BY JENNIFER ZELL, ASLA
The long campaign to restore the Los Angeles River met a major milestone on May 28 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would support a $1 billion plan to transform 11 miles of the river from a concrete drainage channel back to something like a natural, living waterway. The Corps’ backing of this plan, rather than of a more limited and less visionary one for about half the cost, was crucial to open the way to congressional funding for the project. The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, has pushed hard for a plan that river activists have long sought to remake habitat, open space, and recreation areas around the river’s banks. You can read the Los Angeles Times report on the final decision and what may come next here. Below is LAM’s report by Jennifer Zell from the April issue about the history of the project, the intense efforts by river restoration proponents, and their building anticipation of a decision by the Corps, which, as it turns out, runs very much in their favor.
In the early 2000s, if you were to ask L.A. residents about the Los Angeles River, chances are they wouldn’t have known the city has a river, or they might recall the concrete-lined drainage canal that can be seen while driving over downtown bridges. If you ask the same question now, chances are good that residents are aware of the river’s presence; some may even view restoration of the river as a symbol of L.A.’s rebirth as a healthier, more connected city. Today, visitors to Los Angeles and Angelenos returning home through the LAX airport are greeted with a newly installed photo of Mayor Eric Garcetti kayaking the Los Angeles River with the caption, “Welcome to Los Angeles, where nature catches you by surprise.” This turnaround isn’t an accident. Popular and political support for restoring the river has been growing for a decade, and decisions will soon be made by Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that will determine the future of the river, its ecosystem, and the neighboring communities.
The Los Angeles River runs 51 miles through a complex metropolis with its headwaters in the San Fernando Valley at the confluence of Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek, where two massive arcing concrete boxed channels meet precisely on tangent below the football stadium at Canoga Park High School. Along its course, the river flows past shopping centers, parking lots, residential tracts, and industrial corridors, and along the way it is joined by creeks and washes that all empty into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach.
To the dismay of many people, an estimated 90 percent of the river is paved in concrete. In the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started on an ambitious plan, the Los Angeles County Drainage Area project, to contain the river in a concrete channel and move the water flowing through the L.A. Basin into the Pacific Ocean as swiftly and efficiently as possible. A recent history of catastrophic floods—in 1914, 1934, and 1938—and the water’s destructive power gave a sense of urgency and singularity of purpose to the plan. The project continues to provide flood protection and has enabled 336 square miles of land that was subject to flooding to be developed. But the zeal for a single elegant solution to flood control has in turn created a complex new set of hydrological and environmental problems for the 14 million people living within the Los Angeles River watershed.
The Los Angeles River has long been perceived by residents as an isolated, polluted, giant drainage ditch, more a home to transients than to riparian wildlife. Restoration of the Los Angeles River has, in many ways, become a symbol of a growing rebellion against L.A.’s past urban planning sins. Although Los Angeles has mountains and beaches, access to these resources is limited. According to the Trust for Public Land, less than one-third of children in Los Angeles County live within walking distance of a park or playground. Los Angeles is considered one of the most park-poor cities in the nation, and restoring the river presents a tremendous opportunity to weave green spaces into communities, “some of the most impacted communities in Los Angeles,” in terms of poor economic and environmental conditions, says Joe Edmiston, Honorary ASLA. He heads the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, one of the first organizations to acquire land and fund the development of small parks along the banks of the river.
The past decade has brought a major shift in the way organizations and the public think about the river. Building a river constituency, generating visions for alternative futures, and constructing small projects at or near the river have all helped to fuel this momentum. The most significant evidence of changing perceptions was the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Integrated Feasibility Report, begun in 2006 and produced by the city of Los Angeles and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps’ study focuses on an 11-mile stretch of the river beginning upriver from Disney Studios in Burbank, running west along the base of the Santa Monica Mountains at Griffith Park, turning south at what is known as the Glendale Narrows, past the confluence with the Arroyo Seco, and continuing south into downtown Los Angeles. This stretch of river was chosen because it has the most promise for ecosystem restoration. Because of the high water table—water from underground basins is forced up to the surface by the geologic formation of the surrounding mountains—the corps had been unable to encase the riverbed in concrete as it had elsewhere. The natural bed of the river supports habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife. “Any day you can go down there and see herons, egrets, and 15 kinds of ducks, which, in Los Angeles, those types of rich environmental experiences are left to those who can afford to live close to nature,” Edmiston says.
In September 2013, the corps released a draft of a study that recommended a slate of restoration projects. The report, known as the Area with Restoration Benefits and Opportunities for Revitalization (ARBOR) study, offers a number of possible strategies at various scales and degrees of ambition, under the rubric of “Alternatives.” The ARBOR study proposes four viable alternatives and, at the time of printing, tentatively recommends Alternative 13, with a price tag of $453 million, 30 percent of which will be shouldered by the federal government. Alternative 20, which proposes a more complete restoration, is supported by Mayor Garcetti and hundreds of local organizations. Under the $1.08 billion Alternative 20 option, the city of Los Angeles will share approximately 50 percent of the initial project costs with the federal government. The corps’ final recommendation is to be sent later this year to Congress for consideration.
Significant progress has been made in recent years, including interagency collaboration, policy changes, envisioning potential futures for the river, and constructing small-scale projects, but it has taken more than two decades of activism to generate the current push for restoration. Lewis MacAdams, a cofounder of Friends of Los Angeles River (FoLAR) and its president, was one of the first champions of the river. He describes the continuing efforts as a 40-year art project to bring the Los Angeles River back to life. Often, natural resources are not conserved unless people come to appreciate them through direct experience and enjoyment. In 1986, the group cut a hole in the fence surrounding the river: a symbolic gesture of open access to the river and an important step toward building a constituency for the river in the city. “I think we created the mind-set that the river is where people want to see various forms of possibility,” MacAdams says.
The river’s former negative image was not helped by movies such as Transformers and Terminator 2: Judgment Day that featured the vast concrete riverbed near downtown as a backdrop for car chases and scenes of urban apocalypse. In 2012, a different type of movie, Rock the Boat, was released, one that changed policy as well as perceptions. Rock the Boat followed the writer and activist George Wolfe as he organized a boating expedition along the entire length of the Los Angeles River. Despite the risk of arrest, Wolfe’s group paddled the river’s 51 miles over two days in the summer of 2008. Rock the Boat documented an important act of civil disobedience that eventually resulted in the Los Angeles River’s being designated as a navigable waterway by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, triggering environmental protections under the Clean Water Act. Wolfe now heads L.A. River Expeditions, which provides guided canoe and kayak excursions down the soft-bottomed stretches of the river. These excursions can be transformative for participants, as I found when I paddled a river section upstream from the Sepulveda Dam in the Sepulveda Basin. This part of the river feels intimate and secluded from the surrounding cityscape. Great blue herons fishing in the shallows against a backdrop of willows and cottonwoods evoke a setting of verdant nature—except for the bits of trash caught in branches and the graffiti under the bridge at Burbank Boulevard. Wolfe refers to them as “our ancient L.A. River hieroglyphs.” The unique pleasure of sitting in a kayak and watching a black-necked stilt fishing for water bugs and crustaceans is amplified by the contrast between the human-altered landscape and the beauty and resilience of the plant and animal species commonly found in this area.
Planning efforts like the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, developed by Tetra Tech and adopted by the city in 2007, provided a conceptual framework for long-term revitalization efforts along the river. The primary objectives are to reestablish the river as an important natural habitat, create new public access to recreation and open space in the heart of the city, and leverage environmental improvements to encourage economic growth in nearby neighborhoods. One of the things the master plan does best is to show what is possible through before-and-after photo renderings. These now-familiar images, showing barren concrete channels transformed by landscaped terraces and riparian vegetation, have appeared in news media and in public and private agency brochures and reports. A key part of the master plan is for river restoration to become a catalyst for making green neighborhoods around it, providing links to the river, connecting communities to one another by way of multimodal bridges and trails, and contributing to open space and recreation for neighborhoods along the river that currently don’t have them. Mia Lehrer, FASLA, of Mia Lehrer + Associates Landscape Architecture, is one of the master plan’s authors. “We cannot think of it as a linear park along a river; it is a district and it is parks; we are thinking about how you get from the school and library to and from the river. All these pieces start weaving together,” Lehrer says.
The 32-mile planning area included in the 2007 master plan lies within the city of Los Angeles, beginning at the river’s headwaters in Canoga Park, through the Sepulveda Basin and Studio City and along the northern base of Griffith Park, through the Glendale Narrows and continuing south through downtown Los Angeles and east toward the city of Vernon. To maintain existing flood capacity, any modifications, such as landscape terraces or added vegetation, will require expanding the channel’s capacity. According to the master plan, to make a 70 percent green river channel would require widening the channel to about five times the existing capacity, a stipulation that greatly limits the possible locations where these enhancements can occur. Reducing the velocity of water to less than 12 feet per second in order to reestablish a riparian corridor will mean more widening of the channel and storage of flood flows in basins outside the main channel.
Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, a senior principal at Hargreaves Associates, has a history of involvement with the Los Angeles River, including the high-profile design competitions for an area known as the Cornfields and for the Sixth Street Bridge that have helped to shape the way Angelenos view the potential future of the river. “There are places where you will never have the land to lay the banks back to make it green, and there are places where you can lay the banks back and make it green. So it is totally episodic, a sequence and series of experiences,” Jones says. In 2006, Hargreaves Associates won a competition for the design of the Cornfields, or Los Angeles State Historic Park, 32 acres of open space north of Chinatown and west of the river. Funding for the project was pulled in 2008 by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Hargreaves Associates’ vision for the site was not realized. “The park was to serve disadvantaged populations of the city in an area of L.A. that is open-space impoverished,” says Jones. “This was a real loss for the city.” However, the concept of connecting the Cornfields/Los Angeles State Historic Park to the river has stuck.
The Sixth Street Bridge is an iconic Los Angeles landmark that crosses over the Los Angeles River between Boyle Heights and the Arts District. The concrete used in the bridge’s construction is deteriorating due to “concrete cancer” (alkali-silica reaction), and it needs to be replaced. The Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering initially wanted to contract Caltrans, the state agency charged with managing California’s transportation infrastructure, to produce a replica of the current Sixth Street Bridge. Lewis MacAdams and Alex Ward of FoLAR spent three and a half years lobbying for an international design competition instead. The bureau eventually agreed, and the winner was announced in 2012. The $401 million project will be paid for with federal highway funds and some state and county money; the project is currently in the schematic design and costing phase. The winning proposal, by HNTB, with Michael Maltzan Architecture, Inc., AC Martin, and Hargreaves Associates, is a linear viaduct and bridge with repeating ribbonlike concrete arches.
Public access and use of the river are important elements of revitalization efforts, but critical to ecosystem restoration is widening the channel, creating riparian habitat corridors, and reestablishing hydrologic connections between the river and its historic wash. The master plan and the ARBOR study both identify several “opportunity areas” along the river, including Taylor Yard, Cornfields/Los Angeles State Historic Park, and Piggyback Yard, and many of the restoration proposals focus on these sites. Taylor Yard is the parcel of land sandwiched between the river and Rio de Los Angeles State Park and is the most upstream location where the Army Corps of Engineers has proposed the removal of concrete. Its Alternative 20 proposes restored wetlands at Cornfields/Los Angeles State Historic Park. Both Alternatives 13 and 20 propose significant widening and restored wetlands at Piggyback Yard, a project initially conceived by FoLAR to convert an underused large urban site, the Pacific Union Mission Yard. MacAdams brought together a multidisciplinary team that included Perkins+Will, Mia Lehrer + Associates, Michael Maltzan Architecture, Inc., and Chee Salette Architecture Office to work on a proposal for the site, which is currently a 125-acre intermodal facility where containers are transferred to trucks. The team worked pro bono on a proposal for a new mixed-use community and extensive open space network. The proposal reconnects the historic wash to the river by allowing flows from the ephemeral wash to enter the river through culverts under the railroad.
Support for river restoration is not unanimous. Resistance to the effort comes from those who think money should be spent elsewhere—business owners in the San Fernando Valley issued a statement asking for a delay of the ARBOR study for a fiscal review— and those who oppose physically connecting poorer neighborhoods to richer ones. Some communities fear the inevitable gentrification associated with redevelopment. There is a minor controversy where birders in the Glendale Narrows don’t want bikers and kayakers to disturb the bird-watching. But, the oldest and deepest rift exists between the city and the county. Downriver cities, and the multiple jurisdictions the river flows past, have competing interests and don’t financially support ecosystem restoration. Edmiston says: “I think there is recognition that the further downriver you get, the more complicated the issues get, certainly politically complicated. There is much more of a consensus about restoration of the L.A. River in the city of Los Angeles than there is in the farther south communities.” What is driving the support for a green Los Angeles River is a desire for connecting neighborhoods, creating healthier places to live, and new spaces for public life in historically private Los Angeles. But there is also a social aspect at work. “When you do something on the river, you are not only dealing with the nature that is inherent in the river, you are dealing with the issues of environmental justice and how we distribute landscape and parks in such a way that you maximize the advantage, not just to nature, but the advantage to people,” Edmiston says.
Los Angeles’s aging river infrastructure is a product of another era—a time when transporting as much water as possible from the Sacramento River Delta to Los Angeles and sending every drop of water that falls within the Los Angeles Basin to the Pacific Ocean were considered good ideas. Visionary models are critical to solving the persistent and urgent problems of water quality and supply, the equitable distribution of open space, and the need for alternative forms of transportation. The revitalization of L.A.’s river is happening. There is a growing list of parks, bridges, and trails that have been built or are under construction along its banks. Plans for the Sixth Street Bridge project and the corps’ ARBOR study will bring more significant projects a little nearer to fruition—especially if the $1.08 billion Alternative 20 of the ARBOR study is approved by Congress. As MacAdams said recently, “We just kept hammering at it until we found a sympathetic ear.”Jennifer Zell, ASLA, is a landscape architect and principal at ZOLA in Long Beach, California.