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Urban Designers Turn Over a New Leaf, So Palm Trees Are 'In' Again

March 24, 1985|JESUS SANCHEZ

South Laguna landscape architect Frederick Lang wanted to have towering palms mark the perimeter of a Newport Beach hotel that was being built 10 years ago. "Tourists want palm trees," he said.

But Lang was hamstrung by the Irvine Co.'s master plan for the area, which banned the use of palms. He settled for a clump of palms in an interior court in the hotel.

The Irvine Co., however, has turned over a new leaf. As part of a "dramatic new Mediterranean look" at the Newport Center, the company will plant groves of date palms and rows of towering Mexican fan palms--800 palms in all.

Using palms in the $4-million landscape renewal of the center, where Orange County's largest private landowner is headquartered, is evidence of the species' return to favor among urban designers and landscape architects.

During much of California's building boom in the 1960s and 1970s, designers turned thumbs down on palms, the ubiquitous--although not purely indigenous--symbol of Southern California's mellow, and sometimes flaky, image. Lang believes those designers, many trained at Ivy League campuses set amid lush meadows or forests, most often tried to recreate an East Coast landscape when they came to California.

Palms were very popular in the 1950s, said Los Angeles architect Emmet Wemple, and "then they became a real no ." he said. The architects trained in the 1950s "have a dislike for palm trees," Wemple said, but "the younger people are more willing to try things."

As an architectural element, rows of tall, stately palms "enhance the size and scale of a project and the grandeur of the corporate image," said Don Henry, project manager for the Santa Ana office of POD Inc., a landscape design firm.

At Newport Center, the fan palms will replace small sycamores and poplars that were intended to give the center an East Coast look, said Roger M. Seitz, Irvine Co.'s vice president of urban design. "For a long time we were all trying to achieve something other than a regional look," Seitz said. "Nationwide, people are becoming aware of their own roots."

All of this has been good news for the state's palm growers, whose nurseries dot Southern California's desert areas. "We are swamped," one grower said of the increased business.

Mario Lugo, general manager of the Dunlap Nursery in Thermal, said that in a two-year period his sales of Mexican fan palms, the tall, thin palms that line the streets in many older Los Angeles neighborhoods, have doubled to 6,000 annually.

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