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With Occupy Gone, City Hall Ponders a Progressive Landscape

With Occupy Gone, City Hall Ponders a Progressive Landscape

The ouster

of Occupy L.A. left City Hall Park with dirt where once there was turf.

And when ideas started coming in about what should be done to restore

the landscape that adorns the symbolic center of the city, the range of

opinions was something akin to those within Occupy L.A.: widely varied,

with a generally progressive bent.

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.


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