Editorial: Any L.A. River rethinking needs to consider people as well as water

·4 min read
An old sneaker rests in the bed of the Los Angles River near downtown.
An old sneaker rests in the bed of the Los Angles River near downtown. (Los Angeles Times)

It became popular among a certain segment of Los Angeles River enthusiasts several years ago to predict that the 51-mile-long, concrete-encased, freeway-adjacent, mostly dry waterway could become L.A.’s High Line, a reference to one and a half miles of abandoned elevated railroad in Manhattan that was made over into a garden-lined walkway.

The comparison is hardly apt. Yes, the little New York rail-to-park project is a fine example of urban conversion, making industrial space bloom for city dwellers in need of green space. And yes, Los Angeles has a habit of repeatedly losing its mojo and envying the assets and achievements of other cities, so maybe the High Line analogy had some value in sustaining local interest in the river.

But the L.A. River’s potential, its challenges and its central place in the life and geography of Southern California (not just Los Angeles, but 16 other cities as well) are on a scale that far outstrips any other urban makeover project. Nor can we allow the river to be merely a sewer, a park, a beachfront or a housing development, although various interests have envisioned it as each of those things.

Bigger ambitions are captured in the L.A. River Master Plan, a nearly 500-page document released this week by Los Angeles County and its Department of Public Works. It is the second such plan, coming a quarter-century after the county’s first effort to plot the river’s revitalization. It is broad in scope, calling for projects that keep in mind — as they should — both water and people. It is massive and will take days or weeks to fully digest. The county is accepting public comment on the plan through March 14 at LARiverMasterPlan.org. The county Board of Supervisors is expected to adopt a final plan this summer.

It’s often easy to forget that the river, much of it reduced to trickles of water running down a central channel carved into a much larger concrete structure, can rage. It features a sharp drop in elevation that can turn mountain rainfall into sudden, monumental flooding. Its flat lower elevations allowed it to periodically shift its path to the sea, draining alternately to the west, near Marina del Rey, or at its present mouth in Long Beach, before the concrete encasement that began in the 1930s kept it in its current channel.

So any viable plan for the river has to account not just for the once-a-century storm but also for the growing likelihood of more frequent, more severe flooding due to the changing climate and increasingly volatile weather patterns. That’s why the master plan is properly placed into the hands of the Public Works Department and engineers who understand flood protection — even if engineers were the ones who destroyed the river’s ecosystem with concrete nearly a century ago.

As for people, the plan does a thorough job of describing, and accepting blame for, the inequity exacerbated by past engineering projects. In so doing, it lays out a welcome plan for remediation, especially for communities along the lower part of the river that suffer from too little green space, too little affordable housing and too much industrial contamination.

The challenge is to provide enough channel space for floodwaters, which would mean converting fewer concrete riverbanks into natural space than many observers would have liked, and perhaps building less riverfront housing than affordable housing advocates — and developers of market-rate housing — would have sought.

One of the chief solutions proposed by master architect Frank Gehry, whose team crafted the plan for the Department of Public Works, consists of platforms over the river, topped with parks.

A raised swath of concrete topped by green space and people sounds just a little bit like the High Line, connecting communities and providing space for recreation — but also encasing the river in more engineering, not less. It is an ingenious but imperfect compromise that could cover the noxious fumes of the adjacent freeway, yet in so doing also cap the river itself. That will be a hard pill to swallow for those who have dreamed of a more natural river. Parks hiding freeways are a great idea. Parks covering the river will be harder to embrace.

Beyond water, people and the natural environment, there are other elements to consider as well, especially time and money. The master plan is only that: a plan. Will it cost more or less, in money and in equity, to build platform parks than to raze riverside housing to construct ground-level parks? And will any such amenity be built soon enough that people now living along the barren concrete channel will benefit?

Realization will require funding, which will in turn require buy-in from the region's often competing interests that have their own ideas for the river. Without that kind of support, grand projects never get built.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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