Gilbert Flores strode across a slab of cracked pavement beside twin concrete domes blackened with soot. It was as ugly as could be, but Flores could see the future, and to him it's beautiful.
"Imagine what this place will look like with some Italian cypresses and ficus trees," he said. "Spectacular."
A month away from retirement, the veteran city landscape architect is facing a final assignment few would envy: improving the scenery at the Port of Los Angeles and Terminal Island with $3 million worth of palms, flowering trees, bougainvillea, granite boulders and sod.
To many, the name Terminal Island conjures infernal images of flaming refinery towers, towering gray cranes, black mountains of petroleum byproducts, and smelly fish canneries. Not to mention the federal prison.
Flores, however, has found the few undeveloped strips of dirt and asphalt to be sources of inspiration--and targets for his brand of low-maintenance, high-impact landscaping.
"Lush, domed-shaped ficus trees will actually resonate with the existing architecture," he said. "Palms swaying in the sea breezes will seem to wave 'Hello there' to all who enter."
Some might call that wishful thinking.
In any case, Flores, 59, presented his "port beautification plan" to the Harbor Commission Wednesday. His proposal was developed from among hundreds of ideas raised in community meetings in San Pedro, Wilmington and Harbor City over the past two years.
"Beautification is a very important aspect of our development plan," said chief harbor engineer Stacey Jones. "And Gil is the right man for the job because of his passion and talent in landscaping and in dealings with people."
Flores was raised on the city's Eastside and earned a master's degree in urban planning from Pepperdine University. He launched his career in 1970 when he joined the city Department of Public Works in the San Fernando Valley.
A year later, he helped found Barrio Planners, an idealistic group of environmental designers and activists responsible for a number of landmarks celebrating Latino history and pride, including El Parque de Mexico in Lincoln Heights and greenbelts at the Ramona Gardens housing project straddling Boyle Heights and City Terrace.
"Gil knows his way around," said Barrio Planners architect Frank Villalobos, who is designing four Eastside light-rail stations for the MTA. "If anybody can beautify Terminal Island--or at least hide a little bit of all that steel--he can."
Over the past three decades, Flores has overseen the greening of more than 1,000 road medians, mini-parks and flood channels, as well as downtown's Plaza de la Raza and the mayoral mansion grounds in Hancock Park.
He's used to a big challenge. In 1981 he took a leave of absence to be landscape project manager at the then-new Saudi Arabian industrial city of Yanbu.
Suffering from severe jet lag shortly after his arrival, Flores was snoozing in the aisles of a large auditorium when someone yelled, "Where's Gil Flores?"
"I slapped myself awake," he recalled. "Suddenly, they brought in a big chair and sat me in front of then-Prince Fahd, who leaned forward, looked me in the eye and said, 'I don't like desert landscaping in the new city. I want tropical trees. I want you to fix it."
"I thought, 'Ay, caramba! How do I do that?' " he recalled with a laugh. "But I said, 'Prince, no problem. We'll change it. But it'll take time because we can't rush nature.'"
When Fahd became king of Saudi Arabia a year later, Flores helped transform a remote sand bar on the Red Sea into an oasis for a huge royal summer palace.
But can Flores green up the port's industrial zones?
"Piece of cake," Flores said.
Along a half-mile stretch of Wilmington's Avalon Boulevard, a seaside lane strewn with trash and lined with ship repair shops and foundries slathered in graffiti, he'll plant palms on one side and shade trees on the other.
He pointed at a street corner marked by battered corrugated fences, high-voltage lines, train tracks and big rigs spewing black exhaust.
"Right here," he said, "we'll add a row of poplars, some river stone and lawn."
And that was just for starters.
"A stone mound with palm trees, flowering shrubs and vines will look great on the southeast corner."
Standing behind the former U.S. Customs headquarters on Terminal Island, he surveyed a vacant lot. It was just a weed patch, but to Flores it hid great promise. Just add water.
"That's going to be covered with Canary Island pines and eucalyptus trees. It'll be one of the largest urban forests in Southern California that is not a public park."
"In 10 years," he predicted, "what we've accomplished here will have a softening, welcoming effect upon all who enter the port. Like cat's fur."