slight relaxation" of the regulations.
Tioga United disagreed. It announced immediately that it would ask Common Pleas Court to overturn the variance and "begged [Thomas], 'Please don't do anything till we get the zoning decided,' " Hollinger recalled.
"But no way. It was like: 'We'll put these properties up here, like it or not.' After that, the conversation went sour."
Common Pleas Court Judge Idee Fox evidently agreed.
"This is a classic case of the left hand and the right hand not speaking to each other until it is too late," Fox wrote in her January decision overturning the ZBA variance, which she called a "disregard of process" and the neighborhood's wishes.
Tioga United has since engaged Center City lawyer Stanley Krakower, who represented the community association at trial, to handle its challenge to Thomas' appeal. Members said last week they would rather settle directly with Thomas, but that he had referred them to his lawyer and that there had been "no formal conversation" to date.
"We're thinking of asking him for another lot for a garden, or maybe some scholarships," Tyner said last week. Hollinger said there was also talk of asking Thomas whether community groups such as Tioga United could share space in T.J. Properties' local rental office.
Regardless of the outcome, he said, the process has been instructive.
"In this whole process of vacant [city] property acquisition, it's very easy for some people not to pay attention to others," Hollinger said. "We learned some lessons with this. "
Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or email@example.com.