Keep Off the Grass

Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic of The Times. Contact him at christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com.

If you've spent any time in Silver Lake lately, you've probably seen the signs. They have nothing to do with this year's presidential campaign; they don't point the way to a movie set or offer cash for your house.

They're the result, instead, of a neighborhood battle that has turned increasingly bitter over the last year or so. At its center is a plan to turn the 6-acre meadow along the east side of the Silver Lake Reservoir, which is run by the Department of Water and Power, into a city park. Frontyard banners planted by those who favor the park plan say "Open the Meadow Now!" Opponents urge passersby to "Save the Meadow!"

The controversy has been front-page news in community newspapers and has joined with the notoriously packed parking lot of the Trader Joe's on Hyperion Avenue as a leading topic of local complaint. Eric Garcetti, who represents part of Silver Lake on the City Council, has spent more time on the meadow issue than would seem possible for a man who, as council president, is expected to look out for the future of the city as a whole.

Angelenos in other parts of the city, meanwhile, either know nothing about the controversy or are liable to dismiss it as a battle pitting owners of $3-million houses against those whose properties are worth a paltry $2 million. The very word at the heart of the debate--meadow--suggests a pastoral rather than an urban dust-up, an argument about grazing rights or untended hedgerows.

In truth, though, this is something more than a neighborhood squabble. This is the new face of NIMBYism in Los Angeles, where the object of passionate local opposition is not a new apartment building or nightclub but open space. This city has had--and will continue to have--pitched battles over the construction of new roads, apartment buildings, homeless shelters and cellphone towers. But the more intriguing disputes in coming years probably will resemble the one in Silver Lake, where the forces of change are looking to carve out room for new shared space in an increasingly crowded city.

As an example of the shift, the meadow makes a rich patch of metaphorical turf. In a more literal sense, it also happens to be a remarkably attractive piece of green space, just waiting to be opened up, in a city that has essentially run out of potential parkland.

The debate goes back to the 1980s, when the DWP, prompted by new federal mandates, proposed capping all the open-air reservoirs in the city. Neighbors banded together to keep the reservoir--the body of water that gives the neighborhood its name--visible. They formed the Committee to Save Silver Lake's Reservoirs, which helped negotiate a deal with the DWP to keep it uncapped. The group has since become a leading proponent of turning the adjacent meadow into park space.

A decade ago, the DWP hired landscape architects Mia Lehrer + Associates to develop a master plan for the reservoir grounds. The first and second phases included new pedestrian paths along the perimeter of the property, which are virtually complete.

The next step, turning some or all of the meadow into a park, has proved tougher to pull off, and Lehrer's firm is still at work on the project. A possible breakthrough came in mid-December, when meadow activists on both sides gathered in Garcetti's office to see Lehrer's latest design. Forming the blueprint for a compromise, it calls for roughly 3 acres to be opened during daylight hours for passive recreation (picnicking, somersaults and reading US Weekly, but no grass-obliterating organized sports). The rest of the meadow--particularly a wooded bluff along its north side--will be kept closed to protect the birds and animals that roam the area.

Though Garcetti can hardly be accused of rushing to judgment on the issue, the compromise probably won't appease the park's most entrenched opponents, who include Dion Neutra, son of architect Richard Neutra.

Though many say they worry about the effects of a new park on the area's wildlife, what's striking is the extent to which their campaign relies on classic NIMBY rhetoric. If you read the website of Silver Lake Friends and Neighbors (SLFANS), the leading antipark coalition, you might think they are opposing not a park but a shopping mall. Or even a skyscraper.

It warns of an "assault" that would have "dire consequences" for the area--"including increased traffic, noise and parking congestion" and "an inevitable increase in noise, litter, graffiti and vandalism." It adds that "the stage has been set to transform this green refuge into a construction zone." And in an editorial in the Los Feliz Ledger, SLFANS member Brian Wakil wrote that the group was formed "to keep development out of the reservoir."

There are so many holes in that argument that it's hard to know where to start. But here goes: Opening up an expanse of lawn on public land for public use hardly qualifies as "development"; many of the park's users will walk, not drive, to use it; the construction zone will be a temporary nuisance, very much a means to an end; and the vast majority of visitors to the park will arrive carrying picnics or Frisbees or pushing baby strollers rather than hiding spray-paint cans under their hoodies.

Or to put it more simply: How about a green refuge that people can actually use?

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