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.