For years, Chris Reed would drive by the vacant lot in his neighborhood wondering what could be done to make the dirt patch more pleasing to the eye.
Then he got the idea to plant a garden and talked to his University Hills neighbors about it. They liked the idea so much that 85 of them decided to pitch in.
Some residents gave up their weekends to shovel dirt and plant shrubs. Others served lemonade. It took them about a year to complete Garden Park, but their diligence has paid off. Not only is the garden the neighborhood's most popular gathering spot, it recently received an award of excellence from American Institute of Architects Orange County chapter.
"We tried to make it distinctive, something reflective of the neighborhood," said Reed, a chemistry professor at USC. "In Irvine, I found kind of a sterility to the planned neighborhoods. Everything sort of looked the same.
All residents in University Hills, to which Garden Park belongs, have at least one family member working at UC Irvine. The 100-acre academic enclave is nestled at the dead end of Vista Bonita Drive, and Garden Park is on nearby Los Trancos Drive.
Judges for the institute selected Garden Park as an award recipient because it showed "deliberate creation of a neighborhood place through direct, grass-roots community action, . . . creating closeness among neighbors in the process."
Another Irvine community, Woodbridge, was recognized by the institute this year for being a model master-planned community.
"Residents identify with its comfortable sense of place and the diversity of its neighborhoods," the judges wrote of Woodbridge. "Active community involvement is encouraged."