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Landscrape Architecture

It seemed like a really good idea a few years ago when the Canyon Neighborhood Association began pushing for the conversion of the old hydroelectric site at Camino Cabra and Canyon Road into a public park. The area, closed off for decades, was covered with native grasses and wildflowers shaded by towering evergreens and stately deciduous trees — an inviting mountain meadow cordoned off by an ugly chainlink fence. The plan was to create a “passive park” — no bright lights, no basketball courts or soccer fields, just a quiet patch of land where a person could sit beneath a tree and enjoy nature. All that was required, as far as I could see, was to open the gate and let people in. Nothing of course is ever that simple.

Early last fall the backhoes, concrete mixers, dirt rollers, and dump trucks began parading in and out. Five and often six days a week, living nearby has been like living in an industrial zone: the scraping and banging, the beeping of the backup alarms, the gulping of diesel and gasoline, and the spewing of exhaust fumes.

An old, seldom used dirt driveway leading beyond the park to a water pumping station had to be improved. So day after day a worker with a roadgrader spent most of an eight-hour shift driving back and forth, back and forth, compacting the soil. Meanwhile men with jackhammers tore up the corners of the intersection to make the sidewalks ADA compliant. All along an old arroyo that borders the site, deep cuts were excavated to install retaining walls.

The saving grace was knowing that the project was scheduled to be finished at the end of 2009. Suffering is endurable when you know it is finite and for the common good. When the deadline slipped to January 20, I looked forward to the completion as my birthday present. But that day came and went, and now almost four months later construction is still going on.

A passive park, it might seem, would be one that people walked or bicycled to. The city mandated instead that there be a concrete parking lot. So a big chunk of the area was planed flat and compacted — another noisy, polluting, energy-guzzling process that lasted for weeks. There had to be picnic tables, and the picnic tables had to be on concrete islands connected by wide concrete walkways. An extensive sprinkler system had to be installed.

Part of the enterprise involved restoring the dilapidated building that once housed the hydroelectric plant and turning it into a community center and museum. A great idea but one that requires putting in restrooms along with the plumbing to accommodate them. The building, which once generated power, would now consume it. So more work had to be done to tie it into the city’s electrical grid.

As a result of all the frenzy, much of the natural vegetation is gone. Truck loads of new top soil must be hauled in and truck loads of excavated dirt hauled out. The final step on the agenda is using spraying machinery to “hydroseed” what had already been grassy land. After that will come years of weed control as Russian thistle, kochia, and other Eurasian invaders thrive in the niches inevitably created in disturbed soil. The meadow had to be destroyed in order to save it.

I remain optimistic about the final outcome and grateful for the time some of my neighbors have devoted to the project. The restoration of the old building has been authentic and expertly executed. I like the new coyote fence that now surrounds the grounds and the serpentine walkway along what had been for pedestrians a treacherous stretch of Canyon Road. But I’m still left wondering why the creation of a peaceful little park had to become such a big deal.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review