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Landscaping fiasco at LAPD headquarters not over yet

The city spent $1 million on the grounds but zero for maintenance. Neighborhood volunteers filled in some of the gaps, but things keep going wrong.

April 06, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • A fence blocks access to part of the grounds at LAPD headquarters that is being re-landscaped. The city is plowing $400,000 into the latest upgrade.
A fence blocks access to part of the grounds at LAPD headquarters that is… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

If the penal code had a section on landscaping crimes, the Los Angeles Police Department would need a full-time squad to go after everyone responsible for the ongoing fiasco on its own property.

It's been 3 1/2 years since the new headquarters opened at 1st and Spring streets, and the city is still trying to get the landscaping right, with planter boxes empty, dead palm trees still standing, a scrubby dirt garden near the memorial to fallen police officers and piles of soil and sand blighting the landscape.

Cheryl McDonald, who lives across the street from the scabby south lawn that was supposed to be the centerpiece of a nice little neighborhood park, said the work has been "shoddy" from the beginning, thanks to boneheaded decisions that go all the way back to the building's dedication ceremony, which killed roughly an acre of lawn in October 2009.

PHOTOS: LAPD headquarters grand opening

"It's just embarrassing," said McDonald, "and it does not befit a world-class city. It does not befit my neighborhood."

It would have looked even worse if not for McDonald and other volunteers who pitched in on weekends to handle the pruning, trimming and fertilizing chores the city neglected in the first couple of years.

That's right. The city paid $470 million for a new facility, up from an initial estimate of $300 million, and spent nearly $1 million for landscaping. But it had no plan for maintaining the grounds, with the exception of lawnmowing by the parks department. And now another $400,000 is being plowed into the latest upgrade, which includes replacing plants that were healthy, but considered inappropriate by the city.

"Based on the financial situation the city was in, they simply didn't budget for maintenance," said Thom Brennan, head of LAPD's facilities management unit.

"It's not just this site," Brennan added, saying there were similar landscaping issues at the Rampart, Hollenbeck, Olympic and Topanga stations. As for Topanga: "It's an enormous piece of property … with a tremendous amount of landscaping and there was no funding provided to support that."

Susan Klenner, part of a group of volunteers trying to help out in Topanga, said trees were toppling and plants dying soon after the station opened. She said kids from the Miller juvenile camp were recruited to help out, and volunteers were pulling hoses and lugging buckets after an above-ground irrigiation system had rotted.

"Thankfully, we have the support of the community financially to make this project work," said Topanga Sgt. Thomas A. Mason. "The officers of the community relations office have done the weeding, watering and maintenance of the landscape."

But let's get back downtown, where we've only scratched the surface of what went wrong.

In preparation for a Police Foundation fundraiser in late 2009, trucks and cranes carved up the building's lovely new lawn, and a tent erected for the party effectively smothered any grass that survived the initial assault. I don't know who the geniuses were who planned the event, but Brennan said an added bonus was that the irrigation system was crushed by the heavy equipment. Soon afterward, a dozen wilted palms looked like they were being fertilized with Agent Orange.

Even after some improvements, the grounds, now mostly used as a neighborhood dog park, were never ready for a magazine spread. And matters got curiously worse late in 2011.

At first, said Brennan, it appeared that drains were rising up out of the ground. But that was an illusion. Instead, the ground was sinking. And so were trees and plants, some of which began to lean, topple and die.

You may be asking yourself why the ground was sinking.

"The soil mixture was incorrect," Brennan said. "It was supposed to be a certain percentage of sand and a certain percentage of organic material, and they got the percentages incorrect."

How'd that happen? City officials couldn't explain it, and Sal Martinez, owner of the landscaping company that did the original job and now has been brought back to fix the problem at no cost under contractual warranty, did not return my calls.

Adding to the challenge, though, is the fact that there's a parking lot under the building and parkland. So the trees actually sit in shallow planter boxes rather than rooting into the earth.

My advice: Even as the landscaping improvements are completed in coming months, with regular maintenance now budgeted and several city departments allegedly on the same page about who's supposed to do what, don't bet against more toppling trees.

When I toured the grounds, I bumped into LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and asked what he thought about the ground sinking all around him. He shrugged and said that at least the building wasn't sinking.

PHOTOS: LAPD headquarters grand opening

Not yet. But I did notice a problem with the stones bearing the names of those who donated to the memorial for fallen officers. The stones are discolored and the engraved names are washed out. Brennan told me the city is looking into what went wrong and what can be done about it.

Financial problems are one thing, said neighbor McDonald, but management problems are another matter.

"I wonder what counts as planning, and I wonder what counts as communication," she said, adding that she's often wondered who the heck "is running this train."

McDonald said the "good-news story" is that caring taxpayers will "suck it up" when necessary and volunteer to maintain city property.

"The bad-news story is that they have to."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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