The Constant Gardeners

Arlington Garden gets a new name and new management as the city attempts to purchase the property from Caltrans

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 11/9/2017

Arlington Garden in southwest Pasadena is undergoing branding and leadership changes.

Betty McKenney, who along with her late husband and former Pasadena City Council member Charles “Kicker” McKenney founded and cared for the garden since 2005, has retired. The garden’s board of directors is expanding and has hired a new executive director, Michelle Matthews, who started July 1. And it has been given a new name: The McKenney Family Arlington Garden in Pasadena.

The three-acre Mediterranean climate, water-wise garden is located in the infamous 710 Corridor and owned by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which leases the property to the city. That lease expires in December 2018. The city, in turn, entrusts the property to Arlington Garden in Pasadena, a nonprofit corporation, which was established by the McKenneys.

Betty and Kicker were known as the “constant gardeners” and spent countless volunteer hours turning the ugly empty lot into the vibrant and colorful space it is today.

The city is currently attempting to purchase the property from Caltrans through the state agency’s ongoing surplus sales process, according to Assistant City Manager Julie Gutierrez, who sits on the garden’s board of directors as the city’s representative.

“We’ve had a couple meeting dates that Caltrans unfortunately canceled,” said Gutierrez. “Our goal is to chat with them about the property and several other properties that the city would like to look at acquiring. We are trying every other day to get a hold of Caltrans. We have quite a few issues with them.”

Back to its Roots

The property was originally the site of the historic Durand House, “one of the most elegant homes on South Orange Grove Boulevard,” according to Kirk Myers of the Pasadena Museum of History. In April 1902, John Durand purchased 10 acres known as Arlington Heights. The existing Victorian home was removed and “a team of skilled workmen spent more than three years executing architect F. L. Roehrig’s reconstruction of a chateau in France admired by Mr. Durand. With 17,000 square feet of floor space — 50 rooms in three stories — the home was said to be the largest in Southern California, if not the entire Southwest. A setback of more than 600 feet from South Orange Grove Boulevard allowed landscape architects to create a ‘tropical paradise’ in front of the mansion, with palms, cacti and century plants besides hundreds of varieties of flowering bushes, including roses and chrysanthemums. A hedge of Cherokee roses extended along Arlington Drive, toward the Busch home on the opposite side of Orange Grove. A small orange grove was set out in the rear of the home, along Pasadena Avenue.”

The year after John M. Durand III died in 1960, the furnishings and art objects were sold at public auction and the home was demolished. Three remaining acres became an empty lot with seven palm trees, two oaks, a jacaranda, a pepper tree and lots of weeds for nearly a half-century. After a rainstorm, high school kids would spin donuts with their cars and knock down trees, McKenney said. Just about every Fourth of July there would be a fire.

Caltrans acquired the property in the 1960s along with about 460 properties with the intention of razing the houses and building a freeway connecting the 710 and 210 freeways. Caltrans originally purchased the property for $330,000. After the city recently rezoned the property as open space, their appraisal set the price at $125,000.

“Our concern was that Caltrans would want the property for market housing, and we probably couldn’t afford that,” said Gutierrez. “As open space land, we could. Because it’s been rezoned, Caltrans shouldn’t be able to sell it as residential. We rezoned it in an open, public hearing process, so they did have an opportunity to speak up and they did not.”

Shortly after the McKenneys moved next door in 2002, District 6 City Councilmember Steve Madison reached out to neighbors to see what they would like the property to become. The McKenneys volunteered to come up with a good use for the site.

“It was pretty clear people wanted something passive,” said McKenney. “They didn’t want buildings or tennis courts or soccer fields or parking lots. I said if they want something passive it needs to be a garden.”

McKenney read Jan Smithen’s book “Sun-Drenched Gardens: The Mediterranean Style” and took notes at her lectures. They worked with Mayita Dinos, who designed the garden featuring drought-tolerant plants, and with Cal Poly students who drew up concept plans. In 2003, the city acquired a lease from Caltrans and approved the plans. The nonprofit Arlington Garden in Pasadena, along with the city’s Public Works and Water and Power departments and Pasadena Beautiful, then brought the garden to life.

The garden has become so successful, Matthews said, that “it looks like it’s been here for 30 years, instead of 10. Primarily it’s been a volunteer community labor of love.”

Conscious Expansion

Other changes have either been made or are in the works, as well. An electrical panel has been installed in anticipation of a new fountain in the orange grove. They are partnering with Theodore Payne to put in a native garden. The irrigation system is being improved. In the early years, the McKenneys hand-watered the young garden.

The garden now has security patrol at night, as well as security cameras and motion sensor lights. They are also looking at pricing a security fence.

“The garden is supposed to be closed when it’s dark, but people are here,” said McKenney. “We’ve also found things gone missing — plants, wheelbarrows, rain barrels — so people are coming with good intentions and not so good intentions. It’s becoming an issue.”

The garden has also seen a huge increase in the number of people who visit. McKenney and Matthews said the use of the garden is changing. Some of those uses are compatible, and some are not.

“We’ve had birthday parties for 3 year olds out here, and it’s really not that kind of place,” said McKenney. “Parents sometimes just turn their kids loose in the garden, not understanding that some of the plants are poisonous and some of the places they end up walking are really not paths. Sometimes we get ‘flash weddings.’ These great big limos pull up and let 20 people out and their guests take up all the parking on Arlington, there’s no parking on Pasadena Avenue, and it’s not very safe to park on Orange Grove. We’ve had prom goers come by here and have their prom pictures taken, a use we never envisioned. People are finding lots of ways to enjoy the garden.”

Amateur photography is allowed and free, but professional photographers are asked to pay a nominal fee and obtain a permit in order to shoot weddings, groups, portraits and lighting setups in the garden. Private parties are by permission only.

“We’re looking into what makes sense to charge and the numbers of people we can handle,” said Matthews. “We want to be conscious of our impact on the community.”

The garden’s management also wants to increase the amount of the events at the garden, as long as they are compatible with the neighborhood. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, the garden is hosting Art on Palm, an arts and crafts fair showcasing 50 artists in jewelry, clothing, ceramics, photography, wood-working and glass. Last month, the garden hosted an art auction as a test run event, and the American Institute of Architects held a birdhouse competition. The garden was recently featured on the international Mediterranean Garden Society tour. The Audubon Society will be conducting a bird count this year, the first since 2008.

More events are tentatively planned for next year, such as a classical music performance and an Earth Day event. They have also applied to be on the Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden tour.

“We hope to engage the public and have arts and cultural activities, as well as be an outdoor classroom and resource for schools and universities,” said Matthews. “But we want to be sensitive to the fact that this is primarily a residential area. We want to make sure that we’re being smart about the activities that we do.”

The garden costs about $100,000 a year to run. The city gives $21,100 per year in addition to a $5,000 grant from Public Works, and the rest comes from individual donations and from selling marmalade made from fruits of the orange grove.

“We hope our marmalade produced by E. Waldo Ward will become a new tradition of quality and help sustain our public Mediterranean climate garden,” reads the label on a jar of Arlington Garden Sweet Orange Marmalade.

Matthews hopes to increase the garden’s operating budget to at least $300,000 to be able to fund new projects and hire in-house staff to replace the large hole created by the constant gardeners’ absence.

“In the long term, we’re doing strategic planning, and I’m looking to partner with local organizations, schools and arborists so the garden can be a resource for the community,” said Matthews.

For more information on the McKenney Family Arlington Garden in Pasadena, visit