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Cities Subordinate Beauty to Durability in 'Site Furniture' : It's Survival of the Fittest on Streets

June 18, 1987|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

Bus benches, aluminum picnic tables and steel trash barrels seldom command much respect from the public they are designed to serve.

They are defaced with graffiti, carved up, stolen and, in the case of the tables, sometimes converted into ramps for loading vehicles into pickup trucks.

That is why special care must be taken in the design of what landscape architects call "site furniture"--benches, planter boxes, trash receptacles, drinking fountains and lighting fixtures that dot city streets and parks.

Their looks are important, especially in a city like Glendale where downtown redevelopment and beautification projects are geared to attract people back to the city streets. But so is the "furniture's" ability to survive the streets.

As a result, designers and officials are torn between aesthetics and the reality of vandalism and practicality. That conflict has come to the forefront recently because Glendale and other Southern California cities are paying more attention to the urban "street scene." And, since millions of dollars are involved, the choices can be difficult ones.

"Municipalities have become very discriminating in their selection of site furniture," said Evan Graves, Glendale's landscape architect. "They are willing to spend more up front in capital improvements to have things last. A private developer who builds a shopping center and sells it to somebody else is not really concerned if furniture starts disintegrating in three years."

So, Graves said, durability and low maintenance often take precedence over design and cost. "Some of the stuff is really weird looking, downright ugly," he said, "but functional."

City benches, for instance, should be comfortable to sit on, but not so comfortable that they invite overnight guests, said Robert Cardoza, an Orange County design consultant. He suggests that benches have backs, which allow users to relax, but also have dividers in the seat to prevent transients from sleeping on them. "We're looking for comfort, but not lasting comfort," he said.

Glendale city officials, on the other hand, said backs on benches are frequent targets for graffiti. The city instead will spend about $240,000 in state gas-tax funds within the next year to replace all of the 550 wooden commercial bus benches in Glendale with backless concrete ones, said City Manager James Rez.

"We're constantly looking for new equipment that is more durable," said Robert K. McFall, director of Glendale's Parks and Recreation Division, which switched five years ago to buying concrete picnic tables to replace worn wooden, fiberglass and aluminium ones.

Most building materials have drawbacks, McFall said. "Wood tables are carved up, require annual repainting and splinter. Fiberglass breaks relatively easily. Aluminum tends to bend, is light and gets moved around unless chained down, and the ribbed pattern on top makes it hard to clean," he said--not to mention its unfortunate utility as truck ramps.

The parks department spent $24,000 last year to remove graffiti, much of it scrawled on the more susceptible wood and aluminum tables, McFall said.

Concrete tables, on the other hand, are durable, easy to clean and are "vandal resistant," McFall said. The city has purchased only concrete tables for the last five years, even though they cost about $600 each, contrasted with $400 for wood or aluminum.

Earlier this year, Glendale removed the wooden slat benches that encircled sidewalk trees on Brand Boulevard in the Downtown Redevelopment Project and replaced them with cement planters topped by blue and maroon tile seats. Rez said the wood benches had been carved on and had deteriorated since they were installed in the street beautification project in 1979. "We've learned from our mistakes," Rez said.

A $3.8-million street beautification project now under way on northern Brand Boulevard includes about $175,000 for planter boxes, benches, news racks and other elements similar to those along Brand between Colorado Boulevard and Lexington Drive.

Meanwhile, in Glendale parks, dozens of steel drums and plastic trash cans, which cost as little as $8 apiece, are being replaced with 800-pound aggregate stone containers that are worth $350 each and are glued in place.

Many Are Stolen

McFall said the old cans "have become a popular item for people to take." He said about 200 trash cans disappear or are damaged each year. The weight of the new cans is supposed to discourage theft but is not a guarantee. For example, a dozen concrete planters, weighing 1,500 to 2,500 pounds each and worth a total of $10,000, disappeared one night last year from a building project in Westwood, according to Tom Seifert of Dura Art Stone, a Fontana manufacturer of precast concrete furniture.

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