Urban oasis

Marco Barrantes and Michelle Matthews of La Loma Development transform the local landscape one property at a time 

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 9/26/2013

Since 2007, the Pasadena-based sustainable design and urban landscape architecture firm La Loma Development Co. has turned schools, parks, museums, residential properties and other landscapes into beautiful, environmentally sound Gardens of Eden.

Now they’ve begun converting the property once utilized by historic Paul’s Auto in Northwest Pasadena, which serves as their headquarters.
The 30,000-square-foot auto mechanic yard and warehouse on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Washington Boulevard is now being used as a center for green job training, ecological skills, sustainable development, urban architecture, permaculture, art and food systems.

Dubbed “The Shed” by La Loma founders Marco Barrantes and Michelle Matthews, an entrepreneurial married couple and new parents, it had its inaugural open house on July 14, with more than 200 people attending for presentations, food and live music.

Now, several more events are planned, with the next one taking place from 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday. Barrantes, Sustainable Food Systems adviser for University of California Cooperative Extension Rachel Surls, Muir Ranch Director Mud Baron and Panther Ridge Farms Manager and LA Neighborhood Land Trust Director Hop Hopkins will be discussing the past, present and future of urban agriculture in Los Angeles and how to shape current policy to encourage local communities to grow food instead of lawns.

‘Desert’ oasis
Barrantes and Matthews have big plans for The Shed. In what is currently a large concrete yard, they see a sustainable garden paradise.

“This whole location is the natural extension of La Loma’s original goal,” said Barrantes, principal of La Loma, “which is promoting, designing, creating and supporting sustainable communities with a big emphasis on local watersheds and food systems. We’ll have some sort of eco depot or permaculture nursery. Basically a demonstration site where we can really show off green roofs, green walls, green houses and natural pools, where we could hold educational workshops as well as events of any kind but specifically towards that end.”

The Shed is located in the middle of a large food desert in Northwest Pasadena. Barrantes said they want to have a food commissary on the property, which would include a partnership with the city of Pasadena in order to have food carts and trucks at the location. Jones Coffee said it would donate the equipment needed to have a café on site.

“We could have really big events, like farmers markets or crafts fairs or festivals,” said Barrantes. “With the food commissary we’ll help with the food desert problem in this area. There are a lot of people who walk by here from the different schools, there’s the business park and some city offices, so there’s a lot of people here and there’s no food. We want to solve that. By becoming more of a presence here we hope to change this derelict, no man’s zone that this corner was.”

Sustainable transformation
The Shed just happens to be the latest of La Loma’s varied and metamorphic projects. The sustainable development firm has been transforming public and private landscapes across LA County for years. It has received the Golden Arrow Award multiple times and this year won the city of Pasadena’s Green City Award in Urban Design.

They’ve worked on several local sustainable garden projects as well, including Arlington Gardens on South Pasadena Avenue, the rooftop garden of Art Center College of Design and natural habitats at schools such as Main Street Elementary in Los Angeles and Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale.

“We really like working with them,” said Barrantes. “The educational component in that is really fun as well, showing them that we can turn what was once just asphalt and dying lawn into a more natural habitat, a dry creek with a pond to attract butterflies, dragonflies and birds. We want to do the same type of thing for Kidspace Museum.”

Matthews said that her favorite project so far was the Public Fruit Theater, which was a broken concrete amphitheatre that La Loma built with artist collaboration group Fallen Fruit for LA County Museum of Art.

“It was a really pretty amphitheatre,” said Matthews, La Loma’s creative director. “There was an orange tree in the center to pay homage to the orange groves that used to be part of the county. We donated about $20,000 to get it built, but eventually they had us tear it down because it was in the way of a big tram that hauled the ($10 million, 340-ton ‘Levitated Mass’) boulder over from Riverside. I call it LACMA’s pet rock.”

Besides projects at parks and schools, La Loma also transforms residential properties into beautifully designed landscapes through urbanite, organic gardens, water harvesting and catchment, sustainable landscaping and engineering, green roofs, natural pools and habitat ponds.

The natural pools are an interesting feature because people can swim in them as well as drink from them.

“It’s at your own discretion to drink from it,” said Barrantes, “but it’s safe in the sense that it doesn’t have toxic waste, chlorine, chloramines or any of that stuff in there. It’s biologically filtered through the roots of the plants, which are growing essentially hydroponically in the gravel. If you really wanted to have it as drinking water you’d have to test it, but you feel good if you drink some of it, it’s not like you just drank chemicals. It doesn’t hurt your eyes or mess up your hair if you swim in it.”

“The main thing for me is when you go to these projects beforehand, you see a nice house with a lawn and a gated pool, and it’s fine,” said Matthews. “It’s like everybody else’s house. But then when you come back after Marco’s done with it and the design is done and everything’s installed and it’s a year later, it’s thriving. It feels good to be there. There are butterflies and hummingbirds and dragonflies. It smells good, feels good, looks good. It’s just a big difference and you notice it. People really love it. We have the opportunity to work with clients who really value what we do and give us free reign to do what we want. It’s a different energy, for sure.”

La Loma avoids putting in standard residential landscaping staples such as raised beds and planter boxes unless a client asks for them. They use minimal wood touching dirt, minimal lawn if any and minimal new cement if any. If a client wants a structure they try to be creative by using reclaimed wood, bamboo, timber and metal work. They get plants and materials from local nurseries.

“We try to walk the talk and stay as local as possible,” said Barrantes. “I totally cringe when we have to order something from Texas or Florida. Doesn’t make sense to me. We try to support local economies and have relationships with local vendors as much as possible.”
Family business

Barrantes and Matthews were introduced by a mutual friend in 2008 when Matthews was a senior designer at the Museum of Contemporary Art. At the time, she didn’t know what a landscape designer did. Her photography and artwork dealt with the failures of landscape. She was really impressed by the garden that he designed and built at his parents’ house. They began dating and he asked her to work with him.

After completion of what they call their demonstration garden at Barrantes’ parents’ house, Charles and Betty McKenney called and asked La Loma to help with Arlington Gardens, which Barrantes says was the catapult to success.
Barrantes, who has citizenships in Peru, Italy and the United States, got his master’s degree in landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, where he served for five years on the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission. This year, Barrantes and Matthews had a baby boy, Mateo. They said that running a business as a couple and new parents had its pros and cons.

“It’s beneficial but also a double-edged sword because you can talk about work all the time,” said Barrantes. “It never goes away. In any healthy relationship, when you work together, you have to have boundaries. I personally prefer not to wake up first thing in the morning and hear about something to do with work. But it is awesome; two heads are better than one.”

La Loma Development Co. presents “The Rebirth of an Agricultural Empire: From Top Food Producer to Food Desert, What Happened and What’s Next for Growing Food in Los Angeles County” from 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday at The Shed, 1355 Lincoln Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Visit theshedpasadena.bpt.me for tickets. For more information, call (626) 421-6185 or visit lalomadevelopment.com.

Flowing forward

Rally looks to demonstrate grassroots support for alternative of LA River restoration

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 9/26/2013

The Los Angeles River will soon be getting a makeover, according to a study released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week. The group is looking at five alternatives to restore 11 miles of the river from Griffith Park to downtown LA while maintaining existing levels of flood risk management, including a “no action” option.   

In response to the Draft Integrated Feasibility Report for the LA River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study, Tim Brick of the Arroyo Seco Foundation announced a “River Rally” to demonstrate and mobilize support for Alternative 20, which he says will result in the most expansive ecosystem restoration. The rally will be held at noon Saturday at the LA State Historic Park.

Along with the Verdugo Wash Confluence, Taylor Yard, Cornfields LA State Historic Park and Piggyback Yard, Alternative 20 would also include more restoration measures than any of the other alternatives to the Arroyo Seco Confluence, where the LA River meets the Arroyo Seco.
“It is crucial at this time to gather together the supporters of Los Angeles River restoration to demonstrate grassroots support for the best alternative that can be achieved,” said Brick, who organized the rally.

Along with the Arroyo Seco Foundation, the rally will include a litany of community groups and political leaders such as LAUSD board member Bennett Keyser, LA city councilman Gilbert Cedillo, LA River Revitalization Corporation, Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative, North East Trees, Anahuak Youth Soccer, Environment Now, Save LA River Open Space and Urban Rivers Institute.

“The Army Corps LA River Study is a tremendous step in the right direction and the Corps deserves to be lauded for its detailed analysis,” said Meredith McKenzie of the Urban River Institute. “Nonetheless, the study does not go far enough. True long-term restoration of the LA River cannot be achieved without the inclusion of both the Arroyo Seco and Verdugo Wash confluences as well as the Cornfields Historic State Park. The only plan that addresses complete restoration along the LA River corridor is Alternative 20.”

According to the study, restoration measures considered include “creation and reestablishment of historic riparian strand and freshwater marsh habitat to support increased populations of wildlife and enhance habitat connectivity; to provide opportunities for connectivity to ecological zones, such as the Santa Monica Mountains, Verdugo Hills, Elysian Hills and San Gabriel Mountains; the reintroduction of ecological and physical processes, such as a more natural hydrologic and hydraulic regime that reconnects the river to historic floodplains and tributaries; reduced flow velocities; increased infiltration; improved natural sediment processes; and improved water quality. The study also evaluates opportunities for passive recreation that is compatible with the restored environment.”

A formal public comment period for the study began Friday and will be open until Nov. 5. Submit your comments to comments.lariverstudy@usace.army.mil.

Homes on the horizon

Liu’s bill ‘gets Caltrans out of the landlord business’ after a half-century

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 9/19/2013

Tenants renting homes once earmarked for destruction by Caltrans are one step closer to owning those properties following the unanimous passage of a bill now awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.
Introduced by state Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge) and co-authored by Democratic Assembly members Chris Holden of Pasadena and Mike Gatto of Burbank, Senate Bill 416 expedites the sale of more than 500 state-owned houses which were acquired by Caltrans through eminent domain and hardship sales more than 50 years ago. The state seized the properties in order to construct a road through the Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno, South Pasadena and western Pasadena to connect the 710 (Long Beach) and 210 (Foothill) freeways. The so-called “footprint” of the road, which includes the homes, is known as the 710 Corridor.
The bill, which passed the Assembly by a vote of 77-0 and the Senate by 38-0 margin, gives current tenants in good standing the first right of refusal to purchase their homes at fair market value. Brown has until Oct. 10 to sign or veto the bill.
The houses are no longer needed for a surface route connector freeway, making them surplus properties. Caltrans is currently studying other ways to connect the two freeways, including plans for a 4.5-mile tunnel from where the 710 ends in Alhambra through Pasadena.
Caltrans is the landlord to tenants residing in about 400 of those houses, the rest of which have been vacant for years and have fallen into disrepair. According to Robert Oakes, Liu’s legislative director, Caltrans wants to relinquish its role as landlord.
“The agency has told us that they want to get out of the real estate business,” said Oakes. “They’ve been quite clear. This bill helps them do that.”
One of the ways it helps them in that regard is by removing the requirement that Caltrans make any needed repairs before selling the homes. If the bill is signed into law, Caltrans would be able to sell the houses at “fair market value,” redefined to reflect the “as is” condition of the properties. Current law, known as the Roberti Bill, named for former Democratic state Sen. David Roberti, makes Caltrans responsible for repairs.
“If you own a house and it needs repairs, as a private seller you can opt to sell as is,” said Oakes. “Right now, Caltrans can’t do that. They face a hurdle that a private seller doesn’t. There’s an artificial barrier. Some houses need a lot of work. (SB416) levels the playing field.”
In August 2012, the California State Auditor found that between July 2007 and December 2011 Caltrans, which did not verify the eligibility of tenants to be charged below-market rate rents, collected $12.8 million in rent but lost $22 million due to underpayment by ineligible tenants. During most of that period, Caltrans reportedly paid out another $22.5 million for questionable repairs.
The audit also found that Caltrans:
* Spent an average of $6.4 million per year on property repairs but could not demonstrate that repairs for 18 of the 30 projects reviewed by auditors were reasonable or even necessary. 
* Authorized repairs that far exceeded the potential rental income of the property. For 20 of the 30 properties reviewed, Caltrans authorized repairs for which it will take more than three years worth of rental income to recover the costs, according to the report.
* Transferred an average of $4.7 million annually since fiscal year 2005-06 to the state Department of General Services for property maintenance, despite the fact that the two departments had been operating without an interagency agreement. In some instances, Caltrans was unable to provide records to substantiate its approval of General Services’ work either before or after the work was performed.
* Possibly inappropriately charged 330 hours of labor to projects related to the properties.
* Estimated that the market value of all the parcels was $279 million, when the actual sale price for many or potentially all of the residential parcels could be roughly 80 percent less than the estimated market value, in part because of restrictions contained in the Roberti Bill.
Six months after the audit’s release, Caltrans began increasing rents by 10 percent every six months, until people are paying market-value rents on the homes. The first increase went into effect on March 1. However, questions remain regarding whether all the tenants in the 710 Corridor would benefit from the bill and when Caltrans would start offering the homes for sale.
Joe Cano, a resident of El Sereno and an organizer with the group No on 710, isn’t sure that relieving Caltrans of the requirement to make costly repairs is such a good idea. Under the Roberti Bill and SB416, all single-family residences must first be offered to present occupants who fall into either low- or moderate-income categories at an affordable price.
“This is a quandary,” Cano said. “Do these people really have the money to fix the houses? Would these houses qualify for a mortgage or are they in such ill repair that the banks won’t even touch them? It still puts the tenants between a rock and a hard place. Either way, they’re being mistreated. It’s a real complex situation.”
Roberto Flores, a Caltrans tenant and a member of the United Caltrans Tenants group, is also unclear on whether there are disparities between the Roberti Bill and SB416.
“The biggest question we have is whether we’re going to have to, as individual tenants, give up our rights under the Roberti Bill,” he said. “It’s going to be kind of strange for them to offer these houses without waiving these rights. If we’re not covered by the Roberti Bill, are we covered by Liu’s bill? Many people have stayed in these houses for nearly 40 years for the dream of one day owning these houses under the Roberti Bill.”
Oakes said that all existing law would stay in place, including the requirement that Caltrans offer replacement dwellings to those who are unable to afford the price offered for the residential property.
“The point is Sen. Liu does not want Caltrans to continue being a landlord for six decades,” said Oakes. “It has now been five. The properties need to be sold. The housing market is finally getting better, prices are increasing; it’s a good time to sell.”
However, there is no timeline in SB416. It does not require Caltrans to begin selling the properties by a certain date, though the law would go into effect Jan. 1 should the governor sign it. Kelly Markham, a spokesperson for Caltrans, did not have a comment on Liu’s bill or what it would mean to the agency if approved. “We’re not going to speculate at this time,” said Markham. “Call us back when the governor signs the bill.”
Oakes said that while there is not a specific timeline, “The direction of the bill is to start selling. It clarifies and accelerates the process.”
In an email to constituents outlining his legislative victories during his first term, Holden wrote that SB416 “ensures the timely sale of surplus homes currently owned by Caltrans in the now-obsolete 710 Corridor. This bill is a critical first step to restoring peace and security to neighborhoods long threatened by Caltrans’ poor property management and an ill-advised surface extension of the 710.”
Flores said the United Caltrans Tenants group is currently reviewing the bill to see how it affects tenants and will be asking Liu’s office to break down the bill’s language at an upcoming workshop. 
Cano said members of his group are looking at their legal options, but in the meantime, “everything’s pretty much in stasis.” 
“The governor looks on it positively, so Sen. Liu hopes he will sign it,” said Oakes. “We’ve had good conversations with Caltrans’ director and the agency’s secretary.”
“This bill gets Caltrans out of the real estate management business, generates revenues for local transportation projects and returns these properties to our local tax rolls,” said Liu in a press release announcing the Senate’s passage of the bill on Sept. 10.