Landscape architect Joni Janecki presented her plans for the First Street Green to the Los Altos City Council last month, but that does not mean she wants local residents to sit back and wait for the next steps.
According to Janecki, the plans – part of the Los Altos Community Investments (LACI) First Street redevelopment project – can be modified to incorporate residents’ feedback.
“Are there any activities that are really desired?” she asked. “Especially regarding teens: What is it they may want?”
Although hardly the first person to ask what teenagers want from their city, Janecki is in a potentially powerful position. Her firm, Joni L. Janecki & Associates, will design the plaza that LACI wants to make a focus of life in Los Altos. Janecki, who collaborated on the landscape design for the David & Lucile Packard Foundation headquarters on Second Street, aims to produce a space on First Street that celebrates Los Altos’ spirit.
“The difference between this and the Packard building is the amount of public space for people to be in the landscape,” Janecki said. “All along First Street, there’s an opportunity for the people to be a part of the landscape rather than routed past it. They can be in the public plaza, which is shared with the private space.”
Janecki’s profession is often thought of as a discipline that encompasses large-scale projects such as Manhattan’s Central Park or Stanford University’s campus, both designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, a giant in the field. Janecki, who founded her firm in 1991, defines landscape architecture through collaboration.
“It is a discipline that includes art, architecture, cultural landscape and social interaction,” she said. “Our role in this plaza project is, from the very beginning, to help knit the building into the fabric of the community.”
While the First Street Green is only a half-acre in size, Janecki noted that the public plaza is still a great deal of space to organize. She wants people to understand that there is more to a park than grass – and why only approximately 6,000 square feet of the 21,780-square-foot space will be green.
“A grassy field is not necessarily as flexible as you’d imagine. Not everyone wants to walk on or dine on a lawn,” she said. “Another part of it is to be aware of water use. To keep a lawn green and healthy is quite a maintenance effort. It’s a sunny site, so what we were hoping to do is balance public plaza space with the central green.”
Janecki cited the historical utility of public plazas and Los Altos’ own history of public space as factors in her design.
“When you look at many towns historically and in the present times, you’ll see their urban plazas tend to be more paved than grassy,” she said. “But because there isn’t really an open grassy space in this downtown district, we thought we’d introduce one here with the hopes of giving a little bit of breathing room.”
Janecki’s hope for the First Street Green is that it ties in seamlessly with the rest of the city while becoming a focal point. It is a tricky balance, one that requires collaboration with the city’s Recreation & Community Services department as well as LACI’s team of developers and architects, including Brad Jacobson of EHDD architects, with whom she worked on the Packard Foundation project.
“We work collaboratively with the design team and the architect,” Janecki said. “In our conversations, when we talk about what will make this project speak to the community, it will be warm and inviting.”
She also plans to incorporate a “plant palette” – a curated selection of plants – that is drought-resistant and will appeal to butterflies and birds.
The final piece of the puzzle is paying homage to Los Altos’ agricultural past. Janecki hopes that a grid-based layout featuring a soundstage will evoke the orchards of historical Los Altos and create a unique future.
“The memory of the past is brought through into the plaza itself,” she said of the First Street Green. “Los Altos is kind of sticking its toe in the water and checking the temperature. It’s a great climate to work in as a landscape architect.”