With Occupy Gone, City Hall Ponders a Progressive Landscape
In gardening terms, "progressive" means less grass and more drought-tolerant and native plants. The fear, however, was that the city, bureaucratic and broke, would blow the opportunity to reboot the garden and just go with the least expensive and most traditional option: planting another flat, green sprawl. After all, grass is the cheapest to install and the easiest to maintain.
Even before the city had the chance to assess damage to the sprinkler system, accusations began to fly that the city Department of Recreation and Parks, the municipal office responsible for City Hall Park, was mired in "cultural inertia," incapable of maintaining any landscape beyond the standard grass farm. Case in point was supposed to be the green space around LAPD headquarters downtown. Redesigned with low-water plants in 2009, the space today is plagued by sunken trees and sickly grass. When asked about City Hall Park by the L.A. Times, Scott Baker, the landscape architect who oversaw the LAPD project, was quoted as saying the city didn't deserve any great green spaces until it could figure out how to do the maintenance.
Asked about that quote, Mike Shull leaps into battle mode, bristling, "I've been waiting for a chance to answer that!" Shull, superintendent of construction, maintenance and planning for Recreation and Parks, says the accusations of incompetence are "completely false -- so false it's unbelievable. We operate more than 16,000 acres. To say that we can't do maintenance is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard."
In fact, the LAPD property isn't a park and wasn't handed over to Recreation and Parks' jurisdiction until late December 2011. Before that, the property, which had no maintenance budget, was being cared for only by volunteers.
Shull is confident that his department can tackle the City Hall job: "There is nobody in the city more qualified or with a broader base of knowledge." At 44, Shull has worked for the city nearly half of his life -- 21 years -- and has been in his current position for six.
The plan to re-landscape City Hall Park's north lawn with low-water-use plants was already in the works well before Occupy pitched its first tent, he says. But, like many other city projects, it was still in search of funding. "It's no secret that the city's broke," Shull says. But half of the funds for the north lawn project had been identified, and because the departure of Occupy brought the iconic location both more attention and a heightened desire to get back to business as usual ASAP, Shull is certain that both the north and the south lawn will be transformed from dead grass into a lush xeriscape before the year is over.
Last week, Shull hosted a walk-through of the site for a group of landscape designers and representatives from organizations including the California Native Plant Society and the Theodore Payne Foundation. Rec and Parks wanted their input -- as well as that of the Downtown Neighborhood Council -- on three proposed concepts for the redesign of the park.
Because City Hall Park is the site of a weekly farmers market, as well as more than 100 special events each year, the challenge is to create a green space that can win over a number of interests: those who want to see the city showcase the importance of water-wise gardening and those who want to maintain an open expanse for events -- or future protest gatherings. A cactus garden is clearly out.
Rec and Parks has put out three general design concepts (on view at laparks.org/restoration/index.htm), which range from the most turf to the least. The less turf, the more money the design will cost, primarily due to the necessity of changes to the irrigation system. Already, there's consternation at preliminary cost estimates -- $300,000, $500,000 and $900,000. The numbers are so high, Shull says, because the city must pay union wages, as opposed to the sorts of wages most L.A. gardeners earn.
Shull grouses a bit about charges that his department is stuck in the past, even as it's making as many changes as possible. The recent installation of a state-of-the-art "smart" irrigation system, he notes, has already reduced water use at the site by 30 percent.
Still, given City Hall's iconic status, Shull understands that putting in native and other low-water plants is as important symbolically as it is environmentally -- which means no matter how smart the irrigation system, there will be complaints until a dramatically visible change is made to the site.
But Shull is optimistic about being able to get a design approved and the project done in a timely manner. A number of funding options are being considered, from DWP rebates to private donations, he says.
Given the typical pace of city bureaucracy, will plants even be in the ground before 2012 is out? "I sure hope so," Shull says, half-laughing, half-sighing. The goal, he says, is to start construction by March and be finished by summer. And if he can accomplish that, well, the grass at City Hall won't be any greener. But at least the naysayers may be quieter.