Environment & Science

Native plants, new landscaping re-occupy City Hall park in Los Angeles

New plantings surround a memorial to Los Angeles firefighters in a corner of the park surrounding City Hall.
New plantings surround a memorial to Los Angeles firefighters in a corner of the park surrounding City Hall.
Andres Aguila/KPCC

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Last winter, Los Angeles police swept Occupy LA protesters movement off the City Hall lawn. Then they locked the gates. L.A.’s Department of Recreation and Parks worked through the spring on a restoration project for the south City Hall park. This week the new landscape will be unveiled.

So, for just a few more days, the foreboding fence rings the park bordered by Spring, First, and Main streets. Behind it, Tom Gibson radiates fatherly pride as we stand in the park. He’s the landscape architect behind this facelift.

"It's still green but it's also very usable. And we did a lot of turf reduction, over 50 percent turf reduction," he says, gesturing to a park area smaller than two acres. "Basically it was almost all turf before. Now it's not."

After Occupy, left-behind debris covered the bricks and winter-brown, trampled lawn. Some people petitioned the city to make this a native garden. The parks agency sought opinion at several meetings, and talked with native plant societies. Only then did officials settle on a plan.

Gibson says it’s a balancing act. City Hall park is a prime place for public dialogue, so it’s got to be accessible, and safe, for city dwellers. "That’s really our primary responsibility, public safety. But also environmentally, sustainability issues," he says. "Also, just making places look good too, you know?"

Today a lush green lawn again rolls up a hill and flattens into a wider flat area that invites lounging. In the 1930s, he says, City Hall was surrounded by palm trees and grass. Representing that was important, Gibson says. "I really felt that the historic aspect of this site was really important. And if we can’t consider the landscape at City Hall park to be historic than we got a problem," he added.

Not all history is held up as a modern ideal. Gibson says the landscape here in the 40s was thirsty and tropical, with lots of giant birds of paradise."We did leave birds of paradise, which is not a native, but it is the city’s official flower so we do keep those in some strategic spots," he says.

In another strategic spot, an earthquake retrofit in the 1990s did away with the plants and palms along City Hall's base. "We brought back the foundation planting around the building," Gibson notes, "so a lot more greenery at the building. As well as planting around the central plaza area on the south side."

The south lawn cost the city around $550,000, not counting donations from Scott's, Home Depot, a turf company, and the Metropolitan Water District. Mike Shull with the Department of Recreation and Parks says the city took advantage of water rebates from the LADWP, too.

Landscapers planted Catalina ironwood trees with hopes there’ll one day be a grove looking down on the beds surrounding the lower plaza, where there’s a mix of drought-tolerant and Mediterranean plants.

Gibson says Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa personally sought plants with pops of color, purples especially, like the penstamen margarita bop plant. And a couple of months back, the mayor planted the first toyon here, a native, leafy-green shrub.

"Prized by the Native American community they used the bark, they used the leaves, they used the berries. They have a great red berry in the winter," he says. "The name Hollywood itself came from the plant. It's got a beautiful creamy blossom in May. This is one we think will have a high survival rate in the city as people want to plant them in their yards."

That thinking's indicative of another value designers have built into the park. More than half the water L.A. homeowners use is for lawns. Gibson says he hopes Angelenos can see that successful gardens in their own yards could include native and drought-tolerant plants.

At least one of those natives, an ironwood, struggled and was pulled out. A replacement ironwood is taking its place, proving you aren't a real gardener until you kill something.

"You have to appreciate life, right? and one way to appreciate life is when it doesn’t work out so well," Gibson says.

City officials hope rehabilitation will, in fact, work out well. They’re opening the gates again for good on Thursday. Just as before, the park will be open from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Just as before, camping is prohibited.