Good-bye grass, hello gravel

November 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

turf Remember when I wrote about a neighbor who was “unclear on the concept” of transitioning from a water-hog front yard of grass to one with low water-using plantings? (No? You can read about it here.)

My complaint was that the spread of gravel substituted for grass might have met the letter of the California Friendly® Landscape Incentive Program, but not its spirit. Granted, the new yard had a few drought-tolerant plants scattered about. They were hardly enough, however, to create the “friendly landscape” promoted by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and Metropolitan Water District. Those rocks would not convert CO2, a greenhouse gas, to user-friendly oxygen or be good at capturing rainwater. In fact, they would absorb heat and increase temperatures.

Turns out, I was on to something.

Bloomberg Businessweek recently featured an investigation into what the two water agencies got in return for their $428 million incentive program. The story focused on the work of a company called Turf Terminators that banked 12 percent, $44 million, of that pot o’ gold, the largest single share.

california-friendly-landscaping-image-englishTurf Terminators was created by a couple of 20-something entrepreneurs who jumped into the program just as the MWD raised its rebate from $1 to $2 a square foot in 2014. City residents can get an additional $1.75 from the LADWP for a juicy total of $3.75 for every square foot of lawn removed. The company’s pitch to homeowners was that in return for rights to whatever rebate was owed them, Turf Terminators would replace their lawns for free. And Turf Terminators would even handle the paperwork.

Technically, the company should not have been in the rebate game: Landscapers were required to be in business three years in order to participate. Turf Terminators solved this problem by buying out a contractor who’d been around for a while and, presto change-o, the subsidies began to flow.

Turf Terminators claimed that in less than two years, it removed 16 million square feet of grass from 12,000 lawns. Not everyone was happy with the results, however, and they vented on Yelp. This lament from a Porter Ranch homeowner was typical.

So here’s the deal: before you hire anyone to rip up your yard consider the implications of what that means. Your front yard will look like a crappy gravel parking lot or an abandoned drive-in theater. If your grass already looked bad then this just might be an improvement.

Not the case for me. My, once, lush beautiful green yard now looks like it’s only missing an abandoned car on blocks then the image would be complete.

Having a gravel yard hasn’t saved me any money. My LADWP bill is pretty much the same.

I can’t say for sure if my neighbor’s yard is a Turf Terminator creation, but it fits the profile: a few plants, a lot of gravel, and, over time, weeds poking up through a supposedly impermeable barrier. Customers also reported broken drip irrigator controls and plantings that failed to thrive, even after multiple replacements.

The MWD was well aware of these problems. Emails obtained by Businessweek through FOIA requests show that MWD staffers “griped about the slapdash nature of the of the [rebate] applications.” Lawn sizes looked inflated and photographs didn’t match what was at the listed address.

Staff also knew about the quality control issues. When a city councilman invited media outlets to observe Turf Terminators replacing his lawn, an MWD resource specialist took a look at photos of the new yard and compared the dense plantings there with a redone yard in her own neighborhood. “They obviously knew the job was at a council person’s, because it doesn’t look like any other project out there,” Businessweek quotes from her email to the program director.

ttIn May 2015, the MWD board met to consider whether to extend the program beyond its initial $88 million funding, which had been gobbled up in less than a year. During public comment period, community and environmental activists communicated their concerns about inappropriate landscaping. Their critique would be echoed a month later in an L.A. Times Op-Ed by noted landscape architect Mia Leher and colleagues. They said in part:

Gardens and lawns act as air conditioning for L.A., which is only getting hotter with climate change. Plants and trees provide shade and transpire moisture to cool the air; gravel and artificial turf don’t. In fact, they create the opposite of a virtuous cycle: Fewer plants means more heat, and more heat means faster evaporation from watering, swimming pools and vegetation. More heat also means more water to support the same landscape.

Yet the MWD board went ahead and committed an additional $340 million without any requirements on how lawns should be replaced or with what.

Just a few months later, in July 2015, all of the new money had been promised to applicants and MWD called a halt to the program. (The LADWP continues their incentive rebate of $1.75/square foot.)

The water district professes to be pleased with the outcome of their incentive program. They reckon a potential savings of 7.5 billion gallons of water per year. Yet as Leher and her colleagues  tried to tell the agency, calculating water savings is a complex business. They advocated instead “rainwater harvesting, gray water reuse and recycling water from sewage treatment plants” to reduce the use of potable water for watering. “Incentivizing turf removal and not reuse is shortsighted.”

A week after the MWD turned off the rebate spigot, Turf Terminators announced it would accept no new customers. The company completed jobs already “incentivized,” then laid off most of its 450 workers.

As criticisms of their work grew, the company subsequently hired a public relations firm that calls itself “a leader in crisis management of all types.” Businessweek’s request for an on-record interview with Turf Terminators principals was refused.

The men behind Turf Terminators have not exactly folded their tents and slipped away into the night. Rather they’ve formed a new company from the ashes of the old: a contractor services firm called Build Savings. Its website invites homeowners to hire Build Savings to install “money saving home upgrades. The LADWP provides rebates for some elements of such upgrades.

As evidence that their company was competent to do such work, an early iteration of the Build Savings website asserted it had successfully “completed 12,000 installations.”

Perhaps realizing that truth in advertising was warranted, that claim has been removed.

 

25,686

January 26, 2016 § 18 Comments

homelessThey’re everywhere: beneath freeway overpasses, lining city streets, across from City Hall, the tents, tarps, bedding, and shopping carts letting us know that Los Angeles residents who have no other place to lay their heads have moved in. Although nearly a quarter of our homeless population clusters downtown, there’s not a council district in the city without people in need of permanent housing.

A few facts and figures:

Every two years, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a joint city-county agency, sends volunteers out over a three day period to survey the unhoused wherever in the county they can be found. Last year’s count identified 25,686 homeless in the city of Los Angeles, a 12% increase over the previous census. While some of these folks had temporary refuge—in their cars, RVs, or shelter beds—nearly 70 percent were on the street. Single adults make up 82% of this population, but nearly 4500 are family members and 197 were unaccompanied minors. Men out-number women 2 to 1.

About one-third are chronically homeless. More than a quarter are 55 or older. Mental illness and/or addictions plague a third of the total population.

Almost half of the homeless are African-American, but overall, the disadvantaged in our county are a rainbow of white (22%) and Latino (21%) with small populations of Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and Pacific Islanders.

Veterans account for 11% of the total.

I guess a lot of residents have been complaining to City Council members and other officials that “Something ought to be done,” because Silverlake’s Neighborhood Council recently held a town hall on homelessness with an array of government representatives, service providers, and advocates. Judging from questions directed to panel members, “something” can mean either “How do we get those people out of our neighborhood” or “Let’s get these folks humanely housed.”

Big, beefy white guys make me nervous so I not did not have high hopes for the meeting when I entered the town hall venue and found a half-dozen LAPD officers back slapping and glad-handing.

Which, I later recognized, is just as unfair a prejudice as the sort many residents have towards people camped out on the street. What I learned from the Senior Lead Officers of Northeast and Ramparts Divisions is that police officers are the front line in the homeless crisis. They actually know these individuals, where they hang out, what they’re up to. They work within limitations placed on them by lawsuits over seizure of property. They know that the solution is not more policing, but political will to house every resident.

I also found out that city and county agencies are “doing something,” though their “something” doesn’t translate into more housing. The Bureau of Sanitation sent two representatives to the town hall who described how encampments–those large concentrations of homeless individuals– are cleaned and sanitized once a month, which often entails guys in hazmat gear handling human waste. Council District 13 staff go out every other week to collect trash and sweep around camps. Non-profit service providers do persistent outreach to people on the streets. Prosecutors from the City Attorney’s office made it clear that while criminal behavior in encampments is prosecuted, simply being homeless is not a crime. However much some residents would like to see the problem just go away, jailing people is not the answer.

Four walls and a roof would be, but, in a city where developers rule, housing for all remains a pipe dream.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, with the help of 6,000 volunteers, launches it homeless count this week. I’m not a betting person but if I were, I wouldn’t place money on the city’s total being less than last year’s figure.

Life’s little luxuries

September 8, 2015 § 1 Comment

Cbone sweet boneementing Silverlake’s downward slide into terminal gentrification, the space that once housed a laundromat in the strip mall at Sunset and Parkman is now Bone, Sweet Bone, outpost of a Studio City emporium by the same name. Those among us who lack en suite laundry facilities must look elsewhere, but canine companions need not go without. Daycare, grooming, food, and life’s little luxuries: This doggie boutique has it all.

Meanwhile, the outbreak of chichi on Silverlake’s strip of Sunset near the Junction has spread eastward to the block across from Millie’s. APC 2Summer brought a proliferation of shops of the kind that display one resplendent item per square yard amidst a forest of blonde wood shelving.

Gone are the smoke shop and computer repair guys. In their place, Detroit’s Shinola has brought its odd line-up (bicycles, watches, and pricey leather goods). Next to it, Aesop, from Australia, prossibly the world’s sole skin-care company with its own literary magazine, sells high-end body-pampering lotions and potions.Mollusk

Surf shop Mollusk, its proprietors apparently believing the Silverlake hills must shelter at least a few surfer dudes, rents next to Pop Physique.

APCA.P.C., beloved for its $250 skinny jeans,* displaced Dustmuffin, which was shoved further east to the cluster of small shops near Descanso Street.

 

retrostupidfuture

 

In place of the mid-century furniture store, retrofuturesuper [sic] has taken up residence. Lady Gaga and Yoko Ono are known to buy the design firm’s high concept eyeglass frames.

More changes are taking place two blocks away, where Heywood, A Grilled Cheese Shoppe, closed in the spring. (I marvel that it survived four years in that location serving only variations on bread and melted cheese at $10 to 14 a plate.) AYet another coffee bar will open in its place, despite being less than 100 yards from Muddy Paw, Muddy Pawthrowback to an earlier era, with its fair trade brews and and donations to pet rescue charities.

 

I feel the need to point out that in the block between these stores selling goods no one really needs at top dollar prices lies Micheltorena Elementary School. Micheltorena’s entire student body—roughly 300 pupils—qualifies for free breakfast and lunch.

A bit of relief from this press of hipster chic comes, surprisingly, from Diablo, the bar/eatery that pushed out family-owned La Parrilla. Diablo originally touted itself as an “Urban Taco Fabricator.” DiabloNo, really; it used to say so on the outside of the building, right underneath it’s red-on-black name. If you look closely at the photo you’ll see that its pretentious tagline has been quietly painted out.

Sometimes, things do get better.

 

* To give you a sense of the high regard in which these garments are held, I quote from a Yelp posting by Tyler B. of NYC: These jeans are everything. Seriously, APC makes the best jeans. Never in my life have I had a pair of jeans I’ve adored so much. I’ve been through them all in my life, back in the day I liked Sevens, True Religions and Rock & Republic, you know, jeans that were trendy and loved ONCE UPON A TIME, NOW THEY MAKE ME SICK TO MY STOMACH. I’d rather be a fucking homebody and never show my face in public then wear fucking True Religion, gross. Since then I have tried other designer jeans and I never LOVED them, I never have had a pair of jeans that I truly adored, that truly fit me perfectly and showed my perfect legs…UNTIL A.P.C.

These jeans are so necessary, words really can’t describe. I bought my first pair and the next day went back to the store for more. They mold to your body, you will look amazing as long as you’re not like 300 pounds…actually maybe even then you’ll be okay because these jeans are THAT good.

Coming soon

July 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

It must be five years since the Coffee Table, a beloved Silverlake eatery and gathering place on Rowena, was closed  and boarded up, victim of a developer’s scheme to install condos in its place. Eventually it was razed along with a ratty board and care facility and several storefronts; the 1.44 acre parcel then sat empty.

I’ve never thought of myself as one to nurse a grudge, yet every time I walked to Trader Joe’s past the lot devoid of all but opportunistic castor plants, I grumbled at how neighborhoods are forever at the mercy of someone with enough cash to rip the heart out of them.

coming soonTwo years ago, a sign appeared behind the property’s chain-link fence: “Coming soon! 29 Twenty, Exciting 2 & 3 Bedrooms, Contemporary Design.” A privately-held investment firm based in Miami, Fifteen Group, had acquired the land and stuck a deal with SoCal developer Van Daele Homes to build 33 townhouses (“townhomes” in real estate-speak).

tree

“Soon” was a relative term; nothing happened at the site until March, IMG_16372014, when the city affixed notices to three mature shade trees–a Chinese flame and two jacarandas–announcing its intent to remove them for sidewalk widening. That got the attention of neighborhood residents, who countered with their own signs. More than a year later, the trees remain, though still under threat. The city has yet to set a hearing regarding their removal.

Earlier this year, construction finally began: workers graded the parcel, poured concrete slabs, and began work on a concrete retaining wall.

Rowena

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve searched for the source of my annoyance with 29 Twenty: it starts with feeling that despite neighborhood councils and talk of civic engagement, in L.A., new developments happen to us, not because we decide what our neighborhood needs.

Silverlake is a desirable place to live. More families want in and those families need a place to live. I get that.

But why should Silverlake be an enclave for only the well-monied? Floor plans for these units show three-level, attached units from 1,356 to 2,275 square feet, two to three bedrooms,  2.5 or 3.5 bathrooms, and roof top decks. No prices have been listed for the Rowena project, but at Van Daele’s Morton Street development in Echo Park, comparable units start in “the low 800s.”

Both developments feature the glitz du jour: quartz counter tops, stainless-steel appliances, master suites, walk-in closets, multiple bathrooms–though no yards, community gathering spaces, or even green spots.

Los Angeles needs less glitz, more affordable housing, and more ways to build community. The Coffee Table at least gave us the latter; 29 Twenty strikes out on all counts.

 

 

Unclear on the concept

July 6, 2015 § 1 Comment

Got grass?

The L.A. Department of Water & Power and the Metropolitan Water District will pay you to get rid of it: $3.75 per square foot for the first 1,500 sq. ft, then $2 up to the maximum 3,000 sq. ft. A good deal for home owners and landlords who are tired of paying $4.83 for every hundred cubic feet of water (~750 gallons) to keep lawns green.

The one condition attached to the California Friendly® Landscape Incentive Program (yes, they’ve trademarked the term): Turf should be replaced with “water wise landscaping features.” Examples given are California-friendly plants, mulch, and permeable pathways. I’ve previously featured two exemplary Silverlake sites (here and here), completed when the rebate was a mere $1.50 per sq. ft.

turfNow comes Silverlake’s latest low-water entry: this multi-family dwelling on Armstrong Avenue. Its owner will get the rebate, I suppose, because the new landscaping technically meets the program’s requirements. It’s permeable and a rock lawn doesn’t need to be watered.

But a rock pile hardly adheres to the spirit of  “California Friendly.” Water wise plants not only use little water, they convert the sun’s rays into self-nourishment and exchange CO2 –the dominant greenhouse gas–for oxygen.

Instead of lowering temperatures as plants would, these rocks will absorb summer’s heat and radiate it long into the night, keeping ambient temperatures high. And unless these are very special rocks, they’re not going to supply us with oxygen.

Gentle Reader, let design-impaired neighbors know that if they want to conserve water, they can simply turn off their sprinklers. Tell them you’re okay with a brown lawn, which will, after all, revive during the next rainy season.

Even Ezekiel, however, could not revive this pile of dry rocks.

N.B. For a dry landscape alternative to Ye Olde Rock Pile, read this piece about Japanese kare-sansui by my friend Meher McArthur, Asian art historian/curator and blogger.

A new heaven; same old earth

July 23, 2014 § 2 Comments

IMG_0502

Silverlake living is yours in the height of contemporary tri-level townhomes with a rare sophistication in luxury and style. Lavishly appointed residences offer 2, 3 and 4 bedrooms, offices, stunning roof top terraces and square footage ranging from approximately 1,243 to 1,910. You are minutes from downtown and everything that is happening. Follow life’s directions to a new experience . . .

A writer got paid for coming up with this bit of promotional fluff, which, as a member of the National Writers Union, ought to make me happy. To the contrary, my teeth hurt reading such drivel, particularly as it describes a condo development in my neighborhood.

Nebulous, and a more potent signifier for being so, “Silverlake living” hints at more than just “residing in the neighborhood of Silverlake.” “Silverlake living” is now a commodity, a desirable thing that can be bought and sold. “Silverlake” used this way is not a place on Earth, a neighborhood with tangible houses, streets, trees, coyotes, and people but an adjective modifying “living.”

Lacking explicit meaning, “Silverlake living” becomes a repository for whatever potential residents might desire: a residence close to the Meadow and Griffith Park; good schools; relative safety; high resale value because of all the foregoing. Regardless of what ownership might in reality entail, and the high tension lines running across the property are nowhere mentioned, this fill-in-the-blanks ad-speak offers everything and nothing.

More than mere habitation, these condos, the developers suggest, will endow their owners with a certain cachet, a social significance that bestows identity on residents—-but will their lives as actually-lived define what “Silverlake living” consists of?

According to the copywriter, residents will acquire sophistication and style, along with a lavish and luxurious home. They will be close to downtown—which could mean Disney Hall, Bunker Hill offices, or clubs like The Edison, but not, presumably Skid Row—and “everything that is happening,” a promise of cosmic proportions.

I don’t imagine that the “life directions” we’re urged to follow are our moral compass, or urgings of conscience, social concern, or revolutionary zeal, but the lemming flow of perceived hipness and nonconformist conformity. This “new experience,” the website intimates, will elevate us above the hoi polloi, or, failing that, at least be new, the true marker for American exceptionalism.

And what have the site’s developers christened their project? The perfect ad-speak appellation: Latitudes, a word suggesting “scope for freedom of action or thought.” The designation insinuates that wherever you live now, you are constrained, prevented from reaching  heights you know you deserve to inhabit. Move to Latitudes and an expansive life awaits you.

Back in the day, only religions offered these kinds of pie-in-the-sky inducements. Tri-level townhomes, it appears, are the new Paradise.

Unclear if pearly gates are part of the package.

The Chandelier Tree

July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Have you seen the Chandelier Tree?

A tall, spreading sycamore at the corner of W. Silverlake Drive and Shadowlawn Avenue, by day it seems a marvel because of the variety of chandeliers suspended from branches high and low.

At night, it’s pure magic.Chandelier tree, night

The L.A. Times scooped me on this item, writing in the “Saturday” section (July 13, 2014) that the creator and keeper of the tree is Adam Tenenbaum; he began the installation seven years ago; and there are 30 chandeliers, hung with the aid of his aerialist roommate, Brion Topolski.

The article also reported that lighting the tree costs Adam $200 in electricity every month. Which is why I drop a quarter into his quirky donation box–a repurposed parking meter–whenever I stop by.

Visit soon; lit or not, the utter whimsy of the installation is immensely cheering.
Chandelier tree, donations

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