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No Drought of Desert Beauty at Eclectic Apartment Complex

Environmentalist owner saves water by replacing lawns with dazzling poppies and cactuses.

May 15, 2006|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Eastbound pedestrians on the north side of Blackburn Avenue, a Prada bag's throw from the Beverly Center, amble past duplexes and small apartment buildings in a dense, trafficky neighborhood that buffers commercial thoroughfares from streets of single-family houses.

After crossing Orlando Avenue, however, they may be surprised to find their ankles being gently brushed by California golden poppies, surreally transported from some arid springtime mountainside above Gorman.

For the next 40 or so feet, although smack in the middle of urban Los Angeles, near the busy intersection of La Cienega Boulevard and 3rd Street, they're in Philip Reavis' personal desert.

Reavis, 65, is a semi-retired industrial real estate broker who for two decades has owned and lived in Orlando Pueblo, a 13-unit apartment complex. He's long loved hiking and bicycling the dry hills that sweep up from the Los Angeles Basin, and when he bought the property he set out to demonstrate how city life might be lived in true harmony with the local climate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Apartment complex landscaping: An article in Monday's California section about an apartment complex landscaped with drought-resistant plants showed a photo of the building's owner with one of the plants. The caption said the man had decided to use plants such as cactuses, but the plant in the photo was from the spurge family.

So he ripped out the irrigation-dependent lawn, shrubs and trees that surrounded the buildings, layered the place in volcanic rock and planted cactuses and wildflowers, the latter of which treat concrete-weary urbanites to an eye-feast for about two months every spring. The cactuses have rocketed skyward and bulked out sideways, in some places jostling one another for space.

"It's been amazing," he said. "The land loved the plants. Things tripled, quadrupled, in size over 10 years. I've had to cut things back and spread things out because it's been so prolific."

He said he's not spent a nickel on watering the grounds since 1987.

In case passersby don't get the point, Reavis erected a rustic yard sign that declares: "We live in a semi-desert and 85% of the water consumed in Los Angeles comes from Northern California and the Colorado River. We use this water sometimes at great cost to the environment and animal life of our northern neighbors. At the Orlando Pueblo we have planted drought-resistant plants, most of which are native to California. They are beautiful, showing definite changes in our seasons, and require no water."

Reavis is dismayed thinking of all the water wasted in perennially thirsty Southern California, where, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, 30% of all water used is dumped on lawns and shrubbery. Stories in the media celebrating lush, irrigated gardens in the region and the very thought of the immense slope of lawn in front of Pepperdine University on Pacific Coast Highway leave him uncomprehending.

Drought-tolerant landscaping is not unheard of among single-family homeowners. Even some large-scale commercial developments have adopted the water-saving approach. Apartment building owners who've done so, however, are few and far between, according to local landscape designers.

"Most people who have apartment complexes don't think that far ahead," said Venice landscape designer Katja Perrey, who has fashioned such landscapes for clients. "They want a quickie, something as inexpensive as possible. I haven't had anyone with an apartment building who's that forward thinking."

Amy Nettleton, a South Pasadena landscape architect, said apartment landlords, even those who might consider drought-tolerant landscapes, "shy away from it because they're not confident about how it's going to look. Most apartment complex owners want something that's bulletproof. Another problem is that a lot of maintenance companies don't know how to take care of this."

The latter issue is one with which Reavis is familiar. "I have to watch the gardeners," he said. "They want to rip stuff out all the time."

For all of his environmentalism (he sometimes goes through the complex's garbage to make sure everyone is recycling), Reavis is no purist. Many of the plants in his domain are California natives acquired from the Theodore Payne Foundation, which is devoted to nativist horticulture. Many are not. He personally planted the poppies amid the volcanic rock but let stand several producing banana trees already on the property. He admits he can't accurately identify everything growing there. "I'm not one for names, but I know the smells of them and the looks of them," he said.

The landscape is not the only unusual aspect of the pueblo. In the complex's private backyard are a large solar-heated swimming pool, a bountiful avocado tree and Japanese-inspired wooden seating areas shaded by abundant bougainvillea.

Reavis shrugs off the tall, blank wall of the Orlando Hotel, which looks down on his private backyard preserve from across the alley.

"This is the city," he said. "People need a place to stay when they visit."

The idiosyncrasies of the complex, where monthly rents range from $900 for a studio apartment to $3,000 for a three-bedroom, have attracted tenants as content as the honeybees that nose the poppies in the front and side yards. "I always bring people here just so they can see how beautiful it is," said Jill Brust, 38, who followed three close friends to the pueblo three years ago.

Reavis said his tenants "usually move only when there's a life change, like getting married or taking a job in another city, because you can't find anything like this in the city. I tried keeping a waiting list, but people hardly ever moved, and by the time they did, the waiting list was out-of-date."

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