In the bad old days before 1990, there was an all-out war between Los Feliz residents near the Rowena Reservoir and the bureaucrats who ran the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The DWP wanted to cover up the scenic reservoir and residents wanted to keep it as it was.
The hard feelings were fueled by a DWP manager who horrified neighborhood residents by telling them, "You people have enjoyed your views long enough."
But now that has changed.
A decade-long dialogue, supervised by a mediator, has resulted in a rebuilt reservoir at a cost of $14 million. A 10-million-gallon underground storage tank has been installed to meet the DWP's goal of ensuring water quality. Most residents are happy with an aesthetically pleasing landscape on top, including two small ponds of reusable water, two waterfalls, native plants and trees and artificial rock formations.
Its layout, by the Los Angeles landscape architectural firm Melendrez Design Partners, is so surprisingly lush that locals have dubbed it Fantasy Island and some are upset that such a lovely spot is off limits to the public behind a decorative fence.
As the refurbished reservoir was dedicated Thursday, the principals in the debate credited the city utility for retreating from its formerly hard-line goal of putting plain roofs with no amenities on each of the city's 10 reservoirs. Some are calling the DWP's switch a virtually unheard-of action.
"This is something new for a public agency," said mediator Alana Knaster of Calabasas, who chaired the Rowena mediation talks and has worked with numerous government bodies in California and across the United States.
300 Get a Peek at a 18-Foot-Deep Tank
About 300 people attended a reception and tour at the reservoir Thursday evening and peeked inside the empty 18-foot-deep tank, which is to be filled by next month. The reaction was positive, although mixed with disappointment that the public won't normally be allowed on the property.
"I think it's beautiful, and the underground tank makes it safe for the water supply," said resident John Sofio, who came with his 3-year-old son, Dylan. "And it has a pretty park setting."
In the past, utility managers acknowledged, the DWP decided what it wanted to do, perhaps held a meeting with those affected and then went ahead with its plans. DWP official Marty Adams recalled that the old attitude used to be: "Father knows best. Trust us. We know what we're doing."
So, when the DWP began circulating plans in the late 1980s to cover up Rowena and other reservoirs, people like Los Feliz resident Lynne Hill were furious with what they considered the terribly ugly plans.
"They can't do that!" she remembered telling others. "They're engineers. They don't live here. We do."
"They were going to poke a hole in our neighborhood," architect Arthur Golding, who consulted on the project, recalled.
The emotional attachment to Rowena is easy to explain. Built in 1901, it's the oldest reservoir in the city. The facility at Hyperion and Rowena avenues was called Wicks Reservoir but was later changed to Rowena, after the title of a book by Sir Walter Scott, whose works inspired the naming of some of the nearby streets. The 31-million-gallon reservoir had a wooden roof, but that was removed in 1941, lending a soothing water presence to the surrounding neighborhood.
Hill and such like-minded neighbors as Michael and Molly Collins helped form a group called the Rowena Water Committee to preserve the reservoir. Meanwhile, other groups, including residents near the Silver Lake Reservoir who also were enraged at the DWP's attitude, established a larger citywide organization, the Coalition to Save Open Reservoirs.
Agency, Residents Were Bitterly Opposed
Verbal tirades were routinely hurled in the debate. Bills to preserve the reservoirs were bitterly opposed by the DWP in Sacramento. And the Rowena proponents were quick to quote a DWP manager who had inflamed local resentment with his comments. Some, including Molly Collins and Hill, still shake their heads at one comment made in the late '80s: "If I had my way, we'd cover [the reservoirs] today and let the lawyers work it out afterward."
The department's approach changed when James F. Wickser took over in 1990 as DWP's assistant general manager who oversaw the city's water system. Wickser implemented a policy of meeting with residents to balance sometimes conflicting goals: DWP's need for water quality and the residents' desire to preserve the reservoirs as centerpieces of their communities.
The DWP had maintained that the open-air reservoirs needed covers to protect water quality from contamination by vandals and from organic growth in the sunlight.
Meanwhile, any hope of preserving Rowena as it was ended when state health authorities ordered the DWP to drain it in 1991 because the reservoir's earthen dam facing Hyperion Avenue was weakened by the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. Water seepage was reaching unacceptable levels. With state law precluding the construction of any open-air reservoir to replace an existing one, other solutions were explored.
In the mediation sessions, which Wickser frequently attended, residents agreed to an underground tank, and reached agreement with the DWP for decorative landscaping over the buried tank.
By 1995, construction began on the concrete tank and the pipes in the area that route water from the San Fernando Valley to Eagle Rock.
Construction kicked up dust and noise through most of the late 1990s, causing some to wonder if the facility would ever be completed. In early-morning phone calls to Knaster, people complained that workers were showing up before the agreed start time of 7 a.m., which also was hammered out in mediation.
As work on Rowena is wrapped up, the mediation continues to consider solutions at other reservoirs, which faced different problems. For example, at the nearby Silver Lake Reservoir, which will not be covered, residents are pushing for some public access, such as a walking or jogging trail, within its fenced perimeter. Mediation sessions are ongoing on other aspects as state funds are sought to finance the work.
At Rowena, public access or the creation of recreation facilities was discarded early in the talks. Neighbors in the immediate vicinity agreed with DWP bureaucrats. "Rowena is a water facility," Molly Collins said. "It's not a park."
Hill, a documentary filmmaker, said there is little room for parking for visitors near the reservoir.
Access Denied to Water Chlorination Facility
DWP project manager Kevin Brown, who oversaw the work at Rowena, added the utility doesn't allow public access to facilities where water chlorination takes place.
Others, however, continue to argue that public access should be allowed at Rowena and that the project benefits only those houses with views of the reservoir, not the wider neighborhood.
The owners of a pet boutique across the street from the reservoir have circulated a petition that seeks daytime public access for walking and relaxation on the reservoir property. About 300 people have signed it.
Virginia Castro, co-owner of the Catts & Doggs Pet Boutique, argues that taxpayers should be allowed to enjoy it. "Why spend $14 million on such a thing?" she said. "We're all taxpayers; we're all paying for it. Why can't we enjoy it?"
Castro said her shop would offer to clean up after pets if they were allowed onto the grounds.
Pets aside, some think there is a glitzy resort feel to the new Rowena. That has sparked some joking references to it as Fantasy Island or Gilligan's Island.
"I hadn't anticipated it looking what it has become," said Golding. "It is a Disneyland-type place, but I think it's wonderful.
"What's really important is what the department recognized in this project. They realized that reservoirs play a central role in the communities that grew up around them. This is a success story."