Building the Future of the Los Angeles River

by Jeremy Loudenback

The Los Angeles River presents an intoxicating vision of change for Los Angeles

A much-anticipated plan for the river would do more than just remove the concrete channel that for a long time erased the waterway from public memory. The 2007 Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan imagines connecting a newly verdant river to surrounding open spaces, potentially creating a vital network of shared public spaces that would provide substantial health benefits to nearby communities as well as create a signature project that would define Los Angeles for decades to come.

A dizzying array of nonprofit organizations; city, county, state, and federal agencies; community groups; and private sector groups are all invested in bringing that plan to fruition, and the tide of excitement about river redevelopment is swiftly rising. But before the transformative dream of Los Angeles River can be realized, much work remains to be done.

In March, the Bedrosian Center gathered Los Angeles River stakeholders, decision makers, and visionaries for a timely conversation about their work to implement the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan.

As part of the Bedrosian Center’s Leading from the West event series, Josephine Axt from the Army Corps of Engineers, landscape architect Mia Lehrer, LA River Revitalization Corporation Executive Director Omar Brownson, and Los Angeles River Works Team Director Carol Armstrong, joined Bedrosian Center Director Raphael Bostic and the Los Angeles City Planning Commission’s Renee Dake Wilson for a panel discussion that considered the ways different types of organizations have been involved in the river revitalization process.

Interest in the Los Angeles River has brought together an unlikely coalition of groups. Driven first by community members who wanted access to the river, the range of groups who are interested in the river has sprouted to include a broad group of parties with diverse claims to the river.

Tom Queally
Tom Queally

“It’s really not just about the bunnies, the butterflies and the bees; it’s also about all different kinds of organizations, social justice, environmental justice, economic development, community revitalization, and artists,” Armstrong said. “We have to remember that the river revitalization movement started with the community. And not just as a flood control channel but as a natural, cultural heritage resource for recreation and just reconnecting communities that were historically divided by the river channelization.”

A public engagement phase after the creation of the revitalization plan featured 18 formal meetings that drew thousands, along with dozens more smaller meetings that brought many more people into the process. According to the Armstrong, the city of Los Angeles established a three-tiered governance structure that would help different groups participate in the revitalization process and move toward long-term implementation goals.  The L.A. River Cooperation Committee is a governmental entity that has forged partnerships with the city, the county, and the Corps of Engineers (and hopefully the state). An entrepreneurial arm became the LA River Revitalization Corporation, helmed by Brownson, while the philanthropic community is represented by a spectrum of nonprofit groups.

The process has been helped by the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, which spawned the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, a federal program with the goal of connecting community and urban rivers to health-related topics.  Being under the umbrella of Urban Waters partnership has helped strengthen the argument for the approval of Alternative 20, the ambitious billion-dollar proposal that now must be approved by the U.S. Congress.

Tom Queally
Tom Queally

“In an era of scarce federal dollars, it’s very important for agencies to be on the same page,” said Axt, the chief of Planning Division at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles District. “It makes the message stronger to say, ‘Hey, look, the fish and wildlife service [is with us].’ Or your federal agency, also supports this and thinks that it’s important.”

While momentum around the river has surged with the announcement of several new parks in recent months, the process of transforming the river into a dazzling centerpiece of green space in the city is still in its infancy.

“There’s a number of parks that are built now, but all of this is preparation for big projects,” said Lehrer, the principal at Mia Lehrer + Associates.  “Everything that’s happened since 2007—all the activities; the state, the city, county, federal government; all of the nonprofits, all the advocates—they’re setting the stage for the movie and the movie still got to happen.”

Obtaining funding for the revitalization effort is a tricky business that is frequently dependent on bringing together stakeholders and getting them to align different missions and objectives in a coordinated way.

Tom Queally
Tom Queally

“We were able to get the city, the county, and Metro together yesterday because 30% of all the Metro stops in the region are within one mile of the river,” Brownson said.  “And Metro cares about first-last mile connectivity.  But if you had pitched them on the river as an environmental asset, they might have been, ‘Well, great—good luck with that.’”

Much of the work on the Los Angeles River has initially consisted of costly capital projects, but an important part of the advocacy process has been to balance short-term wins and the long-term goal of river revitalization.

“You have to fight each and everyday to make sure that the river stays in the conversation for the long-term infrastructure funding,” Armstrong said.  “In the past, we have piecemeal small projects.  Why?  Because that’s the only way that we can garner the attention.

“You can’t design a huge project when you know the construction dollars are going to come later.  So, it’s very complicated to try and tell people that it is transportation, it is a park, it is water quality, it is water supply, it is ecosystem—and making sure that the river is in every conversation because it’s not, still.”

In addition to finding creative ways to find money and attention for river revitalization, the ongoing process to re-make the Los Angeles River has also meant confronting the future of the river and access to the land around it for the city’s residents. Even though the $1.08 billion Alternative 20 has yet to be approved, it has caused property values on a lot of privately owned land skyrocket, including the cost of the Piggyback Yards that the city would like to include as part of the plan.

“We need to do is look at the tools that are available now like the EIFD [Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District], and figure out how do we capture the incremental increase in value and redistribute it locally so that we can have our parks in open space so that Alternative 20 doesn’t become the big sucking sound,” Armstrong said.

Keeping the river area open to the public is a challenge that the city and other stakeholders will have to contend with in the years ahead.

“How do you sort of look at zoning and other mechanisms to make sure that what you’re building adjacent to the rivers, assuming that the river’s transformation continues to move forward, complements that,” Brownson said. “If we’re going to invest in this public good then it has to be publicly available.  And then that’s where sort of private property and land use planning becomes really important.”

Even though many challenges remain—Armstrong was keen to remind the audience that “the billion dollar check is not in the mail”—the Los Angeles River represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the trajectory of the city. Despite the hurdles and the work yet to be done, the river is a beacon toward a healthier, more sustainable future.

“I want my daughters and I want their kids, you know, a hundred years from now, to be able to look back and say, “What did they do a hundred years ago to make this a livable city?’” Brownson said. “I think that’s where we’re moving. How can we adapt to change better?  And this is where social communities, their culture adaptation, economic mechanisms, and the sort of infrastructure need to be done together, and I think we have that opportunity.”

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