The historic Highland Median, which we all drive past daily, will soon get some much needed love and attention from the City, thanks to the efforts of the surrounding neighbors and the Hancock Park Homeowner’s Association.
Adel H. Hagekhalil, P.E., Executive Director and General Manager of the Bureau of Street Services, now known as StreetsLA, told the Buzz that he and his staff will be meeting tomorrow afternoon with residents, as well as staff from CD4 and CD5 – which jointly share jurisdiction for the median – to discuss what needs to be done to maintain and improve it.
Currently, the median receives biweekly maintenance, but neighbors have reported trash being mowed over rather than removed, sprinklers shooting geysers of water from broken sprinkler heads during the early morning hours,and brown patches where sprinklers are either not reaching or not working.
“We are ready to listen and figure out what needs to be done,” Hagekhalil said in an interview this morning with the Buzz. “We finally have the resources and the commitment to improvement and maintenance of the median. We will find out tomorrow what is not being taken care of and I am confident we can come up with a solution.”
“I have been working with the community on maintenance and care for the Highland Avenue medians for years, as well as upgrading other community infrastructure in District Four,” Councilmember Ryu said. “With Adel at the helm of the Bureau of Street Services, we have someone willing to think outside the box and work with us on creating new solutions. I’m glad to see the Bureau work together with my office the community to bring long-term solutions to this neighborhood.”
Hancock Park residents have been fighting to preserve their beloved median for years. The grass-planted median strip, which runs a mile and a quarter from Melrose Ave. to Wilshire Blvd., and its now iconic palms – Queen palms (Syagrus romanzoffiana) and Mexican fan palms (Washingtonia robusta), planted in 1928- was designated a Historic Cultural Monument in 1972, after the city tried to remove some of the trees to create left turn lanes.
“At one time, the island (as it was known to local residents) was taken care of by the residents, ” explained Beverly Herman, who moved into her home on Highland Avenue south of Third Street in 1964. At the time, Herman said, the traffic wasn’t bad at all — in fact you could almost talk to the neighbors across the street.
“The city said they’d take it over and we didn’t know what the ultimate plans were going to be, until one day we learned they were going to put in left turn lanes on Highland. Well, we didn’t want that. This was a residential area; we wanted to keep it that way,” said Herman, whose husband, Gary Herman, Sr. served as president of the homeowners’ association at one point.
Herman told the Buzz that she got a call one morning asking everyone who was home to run down and try to stop the city from cutting down the trees.
“Someone called asking all the women who were available to run down,” said Herman, who is pictured below in as photograph from the Los Angeles Times coverage of the protest on Monday, January 10, 1972, with her neighbor, Joan O’Brien, holding her young son. “When we got there, the trucks were there so we put ourselves against the trees. Well, the city didn’t want to mess around with that and someone called the news media and it was put on the news.”
At the time, the City had planned to cut down 31 of the 71 trees to widen the street and add left turn lanes. According to news reports at the time, then Councilmember John Ferraro convinced the City Public Works Department to an eight-day delay in cutting down the trees, giving the residents time to be heard and City officials time to review the $200,000 road improvement project.
Later, at the urging of then Councilmember Tom Bradley, the City Council adopted a new tree cutting and removal policy that barred work between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. during the week or anytime on Saturday or Sunday, and on legal holidays, except with the express permission of the board. This new rule was intended to give residents an opportunity to speak out against the destruction of trees by requiring that notice be given prior to the removal of any tree. It followed an earlier directive that every councilmember must be notified when removing a “significant number of trees, or any outstanding tree specimen, especially a large historical or significantly handsome tree is proposed,” according to the Times coverage. Both ordinances were passed by the City Council so council members could hold public hearings on tree removals.
Shortly thereafter, the Highland Avenue median was designated the city’s 94th historic-cultural monument by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board, throwing plans to widen the street into disarray. At the time, Cultural Heritage Board President Carl Dentzel chastised city engineers for failing to let residents know what the city was planning, saying there is lack of communications between “city people who make things happen and those who pay…” according to the Los Angeles Times coverage.
The residents, known as the Committee to Save the Highland Palms, had prevailed. But there were still no assurances that the monument designation would save the trees, since the City had won federal funds for the highway project and would likely lose them. As one of the only through streets in the area, Highland Avenue was classified as a major highway and thus qualified for federal funds for road improvements, because traffic engineers planned to use it to connect the Hollywood and Santa Monica freeways. Fortunately for the neighborhoods, those improvements were never made.
While saved from destruction, the maintenance of the median has always been a battle. Herman told us how years ago, she went out with wrench one day and turned the water back on when she noticed the grass was dying. Unfortunately, she was caught in the act by a staff member of Councilmember John Ferraro, but she happily admitted she’d turn the water back on to save the grass and the trees.
Recently, the City cut off water to the median during our long drought. Once again, Hancock Park residents, through the HOA’s median committee, chaired by Cherokee Avenue resident Bill Newby, were successful in getting the water turned back on and have offered to help the city troubleshoot problems with the sprinklers. Most recently, the HOA asked residents to send e-mails to city officials, asking for a meeting to discuss a program of maintenance and improvement of the median, including planting new trees.
“The City must develop a plan for the proper, consistent and timely maintenance of the Highland Median,” wrote Hancock Park HOA president Cindy Chvatal-Keane in a recent message to residents.
“The Highland Ave. Median is an iconic landmark,” wrote Hancock Park resident Susan Silk. “I see visitors taking pictures from their car of the beautiful row of palms, with the green median and blue skies. It is important to maintain regularly. It is an inviting, beautiful parkway when the grass is trimmed and watered efficiently, when the garbage is cleaned up regularly, when the palm fronds are picked up after the Santa Ana winds! It makes a huge difference.”
Hagekhalil told the Buzz that the Mayor and the City departments are committed to supporting and enhancing our urban tree canopy. And, more importantly, there are resources in place to work with residents to address these much needed services. He invited residents to visit the StreetsLA website and get involved in their Stakeholder Advisory Committee.
That’s good news for Hancock Park residents and all of us who appreciate and enjoy the historic Highland Avenue median.