Albuquerque once paid Ben Lowney around $60,000 for a public art sculpture near Los Altos Skate Park. But this month, the city told Lowney he’d have to remove the statues he made for free and installed in the median near his home.
When Lowney moved into a converted warehouse at Yale and Avenida Cesar Chavez a decade ago, he says there weren’t many plants in the area. So he xeriscaped the 12-foot by 100-foot median outside his live/work space, and he’s maintained it ever since. A few years later, the prop master dragged home some leftover steel from a movie project and welded it into three-sided pyramids. He snuck out at 3 a.m. one morning and guerilla-installed them in the median. “That was five years ago,” he says. “I haven’t had any flack. My rebellious self was disappointed. I was like, What? I didn’t even get a nasty letter from anybody.”
The notice came two weeks ago. Lowney got word from the city that he had 30 days to dismantle his median. Then he got a call from a contractor who said they’d moved the project up: He had just 24 hours before it would be bulldozed, Lowney says, and the sculptures carted off to a city yard. Ten medians are being beautified between Yale and University on Avenida Cesar Chavez, according to Michael Riordan, director of the Municipal Development Department.
“Never has a neighborhood picked out the xeriscaped option.”
Michael Riordan, director of the Municipal Development Department
So Lowney called his city councilor, Isaac Benton. The councilor arranged for a stay of execution and set up a meeting between Lowney and Riordan. The resolution: Lowney has removed the sculptures, and the city will dig up the plants and give them to him. After the median is relandscaped, he will apply to the adopt-a-median program to re-establish his sculptures and plants.
Lowney points out that his plants don’t require water. He adds new ones every year and waters them for only the first month. The city will install an irrigation system for high-efficiency, low-water vegetation, Riordan says. Though the Municipal Development Department can’t offer an estimate of how much each median costs, spokesperson Mark Motsko says the city spends an average of $500,000 per mile.
Councilor Benton says trees will be better than the low-growing plants Lowney established. “We get a lot in the way of shade and comfort from trees,” Benton says.
This isn’t the first time the department has run into people who’ve fixed up barren medians themselves. But it is the first neighbor that wasn’t happy to get rid of the burden and let the city handle it, Riordan says.
The department would prefer that people don’t take it upon themselves to landscape medians, he adds. It’s risky working in the road, and there are visibility rules to consider.
Municipal Development spokesperson Motsko explains that before beginning a project, the department confers with the neighborhood, offering prototype choices. And Director Riordan says there is a xeriscaped version that uses no water. “Never has a neighborhood picked out the xeriscaped option,” he adds. Uniformly landscaped medians are easier to maintain for city crews, he says, which reduces long-term operating costs.
But why does everything have to look so generic, Lowney asks? “Do we need to be Phoenix? I grew up in Portland, Ore., which is what people use as a sort of city template. The cool parts of that city were made by funky artists who went out of their way to make their neighborhood nice.”