March 19, 2003

Ford's Premier Automotive Group


You probably didnt notice this article in the business section of the OC Register, announcing Ford Motor Co. had won an award from the Wildlife Habitat Council for its Premier Automotive Group facility at One Premier Place in Irvine.

We were intrigued by this, and decided to have a closer look at the wildlife-enticing features to be found in the landscape at One Premier Place.

The claims turned out to be as far-fetched as an Expedition with 30 mpg fuel economy. Read on.


Of course, as landscapers we believe our product ((landscapes)) is essential to the health and well-being of urban dwellers. There is a substantial body of research into the physical and psychological benefits citizens derive from attractive, landscaped business and retail centers. And, growing plants improve the environment by moderating temperatures, and cleaning and oxygenating air. Still, the idea of commercial landscapes purposefully designed to fulfill functions greater than ornamentation for OC places of business is a challenge waiting to be meaningfully implemented. Architects by and large are busy trying to mesh traditional planting plans to irrigation restrictions; it’s doubtful they worry how the landscape is useful to the community at large. But, we can still dream of the dual functions imaginable: food production, astronomical observatory installations, living advertising or messaging, outdoor workspaces, storm water capture and cleaning, native species re-introduction, or wildlife habitat. So, the idea of a company like Ford genuinely supporting a facility featuring significant wildlife-habitat enhancements was exciting.

The article mentions such notable and award worthy features of the landscape as

  • the use of reclaimed water,
  • the use of drought-tolerant plants (ivy, ficus, eucalyptus, ice plant are referenced),
  • five hummingbird stations,
  • and a wildflower area.

Let's examine each of these for its relative merits in protecting and enhancing wildlife habitat:

Reclaimed water. Every new commercial development within the Irvine Ranch Water District, where One Premier Place is located, is irrigated with reclaimed water. This has been the case for at least 10 years. The water district's aggressive water conservation policies are well known throughout California. While the use of reclaimed water in Southern California is surely worthwhile economically and socially,  it's a bit of a stretch to applaud oneself for doing so when one has no choice in the matter. And, it's not apparent how the use of reclaimed water enhances this site's suitability for wildlife. The current issue with reclaimed water use is its increasing salinity, which can limit the range of species suitable for planting such a site.

Drought tolerant plant palette. When we visited One Premier Place, it looked a lot like every other site nearby . . . privet hedges line the street, a big lawn with lots of ficus microphylla in front, lots of asphalt parking with planter islands sporting carrotwood trees and ivy. In back, along the freeway, variegated ivy is planted; on the side there’s a big slope planted to ice plant and eucalyptus trees. There’s a trellis along the back of the building planted to kangaroo ivy, and at the entrance there is a deciduous tree, might have been a ginkgo, with a planter area cut out of the surrounding turf at the base of its trunk. Of the plants present, just the eucalyptus and ice plant are on the Sunset Western Garden Book’s list of over 200 proven drought tolerant plants. Eucalyptus are among the most commonly planted landscape trees in Orange County, in spite of recent devastating infestations of these trees by various imported pests, so their inclusion in the planting plan for the Ford site is hardly worthy of special note. And, while the use of drought tolerant plantings is meritorious in its own right, it’s not clear how it makes this site especially suitable as wildlife habitat.

Only one of the plants chosen (again, the eucalyptus) appears on lists of butterfly- or bird-attracting plants. While no list can be by any means exhaustive, the lists consulted include those compiled by Theodore Payne Foundation, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Sunset Western Garden Book, and the Audubon Society. The extensive ivy plantings, on the other hand, will probably prove effective as habitat for one form of local wildlife---rats. Rats enjoy the thick cover provided by dense ivy ground cover, and may snack on the wooden stems. There were many rodent bait stations already in place along the ivy bank the day we visited.

Hummingbird stations: We did observe the hummingbird stations. Here’s one:

Here’s another one:

These "stations” are hummingbird feeders similar, if not identical, to those sold at dime stores and garden centers everywhere. At $9.95 each, these stations represent an initial investment in wildlife habitat of $ 53.61 (assuming CA sales tax was paid), or $0.000008 per square foot of the facility. We didn't get close enough to check if there was nectar in the feeders. Let's assume the stations are well maintained, and checked and refilled twice-weekly. Given 6 minutes per feeder, that's 1 hour labor per week. At $25.00 per hour, that's an annual expenditure for the birds of $1300, or $0.00199 per square foot plus some for the nectar mixture.

Wildflower area: We did not see the wildflower area. Maybe it was the small planter area at the base of the deciduous tree near the entrance. We'll have to revisit this as spring progresses to see what wildflowers are in evidence.

In summary, we were not that impressed by the ingenuity nor commitment that Ford applied to habitat enhancement at One Premier Place. But, there could be elements of design or management that are not evident or mentioned in the press release. A wildlife-friendly management plan will make sure the use of horticultural chemicals that harm birds and beneficial insects is minimized to the greatest possible extent. It will also restrict tree trimming during bird nesting periods. A wildlife-friendly management plan will allow plants on the site to flower and fruit naturally to provide the greatest possibility of attracting and feeding birds and beneficial insects. Privet, for instance, produces an abundance of nectar producing flowers in spring, followed by berries that are food for birds. But, these are routinely sheared away in the hedge-forming process. We will revisit the site in May to confirm whether the privet hedges are being allowed to produce bird-attracting fruits. Perhaps the site's landscape management plan has very comprehensive habitat-enhancement provisions.

So, who or what is the Wildlife Habitat Council that has bestowed an award on the Premier Automotive Group facility? According to their website (, WHC is a non-profit, non-lobbying 501(c)(3) group of corporations, conservation organizations, and individuals dedicated to protecting and enhancing wildlife habitat. The WHC website is sponsored by Ford Motor Company. To be fair, the complete description of the Premier Automotive Group facility on the website is a lot more lucent than the Register article, but still makes statements that exaggerate or misinterpret the reality of the landscaping at the site. We are not qualified to comment on the merits of the building itself, except to say that few wildlife species (except those we call pests) consider buildings like One Premier Place their natural habitat.

If it is worthwhile for corporate landowners to "protect and enhance wildlife habitat" at their facilities, more emphasis must be placed in the landscape planning phase to select plant material beneficial to wildlife and compatible with other site considerations. Of the thousands of plants available to landscapers, many offer valuable resources to wildlife (larval food for butterflies, nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds, seeds, nesting sites, nest-building materials, protection from predators) that are becoming scarce due to development and the reduced variety of plant species covering larger tracts of land. Planting the right plants for this purpose pays off in natural habitat enhancement available to wildlife for the life of the landscape, generally requiring only normal landscape maintenance procedures. There are no hummingbird feeders to fill when you grow honeysuckle, and this plant produces not only nectar, but seed for other birds as a bonus. Similarly, the cissus antarctica vine on the trellis (a good choice for it's lower water needs) could have been replaced with parthenocissus, which produces fruits attractive to birds.

If it is worthwhile to the public to "protect and enhance wildlife habitat" in our urban business environments, we should expect more than lip service, PR spin, and five hummingbird feeders of corporations like Ford Motor Company. And, the idea of commercial landscapes purposefully designed to fulfill functions greater than ornamentation for OC places of business is a challenge still waiting to be meaningfully taken up.

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