Landscape Performance Benefits
- Sequesters an estimated 22 tons of atmospheric carbon annually in 800 trees on site, equivalent to the carbon emissions from the annual energy use of 2 homes.
- Provides habitat within the Pacific Flyway corridor for 60 bird species observed on site and provides breeding grounds for at least 1 tagged coyote.
- Increased the average park acreage per 1,000 residents by 13% for 111,803 Westlake neighborhood residents.
- Supports 4 major and numerous additional recreational and social activities as documented on social media platforms: 58% sightseeing, 14% social entertainment, 6% nature, 2% sports, and 20% other diverse activities.
- Educated an average of 1,485 visitors per year through an average of 67 programs in English and Spanish between 2008 and 2012.
- Serves approximately 1,500 to 2,000 athletes per week. The park added only the third publicly-accessible soccer field to the neighborhood, bringing the ratio up to 2.6 soccer fields per 100,000 residents compared to a country-wide ratio of 4 per 100,000 residents.
- Avoids an estimated $70,000 in irrigation and maintenance costs annually by using artificial turf instead of live turf for the soccer field.
- Creates 2.5 full time equivalent jobs, and provided more than 6,000 hours of employment during construction.
- Generates a projected $87,000 in annual revenue for park operating expenses from fees associated with professional filming activities.
At a Glance
Mia Lehrer + Associates
Former Land Use
100 N Toluca Street
Los Angeles, California 90026
Vista Hermosa – Spanish for “beautiful view” – was the first public park built in downtown Los Angeles in over 100 years. Previously an uncapped former oil field located in a park-poor urban area, Vista Hermosa provides residents of a dense, working-class neighborhood with opportunities for active and passive recreation, along with access to nature and its restorative qualities. The park marries environmental justice to social justice and serves the school pupils, at-risk youth, and residents of the surrounding, primarily Latino community and providing a safer environment in what was once a dangerous and contaminated vacant lot. The park supports state science education standards with its programming and is used extensively by the adjacent Edward Roybal Learning Center. As re-created habitat in the heart of the city, Vista Hermosa features California native riparian, drought-tolerant, and chaparral plant collections accessed by winding walking paths. The park provides a natural experience for those who are unable to take advantage of the native ecosystems in the mountains that surround Los Angeles.
- 94% of the park’s surfaces are permeable to allow stormwater to infiltrate and minimize runoff. Pollutants are removed as stormwater is filtered by vegetation, upland bioswales, green roofs and an artificial turf base material before entering the municipal stormwater system.
- A natural basin holds 100,000 gallons of rainwater and contributes to the retention of 95% of stormwater runoff on-site. The park’s steeply-graded topography directs runoff into the basin, creating a microclimate that supports native riparian species as a result of the concentrated moisture.
- A 20,000-gallon cistern collects stormwater runoff from the regulation-sized synthetic turf soccer field. It is located underneath the 21,000-sf permeable pavement parking lot. The captured water is used to irrigate planted areas on the site.
- A wide range of drought-tolerant native species were planted throughout the site and organized into 3 specific habitat areas. Riparian species include western sycamore (Platanus racemosa) and white alder (Alnus rhombifolia). Chaparral species include toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) and coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis). Coastal species include live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) and deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). Non-native, but adapted and non-invasive species like bougainvillea provide seasonal variation and interest.
- Drip irrigation is used to minimize water loss through evaporation, which is inherent in traditional spray irrigation systems.
- A total of 2,576 sf of extensive green roofs were installed on all park buildings, including the park headquarters and restrooms. Species planted include orange sedge (Carex testacea), dune sedge (Carex pansa), stonecrop (Sedum reflexum), and springstar (Ipheion uniflorum).
- A 0.4-mile trail winds through the park and provides choreographed views of the park and the city skyline beyond.
- Play features inspired by California wildlife include natural boulders, a waterfall and stream, logs, and custom-designed play structures.
- The 120-seat outdoor amphitheater hosts educational, formal, and informal events.
- Educational signage in English and Spanish explains the stormwater features on-site and highlights a selection of native plant and animal species.
- With its native plants, watershed components, and nature trails, the park serves as a living laboratory providing educational opportunities for school pupils and the community. These features complement the State Science Content Standards for California through after-school and extracurricular programs.
- Regular programming, often in both English and Spanish, by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy provides social and educational opportunities for local residents. The park is part of the “Transit to Trails” program, which provides free bus service from the park to the Santa Monica Mountains to give access to residents who would otherwise be unable to visit the large natural areas surrounding Los Angeles.
- The park’s gas mitigation and monitoring systems are in place to detect harmful levels of methane and hydrogen sulfide gases that may be released due to the site’s former use as an oil field.
Although the site had numerous challenges, one of the most difficult was the site’s toxic history as a turn-of-the-century oil field. It had never been properly capped and required particular mitigation measures for hydrogen sulfide and methane gases that were present in dangerous concentrations deep below the surface.
When the site design process began, the design team visited other developments that had successfully mitigated underground gases. The solution involved removing the top 36 in of topsoil, adding 18 in of sand, and then placing 18 in of new topsoil on top. This strategy allows escaping gases to percolate horizontally. By forcing the gases to move more slowly beneath the surface, they are released into the air at lower concentrations that are safe for human exposure. Synthetic membranes and vertical risers are used in venting systems to prevent the accumulation of toxic gases under impermeable slabs beneath park buildings and the cistern as well as in the adjacent school buildings.
The history of the Vista Hermosa site is complicated and entangled in the legacy of the landscape of the city and its politics. In 1997, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) received $2.4 billion in bonds to upgrade existing schools and build new ones. The park became a part of a negotiation during the school building and brownfield recovery originally referred to as the Belmont Learning Complex. Conceived and designed as part of the $2.4-billion initiative, the project was specifically intended to relieve local school overcrowding and allow students to attend school in their own neighborhoods.
Construction began, but in 1999 noxious methane and hydrogen sulfide gases were discovered on-site and construction was halted. LAUSD began the arduous process of exploring how to manage the site safely, performing more than 30 environmental studies and partnering with the Alliance for a Better Community in 2002 to determine if the site could be safely used. As a part of the environmental assessment, a study determined that the site’s oil reservoir was unlikely to re-pressurize, but it also identified a main fault line and a number of minor faults beneath the site. As it was not possible to determine if they were active or not, LAUSD decided to avoid building directly over them, which required the district to create a new plan.
In May 2003, LAUSD completed a study of alternative plans and decided to explore the feasibility for what was then called Option 4: Vista Hermosa, which included the construction of Central Los Angeles Area High School No. 11 and Vista Hermosa Park. Plans for two buildings that had originally been situated over the faults were canceled, and a seismic setback buffer zone was established.
While LAUSD maintained control and oversight over the school facilities on the eastern part of the property and would have priority use of certain areas of the park and the soccer field during school hours, the park was to be open to the public. The district looked to local partners to develop and manage the adjacent proposed park as part of its effort to improve not only educational opportunities but also surrounding communities.
LAUSD partnered with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA)*, a joint powers authority with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, to fund, construct, operate, and maintain the park through a long-term lease and joint use agreement with the district. Furthermore, the MRCA would provide three types of educational programs: school class programs, extracurricular after-school programs, and family and community programs. The district also formed a second partnership with the Stuart M. Ketchum Downtown YMCA to fund, construct, and manage the soccer field.
A gas mitigation and monitoring system was installed to ensure the continued safety of the site, and a 50-ft buffer was established over the fault lines where no structures could be erected. Through extensive research, modification of the original plans, and partnership with local organizations, LAUSD successfully negotiated the design and implementation of a full community-benefiting educational project on a geologically and historically challenging site.
*MRCA was established in 1985 to create and maintain parkland and preserve open space within the Santa Monica Mountains and other areas of the Los Angeles region. In addition to operating all Conservancy parks, the MRCA provides acquisition and legal services, planning and natural resources expertise, operations and ranger services, construction and special event services, and education and interpretation programs.
Vista Hermosa has an annual operating cost of $199,000, or $20,947 per acre. Nearby Echo Park, a more traditionally designed park that was renovated from 2011 to 2013, has an annual maintenance cost estimated at $1.2 million, or $44,927 per acre. This is $23,980 or 114% more per acre annually than Vista Hermosa.
- Maintaining the green roofs on site has been challenging, and it has been particularly difficult to keep the sedums alive. The plants have struggled and require extra irrigation and care. Since the park as a whole is designed to minimize water use, a roofing solution that incorporated water harvesting might have been a more appropriate selection.
- Permeable concrete paving in the parking lot requires vacuuming to clean dirt and natural debris from the spaces between the aggregate. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy does not own the necessary maintenance equipment; consequently, proper upkeep is often done behind schedule, and the pervious paving is not optimally functional. Planning and budgeting for this aspect of maintenance would likely have resulted in improved functioning of the material.
Custom Turtle Play Sculpture: Cemrock
Custom Snake Play Structure and Concrete Slide: LA Engineering
Custom Art Fence: Brett Goldstone
Drinking Fountain: Canterbury International
Benches: Victor Stanley
Waterfall Boulders and Decomposed Granite: KRC Rock
Irrigation: Rainbird; Hunter
Soccer Goals: Porter Athletic Equipment Company
Organic Compost: Earthworks
Concrete Unit Masonry: Angelus Block Company
Modular Green Roof System: Green Grid Roofs
Cistern: Invisible Structures, Inc
Owner: Los Angeles Unified School District, City of Los Angeles
Client: Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority, State of California
Additional Oversight: Division of State Architect, State of California, Los Angeles Unified School District
Landscape Architect: Mia Lehrer + Associates
General Contractor: Los Angeles Engineering
Civil/ Structural Engineer: KPFF Inc.
Electrical Engineer: M-E Engineers
Architect: ERW Design
Irrigation: Sweeney + Associates
Pond Consultant: EPD Consultants
Methane Mitigation Engineers: SCS Engineers, Meredith & Associates Inc.
Construction Specifications Consultant: Jerry Orland
Cost Estimating: C.P. O’Halloran Associates Inc.
Gate and Fencing Artist: Brett Goldstone Inc.
Public Art (signage, etc.): Art Share
Role of the Landscape Architect
The landscape architect began the process by working with the community and developing the site features from their explicit needs, rather than imposing an expected recreational itinerary. The landscape architect worked closely with the client to understand how specific needs for the park fit into the larger agenda of the parks program of the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy. Sub-consultants with complementary experience were assembled to create a team that could overcome the complexities of the site, including methane gas mitigation and irrigation needs.
Case Study Prepared By
Research Fellow: Kelly Shannon, PhD, International ASLA, Professor and Director, University of Southern California
Research Assistant: Christina Hood, MLA Candidate, University of Southern California
Firm Liaison: Claire Latané, ASLA, LEED AP, Senior Associate, Mia Lehrer + Associates
Client Liaison: Lisa Soghor, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy / Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA)
Additional Contributors: Travis Longcore, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Southern California
Molly Fancler, intern landscape architect, Mia Lehrer + Associates
This case study builds on research conducted in 2012 by
Research Fellow: Barry Lehrman, Assistant Professor, California Polytechnic State University Pomona
Research Assistants: Eric Haley, MLA Candidate, California Polytechnic State University Pomona
Mallory Piazzola, MLA Candidate, California Polytechnic State University Pomona
Edna Robidas, MLA Candidate, California Polytechnic State University Pomona