In a city that contains hundreds of miles of recreational walks, routes and trails, the opening of a new jogging path sounds about as noteworthy as a Pinkberry christening or another starlet DUI. But the new scenic path that opened in December along the east side of Silver Lake Reservoir is no ordinary playground for fitness nuts and leisure strollers.
Several tortured years in the making, the path represents the latest leg in L.A.'s long-haul effort to revitalize the historic 127-acre reservoir area -- a seemingly straightforward project that has faced vehement opposition from community groups that fear an influx of undesirable people and a rise in crime.
To put it more bluntly: NIMBY (not in my backyard) alarmism in the form of a phobia of outsiders has struck at the heart of this famously liberal-bohemian enclave.
Naysayers aside, the opening merits a victory lap for landscape architect Mia Lehrer, whose L.A.-based firm not only designed the new jogging path but also formulated the master plan for the entire reservoir improvement.
For the last 10 years, Mia Lehrer + Associates has been making its mark on public-space projects throughout Southern California, with commissions in L.A. and Orange counties. Lehrer said the Silver Lake project ranks as one of the most satisfying but also frustrating experiences of her career.
"Here we have this asset, this beautiful body of water, and we need places to walk and jog and connect the community to itself," said Lehrer, speaking in her offices in Koreatown. At the same time, contingents within Silver Lake "were afraid of the improvements and believed that it would bring in the 'wrong people.' "
In concept, the new jogging path is the essence of simplicity. Spanning about half a mile, it snakes along Silver Lake Boulevard, starting from Armstrong Avenue to the north and ending at a popular dog park. Previously, joggers had to share the road with vehicles -- an obvious safety hazard.
The path joins an existing recreational trail on the west side of the reservoir that was completed in 2005. (It too was designed by Lehrer.) Together, the two routes cover close to 2 miles and cost a total of $4.4 million to build, according to city officials. A point of contention: Lehrer wanted to include benches along the east-side path, but some voiced concern that they would invite drifters to camp out in the neighborhood.
Another hotly debated topic was the type of surface to use for the jogging path. Some residents complained that the proposed use of decomposed granite was unattractive and messy. Lehrer argued the material allows rainwater to percolate (avoiding messy pooling) and is easy on the knees. (Lehrer eventually won the latter battle but lost the former.)
But the biggest hurdle by far has been the planned opening of the meadow, approximately 6 acres on the east side of the reservoir and bounded by the jogging path. Opening the meadow has always been part of the master plan, but groups such as Silver Lake Friends and Neighbors and Save the Meadow mounted campaigns against its conversion to a recreational area, particularly a proposed soccer practice field.
At one community meeting, Lehrer recalled an individual saying, "We don't want to see pinatas in the neighborhood." ("That comment stuck with me for years," said the architect.)
Brian Wakil, a Silver Lake resident and one of the most vocal opponents of the meadow opening, described Lehrer as "disconnected" from the community and said accusations of NIMBY-ism are ridiculous. "Lehrer's design for the reservoir just isn't a good plan," he said. "This is a historic area and the plan doesn't take into account the wildlife." Some of the opposition argues that the millions spent on the project would have best been allocated elsewhere. "I have no problem with others coming to Silver Lake. But why shouldn't we give the money to a community that really needs it?" said Kelly Hunt, a Silver Lake resident. "We're ignoring communities that are concrete jungles."
After years of acrimonious debate, a 3-acre portion of the meadow is finally scheduled to open to the public this spring. People can expect to see subtle improvement in the landscaping, especially more variety in the plantings, according to Michelle Frier, an associate designer at the firm. The Department of Water and Power irrigates the meadow three times per week; the refurbished meadow will contain more drought-tolerant native plants.
Lehrer said opposition to change has faded in the last five years as the Silver Lake population has become younger and more socially progressive. "There have been more young families coming in, and they have started to have a voice," she said. "They're more open to public spaces. It's a different generation."
Hiding in plain sight