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Green Visions for a Mundane, Urban Landscape


LONG BEACH — In the back yard of downtown--on the broad plain dotted with old apartment buildings, Victorian houses, Spanish Colonial cottages and rows of condominiums--neighborhoods are so much alike that most residents can't tell where one begins and the other ends.

These crowded blocks of the poor and the well-to-do, of Latinos, Asians, blacks, and Anglos, have become the inspiration for two Long Beach architects, who have a plan to make each neighborhood a safer, friendlier, more beautiful place to be.

Alexander Vucelic and Michael Evans have a design to turn downtown neighborhood districts such as Willmore City, Wrigley, East Village and Craftsman into individual, leafy oases. Tree-lined traffic islands would provide entryways into each district. Small, grassy traffic circles with trees and flowers would be placed at various intersections throughout the neighborhood to slow traffic and add greenery. And finally, each neighborhood would have a lush, one-acre park--much like the English village square or the Mexican plaza.

Eventually, Vucelic and Evans hope to turn the 15 Long Beach neighborhoods into 15 "Civic Gardens," each with a distinct signature, such as different trees, flowers or a sculpture garden.

Vucelic said the project would not only beautify each neighborhood, it would also get people back outside, mingling with their neighbors again.

"We spend . . . billions on the national park system, but the system is used only by a minuscule part of the population," he said. "It is not used by people who don't have the freedom to drive to Yosemite and pay the $5 entry fee. That fee is a lot to someone who earns $9,000 a year and has to support four children."

The concept has received raves from several neighborhood organizations and the support of Councilman Alan Lowenthal and Planning Commissioner Anthony Tortorice, who recently sponsored a garden wine-tasting to raise funds to get the project going. Tortorice lives near Junipero and 3rd streets in the Carroll Park neighborhood that--with its small park, quiet residential streets and greenery--is a sort of prototype for the Civic Gardens.

"This is just an idea whose time has come," said Jose Ulloa, a resident of the Craftsman district who is working with the architects to bring parks to his neighborhood. "People are getting excited about the simplest things--like a tree. . . . The thing is, we want to keep the identity of our neighborhoods. We don't want them swallowed up by downtown."

Vucelic and Evans have a number of hurdles to leap, the largest of which is how to pay for the plan. The architects said they will not ask the city for any funds and intend to seek grants and private donations.

The architects, who have been working voluntarily on the project, estimate that the cost for a single civic garden, with tree-lined gateways, small, grassy circles at intersections and a one-acre park, would vary from $60,000 to $2 million, including maintenance costs over 30 years.

The architects say they plan to pay local youths to help maintain the parks. If everything goes as planned, the pair say the first park will be built in two years.

Still, some city staffers say the Civic Gardens concept is a long shot.

"They've gone out and got people all enthused, and when it comes down to reality, there is none," said Gary Felgemaker, who is in charge of community planning for the city of Long Beach. "Funding is shaky at best."

Felgemaker said that even if the architects get funding, their plans must win approval not only from his department but also from Parks and Recreation and Traffic and Safety.

Vucelic said he is working on establishing a Civic Gardens Foundation and hiring a grant writer. Once the foundation has enough money, everything else will fall into place, he said.

"We knew money would be the issue from Day One," he said. "I think there is the fear that people will demand it come out of city funds, but we will not ask the city for it. We are trying to take the load off the city."

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