Nearly a decade ago, Los Angeles city officials, including then-City Councilman Eric Garcetti, cut the ribbon on a street beautification project in Los Feliz.
Landscapers added sycamore trees, honey-colored grass and seating areas at Vermont Triangle, a traffic median off Hollywood Boulevard. The $850,000 redesign transformed the spot into a new gateway to Los Feliz's boutiques and restaurants and provided a resting place for locals waiting for the bus.
"People say that no one walks in Los Angeles," Garcetti told the crowd at the ribbon-cutting. "But when we improve the streetscape, we get people out of their cars."
Today, Vermont Triangle is a grim-looking concrete island that draws tents and transients.
Homeless for a decade, Michael Kelly, 48, hung out at Vermont Triangle on a recent afternoon and showed a reporter his collection of pot seeds, which he hoped to sell to buy a guitar. Kelly comes to the traffic median because he grew up nearby and "it's a place I feel comfortable," he said.
Now, officials are weighing another redesign of the 7,000-square-foot site. Under one proposal, large planters would be added to make it difficult for homeless people to put up tents. If it goes forward, the redesign would mark the third redo of the median in 10 years.
Even community members who support another redesign are frustrated that the city traffic median has taken up so much time and money.
"It should have stayed the way it was," said Jeff Zarrinnam, a member of the board of governors of the East Hollywood Business Improvement District, which maintains the median. "But everyone has all these different, wild ideas. People think it's a park, and it's not park. It's a median, that's a traffic median, that's all it is."
The 2008 makeover, which took place when then-City Councilman Tom LaBonge represented Los Feliz and Garcetti oversaw nearby Hollywood, was a transit project led by Los Angeles' now-shuttered Community Redevelopment Agency. The improvements were intended to help the pedestrian environment north of the Red Line station at Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue.
The redevelopment agency said in a 2007 resolution that the upgrades would help eliminate blight in nearby East Hollywood by "improving the pedestrian amenities" and "encouraging use of the area and other commercial establishments."
Federal funds paid for most of the redesign, with the rest of the money coming from the redevelopment agency, said Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Dave Sotero.
Permeable pavers were added to allow groundwater to seep into the soil. New lampposts, designed to match those at nearby Barnsdall Park, were installed.
Today, the pavers have to be removed because dirt kicks up when they are power-washed, Zarrinnam said. On a recent visit with a reporter, he pointed out a broken lamppost and trash strewn in the dirt.
A Bureau of Engineering spokeswoman said last month there have been five incidents of either damage or lamppost lights not working at Vermont Triangle in the last year.
Homeless outreach workers have made 18 visits to Vermont Triangle in the last year, said Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority spokesman Tom Waldman.
Berenice Cruz, who works across the street at Starbucks, said she's seen up to five tents clustered on the median on some mornings.
When the store opens at 4 a.m, homeless come in to charge their phones or ask customers to buy them drinks or food, Cruz said.
Other businesses complain about homeless people defecating and urinating in front of their stores or hassling their customers for food. Employees at Pink Baby for You, a nail salon, swapped out the plastic tip jar on the counter for a smaller one after transients came in and tried to grab it.
City Councilman David Ryu, who represents Los Feliz, works with outreach teams to help the homeless people living at Vermont Triangle, said Sarah Dusseault, Ryu's chief of staff.
Facing pressure from community groups and business owners, Ryu's office has committed $18,000 for improvements at Vermont Triangle, whichever design is picked. In addition to the proposal to add planters, there is also talk of adding an art installation instead.
"There's no question that it's not an appropriate place to sleep, but we're also trying to enhance the beauty of the area," Dusseault said.
The concept of installing large objects, such as planters, to deter tents has been tried elsewhere. In Venice, business and neighborhood groups placed stones or plants at two parkways to discourage encampments, said Will Hawkins, chairman of the homeless committee of the Venice Neighborhood Council.
Some community members question why a redesign, introduced more than a year ago by local groups, isn't moving faster. Ryu spokesman Estevan Montemayor said the councilman's office wants neighborhood groups to comment on the proposals.
A homeless man at Vermont Triangle who gave his name as Smiley said Ryu's proposal "sucks" when told about it by a reporter. On that day, Smiley was living in a blue tarp that housed a twin bed; a makeshift cooking grill, kindling and an empty milk carton lay nearby.
The most recent redesign of the traffic median came in 2013. Vermont Triangle fell into neglect after the original 2008 makeover, so locals stepped forward to volunteer time and money. The nearby Hollywood Hotel put more than $13,500 toward the landscaping. (Zarrinnam is president and chief executive of the hotel.)
LaBonge also said his council office funded improvements around that time, but he couldn't recall how much was spent.
Nyla Arslanian, former president of the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., who has been involved with the redesigns, said Vermont Triangle has attracted homeless people in past years, but "it's nothing like we have now."
Arslanian said she's sympathetic to those with mental illnesses who are forced to live on the streets. She's also discouraged by the physical decline of the gateway to Los Feliz.
"Considering all the work, input and community involvement, it's disheartening what has happened," Arslanian said.