Let it rain

A Portland-based developer employed an environmentally sensitive landscape architect to go the extra mile toward sustainability for a project in downtown Los Angeles that could raise the bar for city- required right-of-way improvements there.


The South Group, a partnership of Williams & Dame Development (WDD) and Gerding Edlen (GED), not only attained Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for one of its three condo towers collectively known as South, but voluntary streetscape upgrades by the developer also could help to reduce the amount of pollution that reaches the ocean via the city’s storm drains during heavy rains.

The improvements along the streets–designed by Ah’ be Landscape Architects, a Culver City-based landscape architecture and urban design firm led by Principal Calvin Abe–also create a pedestrian- friendly environment that accommodates street cafes and restaurants and adds quality of life for the residents of the South Group’s Elleven, Luma and Evo, which comprise the downtown’s first new residential neighborhood in 23 years. Bordered by Staples Center and LA Live on the west and the central business district to the east, South fills almost an entire block at 11th and Grand in the South Park neighborhood.

Today, residents of the South development and pedestrians alike are able to enjoy a morning Starbucks’ coffee at an outdoor table in front of Elleven or dine on modern cuisine at Hygge, a 6,362 sq. ft.

European-inspired restaurant and Danish bakery that recently signed on to the ground-floor retail space at Luma. The restaurant soon will feature live entertainment, outdoor patio seating and late-night hours on weekends.

The South Group’s improvements in the public right-of-way include wider sidewalks, created by dedicating project land; bumped-out curbs at crosswalks, increasing visibility of pedestrians while decreasing the crossing distance; rows of shade trees; matching benches, bike racks, trash cans and lights lining the streets, and downtown Los Angeles’ first and only storm water infiltration planters.

Those planters act as bio-swales, or bio-retention gardens, that allow water from the street and/or sidewalk to collect and then percolate down through deep constructed soils into the water table. A series of five planters that line the curb fronting Luma on Hope Street divert water from the street by way of tiny cuts in the curb.

The roads, gutters and sidewalks have been angled slightly downwards to let the water flow into the planters. If there is too much water for the first planter to handle, the overflow drains to the next planter and so on, working its way down. In theory, no storm water that enters the system goes back into the city’s storm drains.

The bio-swales contain perennial grasses and other drought-tolerant plant material. “They are designed like dry wells with three inches of rock mulch for erosion control and pollutant removal, 12 inches of soil and three feet of sand or gravel. The grasses and the layers of subsoil actually break down the hydrocarbons in a natural process called bio-filtration and all the particulates, the pollution, the surface oil and dirt that accumulate on the road system get captured.

If we have a 50- or 100-year storm, really heavy, the system could overflow and the water would flow back into the street. But the idea is that, when it does, the water is cleaner,” said Abe, adding that the Hope Street planters were modeled after the system designed for the Brewery Blocks, a USGBC-Gold level mixed-use project on the former site of the Blitz Weinhard Brewery in Portland that got a lot of recognition when it was completed by Gerding Edlen five years ago.

“The six infiltration planters on Grand only capture sidewalk water.

They are situated in the center of the walkway, which tilts backward from the curb and forward from the building, directing all water to the center, not to the street,” said Abe.

During Los Angeles’ recent winter storms, both series of planters did their job. But they almost didn’t get built at all. The city originally wanted to widen the streets, especially on Grand, to accommodate the increased traffic from the residential buildings.

Narrower walkways would have meant no room for rain gardens. “The developers, with their resources and their commitment, stopped the street widening and spent a lot of money to change their application,” said Abe.

It took Ah’ be and the South Group about six months of design review to convince the city council and the various agencies that the streetscape was an idea worth pursuing. “Working with the city was not an easy process given that the streetscape concepts were non- standard practices. It takes more than just a landscape architect to build these systems. It takes a civil engineer, and the architect that designed the building has to be involved. All the agencies had to be at the table–the department of transportation, street services, lighting. It’s a very small project, but a tremendous effort, and it’s a model that other developers and the city are looking at,” said Abe, who hopes that the project’s planters will set a standard for preventing polluted storm water from running off onto Los Angeles beaches. “If every project did this, there would be a significant impact,” he said.

Abe will conduct a panel discussion next month for Los Angeles County Civil Engineers. “They are studying this particular system and trying to figure out how to adopt this practice in some of their county projects,” he said.

Because of South’s success, the planning commission and redevelopment agency (CRA) soon may require developers to widen sidewalks and plant trees instead of widening streets. But developers shouldn’t expect much funding from City Hall. The cost, as well as the onus to maintain any improvements around most projects, likely will remain on the builder. With condo developments like South, the responsibility for most streetscape maintenance–excluding trees, curbs and street lights, which the city will manage–gets passed on to the homeowners association. Bio-swale planters require maintenance similar to other garden beds, but accumulated sediments must be removed and inlets and outlets checked periodically for erosion and blocking. One concern city officials and others in neighboring projects have is that over time owners will not understand the planters’ functions and might make alterations that prevent the system from functioning properly.

Committed to green
The South Group’s streetscape plan, including infiltration systems, increased development costs by about $2 million. The developer received no public subsidies for those improvements, but adding them aided in the approval process by demonstrating the public benefit of the entire project, as did aiming for LEED certification, being an all-union project and involvement with Minority Women and Emerging Small Business (MWESB) programs, said Jim Atkins, principal of WDD and The South Group.

“From acquisition through entitlement, design, construction and sales, to moving people in and providing warranty and customer service programs, the project was challenging from start to finish.

That is why, with the exception of the Market Lofts (built by CIM Group above a Ralphs grocery store on 9th Street), which had significant public subsidy, Elleven, Luma and Evo are the only three new built-from-the-ground-up condo projects that will deliver in downtown Los Angeles through 2008,” he said.

Most recent residential development in downtown Los Angeles has been the adaptive reuse of warehouses, office and industrial buildings.

But The South Group believes new construction is the best way to deliver homes that will have a lasting positive effect on the Los Angeles community. The joint venture of GED and WDD capitalizes on the partners’ successes in Portland’s Pearl and Waterfront Districts, where they joined to create new sustainable neighborhoods with a total of around 5,000 condos, town homes and lofts. Since coming to Los Angeles six years ago, the JV so far has infused the South neighborhood with more than $350 million of new investment and provided several hundred new construction jobs per condo tower.

Elleven is California’s first LEED-certified condo project and one of only a handful of residential buildings in the U.S. to achieve the USGBC’s gold rating. Luma and Evo are expected to be awarded LEED Silver ratings. The 13-story, 176-unit Elleven broke ground in September 2004, saw first occupancy in April 2006 and is entirely sold out and occupied. The 176-unit, 19-story Luma is almost sold out, with two units remaining at prices from $479,000 to $1.1 million. The 23-story, 311-unit Evo is scheduled for completion this summer.

Green materials used throughout the South development include recycled-content wheatboard cabinetry and bamboo flooring, which is both durable and rapidly renewable; natural, non-toxic and non- allergenic wool carpet; IceStone counter tops, made of a mix of recycled glass and cement that is 100 percent free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and pre-cast concrete that is known for its excellent insulation properties. Other environmentally sustainable design amenities include operable floor-to-ceiling windows that provide an abundance of natural light and air circulation, use of very low VOC-emitting paints, caulks, glues and carpet systems, highly efficient energy systems and water efficient fixtures such as dual-flush toilets.

“The LEED Gold energy efficiency results in a 20 percent reduction in heating and cooling costs for a 1,450 sq. ft. two-bedroom unit. The average DWP power bill is $70 to $80 per month,” said Atkins.

Up on the roof
South includes a number of green spaces designed by Ah’ be that improve aesthetics and sustainability and enhance quality of life for the residents. On the ground are semi-public courtyards and atop the parking deck that connects Elleven and Luma is a 13,000 sq. ft. terrace pool and garden from which residents are afforded panoramic views of the city and skyline and a private retreat amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. Various elements of that terrace garden include a lap pool, Viking barbecue for outdoor dining, custom pre- cast benches, a marble fireplace, lush landscaping and a water feature. Evo will have its own dedicated terrace on the sixth floor that will include a swimming pool and spa, outdoor kitchen and lush landscaping. On Evo’s topmost floor, 263 feet above the city, residents will enjoy a community lounge wrapped in glass that leads to an outdoor viewing deck with a fireplace.

The terraces at South are the South Group’s answer to green space demand. “These spaces are very important in the buying decision and product differentiation. They lend a hotel-like feel to the development,” said Atkins. South Group spent between $3 million and $4 million, or around $30 to $50 per sq. ft., to build the garden deck between Elleven and Luma and Ah’ be designed the space with water and energy conservation in mind. The extensive planting and green area, which encompasses about 50 percent of the deck, reduces the amount of hardscape and the resultant heat islands that pavement creates. A state-of-the-art irrigation system and drought resistant plants work to hold much of the water on site and reduce peak flow before it goes to the street, said Abe.

The terrace garden incorporates built-in Quick-Crete planters, filled with trees and bamboo, with an average depth of about 30 to 36 inches to accommodate soil, plants, water drainage layers and Hydrotech, a waterproofing elastomeric membrane. A similar membrane was laid across the entire top of the concrete podium parking deck before the gardens and other elements were built up. “It’s a double-proofing system because membranes have been known to crack,” said Abe.

The planters hold a combination of succulents and perennials that tolerate the garden’s hot and dry micro-climate and do not require massive root spaces. The height and volume of the bamboo mitigates and obscures the massiveness of the surrounding high-rises and provides screening for the private patio spaces of the residential units that face the terrace, while also allowing light to filter in.

Creating lifestyle
As more empty nesters and young professionals trade homes in the suburbs for apartments or condos in the city close to where they play and work, at the top of their wish lists are outdoor oases that promise respite from the daily grind. According to Abe, it is essential that outdoor space be part of city life, in particular in Downtown Los Angeles, where open and green space is sorely lacking.

During the Green Building Council’s award ceremony held at Elleven last October, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he would like to see green elements become standard in the city. “I want to see gardens on rooftops and more trees,” he said.

But Abe believes Los Angeles is faced with a dilemma. “The city and its CRA have priorities towards soliciting residential and other developments, but they are not aggressively pursuing an answer to quality of life issues, in particular open space areas in downtown.

The agencies seem to be pressing the private side to fulfill this requirement on a project-by-project basis. But I believe the opposite is required. The agencies should be responsible for building the green space and if they think of these spaces as a network of green infrastructure projects collectively, this will have a positive impact on the quality of life of the city dwellers in all demographics they wish to attract,” he said.

Meanwhile, despite the region’s real estate downturn, the South Group plans to expand its green residential model in downtown Los Angeles.

The company is gearing up to start construction this year on two ground-up high-rises at West 12th and South Figueroa that will add another 324 condos to the area and bring South Group’s total spending on downtown construction to $750 million. The 33- and 23-story towers with ground-floor retail will be at the center of a pedestrian path that will wind through plazas, paseos and fountains, all of which are expected to add vibrancy to the neighborhood’s streets.

“The South Group is committed to quality of life and sustainable practices, and that’s rare in this city. South has set an example of how a developer can build a property, be successful with their investment and be environmentally responsible at the same time,” said Abe.