The Los Angeles River, Cut Loose

More master plans for one of America’s most abused rivers.

By Zach Mortice 

The Los Angeles River today. Image courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering and Mia Lehrer + Associates.

The big conundrum of the Los Angeles River—that it is so imposing yet so divorced from the city—shows in the visions for its future proposed in early June by seven architecture, engineering, and landscape architecture firms. The occasion was the Los Angeles River Downtown Design Dialogue, a pro bono charrette that took place on the 10th anniversary of the city’s original master plan for the river. The design firms showed ways that visitors could step down to its shallow waters, although the concrete-lined waterway runs so low at times it can seem more like a quasi-natural splash pad. But the most fascinating plans marginalized the typically modest amounts of water in the river almost entirely.

There are no immediate plans to execute any of the projects. Rather, Gary Lee Moore, the city engineer of Los Angeles, described the charrette as an opportunity to “drill down another level” for “a much finer-grained look” at the river. Moore and his staff are often asked by developers working in the area about renovations they’d like to see. Now these designs offer ready-made guidance.

AECOM’s plan turns the riverbed into an outdoor activities park. Image courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering and AECOM.

The charrette covered a five-mile area of the river east of downtown Los Angeles, divided into seven sections, one for each firm. (Each firm was assigned its section at random). The city’s goals were to illustrate ways to capitalize on existing waves of development from downtown, and to re-envision the river as a multifunctional node of connection across the entire city.

The plans signal that Los Angeles is moving away from monofunctional infrastructure that moves water as quickly and efficiently as possible through the city, and toward ways to manage stormwater, add transit, and create open space all at once. And they suit a craving for better connections in evidence all over the city. Construction cranes are rapidly colonizing downtown, building taller and denser mixed-use and residential buildings, complemented by increasing miles of rail transit. In March, city voters soundly defeated the antidevelopment Measure S, which would have halted all zoning variances for two years, thereby prohibiting the construction of tall buildings. If the Los Angeles of the future is going to be more traditionally urban, it’s going to need more of a traditionally urban public realm; vast acres must cater to a wide constituency with wildly diverse activities and bring Angelenos out of their cars and into some semblance of nature. These seven plans could help show the way.

The convergence of various transit lines is the focus of the Gruen Associates proposal. Image courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering and Gruen Associates.

Gruen Associates—Barclay to Spring Street

Located next to the hills of Elysian Park, this plan leverages its topography to create a landscaped bioswale filtration field, and highlights the convergence of transit lines that cross paths at this northern end of the planning area. Curving pedestrian and bike paths hover above the Metro Gold Line, while the adjacent I-5 freeway hums along nearby. Spiraling pedestrian bridges are supported by cables that look like bike wheel spokes, and the terraced bioswales step down to the river. There’s a propulsive sense of energy present, as transit lines radiate across and along the water.

WSP’s plan lets visitors view and experience the river from a multitude of vantage points. Image courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering and WSP.

WSP—Spring Street to Cesar Chavez Avenue

The WSP plan offers multiple elevations from which to experience the river, starting with an observation tower above and, lower down, terraced seating that alternates with plantings that cover its banks. Finally, pavers lead to artificial islands, where children can wade next to herons and other seabirds. One side of the river is given over to winding pedestrian and bike paths, the other to native plantings.

Urban infill is the main feature of the CH2M plan. Image courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering and CH2M.

CH2M—Cesar Chavez Avenue to 1st Street

This plan lines the Los Angeles River with additional commercial development and a pedestrian promenade that zigzags down to the river. Trains peek in and out of view as they travel through landscaped tunnels.

Chee Salette suggests a sculpture park for a particularly open and flat section of the river. Image courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering and Chee Salette.

Chee Salette—1st Street to 4th Street

Like Field Operations’s High Line in New York, this plan opts for a highly mannered and arty landscape. It takes advantage of this section of the river’s flat and broad topography to install a sculpture park, flanked by mixed-use development, including art school housing and light industry. Fine-grained terracing brings people down to, and into, the river with a series of thin, scalpel-like pavers alternating with filtration garden plantings. From the air, it’s a carefully pixelated composition of greens and grays.

The Mia Lehrer + Associates proposal offers a kayak launch and habitat islands. Image courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering and Mia Lehrer + Associates.

Mia Lehrer + Associates—4th Street to 7th Street

Mia Lehrer + Associates’s vision focuses on the aquatic possibilities of the river. It offers a kayak launch, stormwater filtration ponds, riverside wetlands, and habitat islands. Undulating pedestrian paths bring more varied topography to the site, interrupted by kayak-shaped planting beds, which can get visitors to start thinking about the water before they’re even at its shore.

Ribbons of neon color mark the AECOM plan. Image courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering and AECOM.

AECOM—7th Street to Olympic Boulevard

By far the most exuberant plan and the one that’s most loosely connected to any traditional idea of a river, AECOM’s proposal is a neon-colored skate and outdoor activity park, an urban agriculture center, and a solar energy farm. The rock climbing walls and skating and biking ramps here are able to be inundated by flooding, but the presence of water is otherwise mostly incidental. Whirling pedestrian paths connect floating islands covered in climbing wall footholds, all above ribbons of flowing color; it’s a bit like landscape-scaled cursive graffiti. Of the seven, AECOM’s plan does the most to embrace the inherent artificiality of the Los Angeles River.

A canopied walkway covered in solar panels marks the Tetra Tech proposal. Image courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering and Tetra Tech.

Tetra Tech—Olympic Boulevard to 26th Street

The most distinguishing feature of this plan (which Mia Lehrer + Associates also worked on) is a solar panel canopied walkway, and its embrace of existing buildings on site. It also adds a sculpture park and a wide plaza.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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