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Sam Hall Kaplan

Artists Sketch Natural Look for Arroyo Seco

March 03, 1985|SAM HALL KAPLAN

There is a fascinating exhibit in the Baxter Art Gallery at Caltech in Pasadena that explores the possibilities of converting the Arroyo Seco to better uses.

Though billed as public art, the exhibit by Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison, in my estimation, is first and foremost an imaginative piece of landscape architecture that deserves serious consideration.

Mayer and Harrison suggested in a series of convincing panels and illustrations that since the arroyo's water flow can be controlled in a variety of more imaginative and hidden ways, the open concrete spillways really were not needed, and how nice it would be if they could be removed and the land converted to a linear park with a lovely stream running through it.

The artists noted on one of the drawings that the estimated $10 million needed to stitch "the incision together, reestablishing the stream (and) bringing this unique and necessary public space into a new coherence," seems modest enough, considering the park land that would result.

It would be a marvelous resource, at a reasonable price, given the need for such space and the present cost of land in the area.

Return to Nature

"Ultimately, the Arroyo Seco Release is a model for using technology to help return a natural system to its original appearance and function," writes Jay Belloli in an introduction to an exhibit catalogue. "The technology remains, but it is placed underground. What is visible is a metaphor for the environment: as the Harrisons write in their drawings, the river becomes continuous, the banks are continuous, the Arroyo is again made whole."

The exhibit, which, unfortunately, closes today, makes one think of the possibilities of rediscovering the Los Angeles River, ripping up its ugly concrete, taking down its nasty fences, landscaping it and controlling it to be a magnificent natural resource, the spine of a continuous park, instead of an open sewer.

Other cities, such as Denver, Phoenix and San Antonio, have converted their flows of water into attractive resources for residents and tourists, while, not incidentally, greatly enhancing the bordering real estate values. Living next to a gently flowing, landscaped recreational river is quite different from being next to a spillway.

And as for the "100-year flood" that civil engineers always seem to be using as rationale to pave over every downhill ditch, various studies have shown that it can be accommodated.

Wonderful Project

What a wonderful project it would be to convert the river into a resource. What a challenge to our city and county planners, landscape architects and engineers. All that is needed is some imagination and a sympathetic understanding of the region's varied ecology.

Unfortunately, this is just the type of thinking that is missing among our planning and engineering officials. It is a shame, for the region is so full of such possibilities. Leave it to artists such as Mayer and Harrison to remind us.

As for the modest Baxter Gallery, once again it has performed a public service with an exhibit. Unfortunately, it will be among its last, for Caltech has announced its closing. Could it be the revenge of engineers against artists? Certainly, the cost of operating the gallery is a pittance compared to the defense grants the school enjoys.

Whatever happened to . . . the imaginative plan developed by the UCLA's Urban Innovations Group to redevelop the Broxton triangle in Westwood, submited nearly four years ago to the city's Department of Transportation?

The plan called for improving parking, traffic circulation and pedestrian amenities, while increasing city revenues by making better use of what is now a surface parking lot. Of course, it also called for limiting traffic on Broxton to one-way movement and actually narrowing the street to widen and landscape the sidewalks.

Apparently this is a concept that confuses the Department of Transportation, so bureaucrats there are doing what they usually do when confronted with an idea not their own, especially a good one that can improve the quality of life in the city. They are sitting on it.

A better fate, hopefully, is in store for the general plan being developed to restore and revitalize Barnsdall Park. A year ago, Mayor Tom Bradley appointed an impres sive task force to study the floundering recreational and cultural oasis in East Hollywood. It is now time for some action, before the security, maintenance and program problems there get worse, making the situation that much harder to improve.

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