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The Dry Garden: Elmer Avenue becomes Green Street, a water-wise and solar-lighted community effort

July 23, 2010 |  8:03 am

Elmer-Avenue-Abalos-Front

For all-around grooviness, a Sun Valley block that two years ago had no sidewalks, no street lights, no storm drains and no curbs should be next spring’s hot ticket on the home-tour circuit. Thanks to a newly completed makeover involving one federal bureau, one state agency, as many as six city agencies, three nonprofit groups and 24 homeowners, Elmer Avenue has become the Rolls-Royce of L.A.’s Green Street initiative.

Granted, the term “avenue” is a bit grandiose when applied to this once-rutted patch of road between Saticoy and Strathern streets in the San Fernando Valley. What put Elmer Avenue in the running for a Rolls-Royce of a retrofit was sheer need coupled with the enthusiasm of its residents.

Elmer-Avenue-Veronica-Abalos Veronica Avalos moved to Elmer Avenue 14 years ago, just in time for the 1997-98 El Niño, when her street became a swamp. “Two inches of rain and we would get flooded,” she said. “I never would have moved here if I had known.”

So when teams from the city and county departments of public works, the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, TreePeople and Urban Semillas started showing up talking about installing a new curbside water- capturing system, she was ready to sign up. Elmer-Avenue-Bioswale-RainSo were the majority of her neighbors.

As talk turned from flood control to redesign of their yards and driveways, residents realized that something big was up. 

Increasingly bemused residents worked with outreach teams evaluating just how green they wanted to go, and a plan for Elmer Avenue formed. All 24 homes on the block would donate some of their frontyard closest to the street to the project. In return, all would get new curving sidewalks, solar street lamps and gutters with curb breaks feeding rainwater from the street into bioswales.

These bioswales, Watershed Council programs manager Edward Belden estimates, will capture the first three-quarters of an inch of any rain. Water that would otherwise cause flooding or be diverted by the city’s massive storm drain system out to the Pacific is instead gradually infiltrated into the ground, where it is banked in the aquifer.

The keenest 13 residents, including Avalos, opted for full garden makeovers. These makeovers would address not just the rain hitting the street but the storm water generated by their homes. Instead of rain gushing from roofs to gutter to driveway to street, many of the redesigned gardens have new permeable walkways and drives along with rain barrels that overflow into dry stream beds. 

To read more on the Elmer Avenue experiment and to see before and after photos of the remarkable transformation, keep reading ...

Elmer-Avenue-Before5 

Photo: Elmer Avenue before the transformation.

Elmer-Avenue-After5

Photo: Elmer Avenue after. The street was repaved, and new sidewalks and curbs were added. Bioswales along the sidewalk capture more rainwater and reduce urban runoff to the ocean. New streetlamps are solar powered.

When Tustin-based landscape architect Guy Stivers started work on the project in 2008, he knew it would be complicated.

“I didn’t want to tell my team that on a scale of one to 10 in terms of difficulty, this was 10.5,” he said.

The greatest challenge was offering homeowners a choice as to what they had in their gardens while striving for a “seamless landscape” up and down the street. Homeowners were offered a variety of plans and, within them, any or all of a number of eco-options, drip irrigation with smart controllers and Mediterranean climate plants for the landscaping.

Then there was the problem of integrating the rain-harvesting elements with the street, most specifically addressing: How do you get out of a car next to a bioswale -- in laymen’s terms, a ditch?

“We all wondered about that,” Stivers said. “The city started looking at it. We sat there and pondered this for days on end. We really couldn’t find much precedent.”

They settled on a flat setback roughly 18 inches wide covered with permeable concrete.

Another challenge, Stivers said, became teaching homeowners how to tend their new “high-performance landscapes.” TreePeople moved in with a community workshop.

Elmer-Avenue-Sidewalks-Curved One would need to compile what amounts to a phone book to cover the number of agencies that in one way or another took part in this project, either by funding it or doing the work. Start with the massive federal water master of the West, the Bureau of Reclamation, then move on to California’s Department of Water Resources, then zero in on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and just keep going to the city of Los Angeles' bureaus of sanitation, street services, engineering and more.

The final cost is not in, but a running subtotal, according to Watershed Council Executive Director Nancy Steele, is $2.7 million. If that sounds expensive, particularly given that the city of Los Angeles alone has something like 6,500 miles of paved roads that would benefit from the same treatment, consider the value of the water. The 37 acres drained by the Elmer Avenue Retrofit Project produces an estimated 16 acre-feet of rain runoff every year. “That is enough water to sustain the residents of the street,” Steele said.

Between population growth and climate change, it will eventually be up to homeowners on streets like Elmer Avenue to bank what, when pumped out of the ground and treated, will then become municipal water. Belden does a nice job laying out the social importance of the project in his introduction to the council’s Water Augmentation Study.

As Public Works Commissioner Paula Daniels and City Engineer Gary Lee Moore see it, Elmer Avenue and a few Green Street prototypes like it are exciting because engineered and standardized plans for urban rainwater harvesting are now available for free to any developer or homeowner. Going green is no longer a permitting nightmare.

For those interested in exploring L.A.’s emerging Green Streets, city storm water coordinator Joyce Amaro recommends checking out the Oros Street Project by North East Trees. She says the city’s Riverdale Avenue retrofit near Dodger Stadium should be finished later this month.

Back on Elmer Avenue, as a hot Valley day wound down into a less hot dusk, Avalos waved at a family who had come out to stroll her street instead of their own because Elmer had streetlights and sidewalks lined with fragrant sages. People arriving in cars and taking pictures have become so common since the unveiling a month ago, she no longer bothers to ask what they’re doing. “They love our street too,” she said, with a shrug that added: “Who wouldn’t?”

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable landscaping appears here every Friday morning.

CORRECTED: An earlier version of this post misspelled Veronica Avalos' last name as Abalos.

Elmer-Avenue-Before
Photo: Before

Elmer-Avenue-After2

Photo: After

Photo credits, from top: Veronica Avalos house and Avalos portrait by Emily Green; bioswale by Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council; before and after photos taken in the middle of the street by Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council; curved sidewalk by Emily Green; final before and after photos by Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council


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