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The arduous journey to a new Silver Lake Reservoir path

ArchitectureArts and CultureEl SalvadorFrederick Law Olmsted

In a city that contains hundreds of miles of recreational walks, routes and trails, the opening of a new jogging path sounds about as noteworthy as a Pinkberry christening or another starlet DUI. But the new scenic path that opened in December along the east side of Silver Lake Reservoir is no ordinary playground for fitness nuts and leisure strollers.

Several tortured years in the making, the path represents the latest leg in L.A.'s long-haul effort to revitalize the historic 127-acre reservoir area -- a seemingly straightforward project that has faced vehement opposition from community groups that fear an influx of undesirable people and a rise in crime.

To put it more bluntly: NIMBY (not in my backyard) alarmism in the form of a phobia of outsiders has struck at the heart of this famously liberal-bohemian enclave.

Naysayers aside, the opening merits a victory lap for landscape architect Mia Lehrer, whose L.A.-based firm not only designed the new jogging path but also formulated the master plan for the entire reservoir improvement.

For the last 10 years, Mia Lehrer + Associates has been making its mark on public-space projects throughout Southern California, with commissions in L.A. and Orange counties. Lehrer said the Silver Lake project ranks as one of the most satisfying but also frustrating experiences of her career.

"Here we have this asset, this beautiful body of water, and we need places to walk and jog and connect the community to itself," said Lehrer, speaking in her offices in Koreatown. At the same time, contingents within Silver Lake "were afraid of the improvements and believed that it would bring in the 'wrong people.' "

In concept, the new jogging path is the essence of simplicity. Spanning about half a mile, it snakes along Silver Lake Boulevard, starting from Armstrong Avenue to the north and ending at a popular dog park. Previously, joggers had to share the road with vehicles -- an obvious safety hazard.

The path joins an existing recreational trail on the west side of the reservoir that was completed in 2005. (It too was designed by Lehrer.) Together, the two routes cover close to 2 miles and cost a total of $4.4 million to build, according to city officials. A point of contention: Lehrer wanted to include benches along the east-side path, but some voiced concern that they would invite drifters to camp out in the neighborhood.

Another hotly debated topic was the type of surface to use for the jogging path. Some residents complained that the proposed use of decomposed granite was unattractive and messy. Lehrer argued the material allows rainwater to percolate (avoiding messy pooling) and is easy on the knees. (Lehrer eventually won the latter battle but lost the former.)

But the biggest hurdle by far has been the planned opening of the meadow, approximately 6 acres on the east side of the reservoir and bounded by the jogging path. Opening the meadow has always been part of the master plan, but groups such as Silver Lake Friends and Neighbors and Save the Meadow mounted campaigns against its conversion to a recreational area, particularly a proposed soccer practice field.

At one community meeting, Lehrer recalled an individual saying, "We don't want to see piñatas in the neighborhood." ("That comment stuck with me for years," said the architect.)

Brian Wakil, a Silver Lake resident and one of the most vocal opponents of the meadow opening, described Lehrer as "disconnected" from the community and said accusations of NIMBY-ism are ridiculous. "Lehrer's design for the reservoir just isn't a good plan," he said. "This is a historic area and the plan doesn't take into account the wildlife." Some of the opposition argues that the millions spent on the project would have best been allocated elsewhere. "I have no problem with others coming to Silver Lake. But why shouldn't we give the money to a community that really needs it?" said Kelly Hunt, a Silver Lake resident. "We're ignoring communities that are concrete jungles."

After years of acrimonious debate, a 3-acre portion of the meadow is finally scheduled to open to the public this spring. People can expect to see subtle improvement in the landscaping, especially more variety in the plantings, according to Michelle Frier, an associate designer at the firm. The Department of Water and Power irrigates the meadow three times per week; the refurbished meadow will contain more drought-tolerant native plants.

Lehrer said opposition to change has faded in the last five years as the Silver Lake population has become younger and more socially progressive. "There have been more young families coming in, and they have started to have a voice," she said. "They're more open to public spaces. It's a different generation."

Hiding in plain sight

Born in El Salvador, Lehrer first became interested in landscape architecture as a young student when she visited an exhibition of the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York's Central Park and is widely regarded as the father of American landscape architecture.

Lehrer eventually left El Salvador and studied at the Harvard School of Design. After marrying, she moved to Southern California in the late '70s because at the time "there was a lot of work for architects on the West Coast and not so much on the East Coast."

Her firm, which she opened in 1999 and currently employs 25 people, focuses on municipal infrastructure projects, the kind that are often invisible (or at least easy to miss) to the casual observer.

"We started when everyone was beginning to go to Asia and the Middle East, but we hunkered down and saw the opportunity to build in our community and support local groups and nonprofits," she explained. The firm's current projects include L.A. River improvements in Studio City, a refurbishment of the San Pedro waterfront, and a co-commission for a huge public park at the El Toro Marine base in Orange County. She said the Silver Lake project -- which she began working on in 1999 -- has taught her patience above all.

"As a city, we're kind of conventional when it comes to public projects like this. It's hard to get great ideas and to veer off from the status quo," she said. "We have to get some of the community groups and maybe take them on trips to other cities." Over the years, Lehrer has come to believe that simplicity is the key to lasting landscape architecture design. "I have colleagues across the country, and they're building sexy multimillion-dollar projects. But the tools I use are low-tech, simple and straightforward," she said. "You don't end up with a lot of sexy images to show the public. But the city is better off in the end." So far, public reaction to the jogging path seems to be generally positive.

"They did a really nice job," said Bill Hamm, a Silver Lake resident. "I've had a couple of close calls jogging on the street and this is a lot safer."

Ana Fishman, an Atwater Village resident who comes to the reservoir to exercise, said she doesn't understand why people would get upset over the idea of outsiders using the path and meadow. "There are people who live with drive-by shootings, so this is a small price to pay for living in a beautiful neighborhood," she said.

City Council members Eric Garcetti and Tom LaBonge, who share jurisdiction over the reservoir, both praised the design. "But I would like to see more path lighting," said LaBonge. (The east-side path currently has no lighting even though joggers use it well after dusk.) Lehrer said she plans to introduce improvements gradually.

Future enhancements include replacing the ugly, functional chain-link fence along the path (a choice dictated by budget considerations) with an attractive wrought-iron fence. And when the DWP stops using the reservoir for drinking water in the next three to five years, a new set of possibilities opens up for more recreational space -- and community conversations.

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ArchitectureArts and CultureEl SalvadorFrederick Law Olmsted
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