Alternate Ending

After decades of being off-limits to the public, Los Angeles’s Silver Lake Reservoir could return to the people.

By Timothy A. Schuler

Residents take a rare stroll inside the fence at the decommissioned reservoir as a part of a master planning workshop led by Hargreaves Jones. Photo courtesy Hargreaves Jones.

Among the popular myths about Los Angeles is that prior to European settlement the city was a desert. The Los Angeles River basin, where a good portion of the city sits, was once a major wetland ecosystem, with miles of streams, marshes, vernal pools, wet prairies, and willow thickets. And yet myths originate from apparent truths, and when it comes to water, the city of Los Angeles has long behaved like a desert. For a century, the city has siphoned the majority of its drinking water from far-flung rivers and lakes, in some cases draining those bodies of water dry. L.A. may not be a desert, but it has created them.

The mechanics of Los Angeles’s hydro-engineered reality are ever present in the city. Much of its aboveground hydrologic infrastructure defines the urban character and has become an iconic part of the cultural landscape. Silver Lake Reservoir, 100 acres of glistening water five miles north of downtown Los Angeles, is a prime example. The reservoir, along with its smaller neighbor, Ivanhoe Reservoir, was built in 1907 by the city engineer William Mulholland, the architect of the city’s sprawling water system, as a backup for the city’s drinking water supply. Following construction, thousands of eucalyptus trees were planted along the reservoir’s banks, and it was eventually ringed by a wide promenade. For the first 30 years of its life, the water body was accessible to the public. It was a node in a complex machine and an urban pleasure ground.

As water quality regulations increased, however, the reservoir complex became less and less accessible. Today, it sits behind a tall, black chain-link fence. Despite being largely off-limits, the reservoir is a beloved landmark, listed as a Los Angeles Historic–Cultural Monument and popular among walkers, joggers, and birders who circumnavigate the lake outside the fence, taking in the view or watching the great blue herons that nest in the remaining eucalyptus trees.

Without a natural water source, groundwater will be pumped from a well in the San Fernando Valley to maintain a consistent water elevation. Image courtesy LADWP.

In 2013, following the passage of new federal drinking water standards, the fate of the Silver Lake Reservoir suddenly came into question. Under the new rules, which were designed to prevent the spread of waterborne pathogens such as Cryptosporidium, open-air reservoirs were no longer permitted. At the time, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) owned and operated 13 open-air drinking water reservoirs. Six were subsequently decommissioned, including Silver Lake. Another six were capped with floating covers. The last remains open, but its water is treated at a UV treatment facility prior to use.

With Silver Lake no longer online, community members became concerned that this scenic and ecological resource would be lost. In 2015, LADWP drained the water in the reservoir to install a bypass pipeline. Some residents worried that the lake wouldn’t be refilled. Others were afraid of the opposite, that the reservoir’s decommissioning would lead to greater public access and the site becoming an overused destination. “This cannot be a Santa Monica Pier,” a resident named Jill Cordes told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. Even those who saw opportunities in the reservoir’s change in status had differing visions for the site: Some wanted to turn the reservoir into a kind of nature preserve, with only birds allowed inside the fence; others desired carte blanche, with public access extended across the site, water and all.

“Silver Lake is a very vocal community,” says Tina Chee, ASLA, the principal at Tina Chee Landscape Studio. Particularly when it comes to the reservoir, she says, the neighborhood is “always a bit anxious because it’s such a treasure.”

Chee and her husband, Marc Salette, have lived in Silver Lake for 20 years. Their house, like many, overlooks the reservoir. Together, the couple also runs a multidisciplinary design firm, Chee Salette, which in January 2019 was hired along with Hargreaves Jones to help lead a master-planning process for the reservoir. It wasn’t the first time the public has weighed in on the property’s future. As Silver Lake has grown more affluent, pressure to expand access to the property—to turn it back into some semblance of that original pleasure ground—has increased. In 2000, LADWP hired Studio-MLA to develop a master plan for the site, and since then variously shaped parks and public spaces have been carved off the property, including a dog park at the southern end of the site, a three-acre passive green space called the Meadow, and a shady pocket park along Tesla Street. If the reservoir is a jigsaw puzzle, the past 20 years have seen a handful of edge pieces colored in green. “Slowly we’ve been chipping away at being able to provide these amenities to the public,” says Helen Olivares, a waterworks engineer with LADWP.

Early engagement with core community organizations resulted in high turnouts at each workshop. Image courtesy Hargreaves Jones.

The decommissioning of the reservoir presented an opportunity for a new level of access and made a new master plan necessary, says Deborah Weintraub, the chief deputy city engineer in charge of buildings and public spaces for the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering, the agency in charge of the master plan process. Public officials also hoped that the process might be a way to facilitate discussions between sometimes opposing groups and to accommodate divergent visions—maybe even bring them together. “We knew that there were several very active organizations who had focused on the reservoir,” Weintraub says, adding that their priorities didn’t always align.

Meghen Quinn, ASLA, (left) of Hargreaves Jones at one of five community workshops held between 2019 and 2020. Image courtesy Hargreaves Jones.

The first thing the master planning team did was convene a core group made up of representatives from five organizations: the Silver Lake Reservoirs Conservancy, Silver Lake Now, Silver Lake Forward, the Silver Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. The group met monthly and helped disseminate information (and debunk the occasional myth) about the master plan process to their constituencies. Meghen Quinn, ASLA, the principal in charge for Hargreaves Jones, the prime design consultant, says Chee Salette’s long history in Silver Lake was invaluable. “Having someone who was very much a member of the community helped us gain people’s trust,” she says.

In addition to the monthly gatherings, the team organized a series of five community workshops, as well as a neighborhood walk of the reservoir property. True to its reputation, the community turned out. The first workshop was held on June 27, 2019, and was attended by more than 200 people. By the second and third workshops, the events were attracting as many as 600 people. The master planning team already had moved the third workshop to a high school gymnasium to accommodate what they anticipated to be a sizable crowd, but it was still standing room only. “I have a lot of experience doing these large-scale projects, and I think the number of community members that turned up for this exceeded anything I’ve done,” Weintraub says. “It’s a reflection of just how important this urban feature is to the community.”

Image courtesy Hargreaves Jones.

One more workshop was held in person, with approximately 300 people in attendance, followed by a virtual presentation of the draft master plan in the summer of 2020. At each, participants filled out
detailed questionnaires that asked respondents to rank their preferences for everything from habitat enhancement to music concerts to model sailboat racing. At the same time, the Thomas Starr King Middle School, an Environmental STEAM Magnet School located roughly a mile west of the reservoir, devoted an entire semester to studying the reservoir: Students drew up their own plans for the site and pinned them up at the November 2, 2019, meeting. Quinn says it was the most children she had ever seen at a public meeting.

Quinn had been primed for this level of engagement by the city’s interview process a year and a half earlier. All four of the short-listed teams had been asked to interview with the city as well as present to the public before getting the job. “This was the first time I’ve done that,” Quinn says. “They had an open Q&A, and each team had an opportunity to answer. The [attendees] were very engaged; they cheered and booed people! That gave us a taste of the level of investment of this group. Right off the bat, we were like, okay, game on.”

After 18 months of packed meetings and nearly 8,000 questionnaire responses, the design team discovered that where the community groups and other residents found consensus—whether they knew it or not—was in the reservoir’s potential as a place for nature and passive recreation. The future activities that nearly everyone wanted to see accommodated were walking, jogging, picnicking, relaxing, and enjoying nature. In addition, a strong preference emerged for environmental education via youth programs or optional classes. Least desirable to participants were weddings, workout classes, and yes, model sailboat racing—essentially, anything deemed too noisy or too intrusive was vetoed.

More than five miles of trails and walking paths, along with increased canopy cover, are created by the master plan. Image courtesy Hargreaves Jones.

“It’s really a nature-based park that has the flexibility to scale up for community events if they want them. It’s unlike some of our parks that we’re designing, which are highly programmed. This is more about creating the spaces that can be catalysts for the community to envision how they’re going to use them,” Quinn says.

The master plan responds to these common priorities by emphasizing passive forms of recreation—walking, jogging, yoga—and the creation of additional wildlife habitat. A tree-lined promenade inspired by the reservoir’s history traces the edge of the lakes and links a proposed environmental education center and future green spaces, such as a redesigned meadow that will bring parkgoers to the water’s edge. In other words, the Hargreaves Jones plan turns a lot more puzzle pieces green.

For those familiar with what the writer Alissa Walker memorably described as a “Brutalist bird bath,” the most dramatic recommendation of the master plan may be a series of floating wetlands within the reservoir itself, which are designed to create a larger and more diverse food web for the great blue herons and other waterfowl. In a way, the designers are simply turning back the clock. Originally, the Silver Lake and Ivanhoe Reservoirs had a more naturalized, marshy edge. “Then they sort of became more constructed, more man-made. They continued to divorce [themselves] from the ecology of the place,” Quinn says. The goal of the master plan is to “fold those two things back together again.”

Even this more ecological plan cannot escape a fundamental tension. The area that is now Silver Lake Reservoir may have had some ephemeral wetlands at one time, but there are no extant streams that naturally feed the reservoir today. Even stormwater is routed elsewhere. “It’s totally constructed,” Chee says. “It’s elevated above the L.A. River—there’s no way to bring a natural source of water to the reservoir unless you pump it. So, you have to contend with this notion of naturalizing something that’s totally artificially made.”

At the Meadow, an informal “play walk” creates opportunities for nature play within proximity to pollinator gardens. Image courtesy Hargreaves Jones.

Of course, parks are, technically, unnatural. Most cities’ signature open spaces are not remnants of ancient ecosystems but rather built from imported plants and moved earth. But without a natural water source, and because a significant amount of water is lost to evaporation each year, LADWP will need to continually pump water to the reservoir to maintain an elevation of 446 feet. The water will come from what’s known as Pollock Well #3, located in the San Fernando Valley. Because the groundwater sources there are contaminated—the well area qualifies as an EPA Superfund Site—the water will be treated with a granular active carbon filtration system prior to being pumped to the reservoir.

The 446-foot elevation recommended in the master plan is a compromise made to conserve water, Quinn says. (Prior to its decommissioning, water levels fluctuated between 440 feet and 451 feet.) The master plan’s floating wetlands and overlooks will also help shade the water and therefore limit evaporation, and LADWP is currently constructing a stormwater conveyance system, which will capture stormwater from the surrounding area and channel it into the lakes, to further reduce the amount of groundwater used to fill the reservoir. The system is estimated to make up 12 to 18 percent of the reservoir’s annual water needs.

The all-ages nature center is topped with a green roof and overlook deck. Image courtesy Hargreaves Jones.

As with all public spaces, there are bound to be debates over which aspects of the master plan should be implemented first. Right now, the city has not set aside any funding for landscape improvements. (Ongoing stormwater and water quality projects are funded through LADWP.) But Weintraub says the team is considering how to grant public access to the property in a timely manner. “Maybe there’s a way to open the reservoir to the public for walks once a month,” she says.

Chee says the master plan process has already brought about change. “I feel like it really transformed the community,” she says. “Prior to this process, there were different factions, and the master plan process brought all those groups together under one umbrella, and we kind of brought everybody to the table, and they laid it out. And I think the community is so much stronger now around this reservoir.”

Timothy A. Schuler writes about design, ecology, and the natural environment. He lives in Honolulu.

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