It may not be the parting of the Red Sea, but the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan is miracle enough. Sponsored by the Los Angeles River Committee of the Los Angeles City Council, the revitalization master plan may be the corner-turning event that actually kicks off the process of making a depressing culvert into a riparian green belt, studded with neighborhood parks, including several in the city's poorest neighborhoods.
Published in draft form in February, with a final version expected in a few months, the plan covers a 32-mile stretch of the river inside the city of Los Angeles from the comfortable, single-family neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley, through the industrial grunge of Elysian Heights, Atwater and downtown Los Angeles, to the aging, overcrowded frame houses of East Los Angeles. The only really bad thing about the plan is that it does not include all cities downstream of Los Angeles where the need for park space is even more critical.
Part of the miracle, which the master plan does not adequately acknowledge, is the origin of the idea in grass roots activism. The L.A. River is probably the most democratic planning initiative ever to occur in Los Angeles, held together by dozens of volunteer organizations, most notably the nonprofit Friends of the Los Angeles River, which has conducted tours and events on the river for years to popularize the waterway as an environmental and open-space opportunity.
If idealistic planners, architects and community activists were quick to see value in the Los Angeles River, however, government has been slow to act. One must remember that as recently as 20 years ago, Los Angeles County's flood control officials were busy pouring fresh concrete into the culvert, dismissing the idea of alternative flood control as unproven nonsense. The notion of removing vast stretches of concrete from the river seemed as lunatic as colonizing the moons of Jupiter. Since that time, nearly every other major American city — including Cleveland, Memphis, Denver and Houston — has cleaned up its dirty waterfront. Los Angeles, with its splintered city government and lack of interest in anything civic outside one's immediate neighborhood, is a latecomer to the party.
As for planning, what a difference 60 years makes! The old culvert is a monument to single-issue planning. The new revitalization master plan, if anything, may take on too many issues: The plan tries to use the rebirth of the river as the catalyst for the creation of high-density development — including multi-family, industrial, office and retail — at certain points. The plan is laudable for attempting to address the complexity and multiple agendas of urban life. Even a healthy, beautiful river, however, may not provide the leverage needed to turn around entire neighborhoods. Still, it's an exciting piece of planning that thinks big, which is what planning is supposed to do.
The plan puts forward 13 pilot, or catalytic, projects that center on parks. Each design tussles realistically with tough, unyielding existing conditions, like freeway underpasses and industrial compounds, without fantasizing that those conditions will disappear entirely. The steep walls that make the river inaccessible become concrete steps for pedestrians, and terraces that bring riparian landscaping down to the river. Inflatable dams create ponds in a number of areas, such as in Chinatown, where a secondary, "naturalized" channel widens the river and makes it a centerpiece for recreation. In Canoga Park, the river becomes the occasion of a T-shaped park that can co-exist with an existing Pratt & Whitney plant, or expand into that space if the manufacturer leaves. In downtown Los Angeles, the river becomes a linear park and the site of 1,000 new multi-family units looking onto the water.
A proposed park in the Taylor Yards just north of downtown Los Angeles would be the "biggest act of restoration," according to the draft plan, entailing the removal of one mile of concrete along one side of the river, and creating a combination park and "water-quality treatment" wetlands with plants that can scrub pollutants out of urban storm runoff. Even more extraordinarily, this entire wetlands would sit atop contaminated soil, separated by a waterproof membrane.
The river would also grow its own bureaucracy, including a joint powers authority for governance, a corporation to own the real estate and a foundation to receive contributions and grants. One sign of success is that the river has become tangible enough to be politicized. Alianza de los Pueblo del Rio, a coalition of Latino groups that consulted with river planners, publicly complained in March that only two of 87 proposed parks call for active recreation as opposed to "passive" uses (i.e. just for looks). "The plan as it stands now could be called the L.A. River gentrification master plan," executive director Robert Garcia told the Downtown News.
If the charge is true, the lack of active-rec parks in poor neighborhoods would be a major oversight. But the real disappointment of the plan is that it stops at the Los Angeles city boundaries. That means that other communities, including Maywood, the poorest city in the state, will have to shift for themselves if they want to improve the river. These cities are largely lacking in parks and open space, and maps indicate that central Los Angeles County is a collective "heat sink" of unrelieved asphalt and concrete. It is doubtful that these less affluent communities can mount a planning effort comparable to that undertaken by L.A.
It makes sense that Los Angeles would want to control the river-greening within its own borders, but the city needs to participate in some regional joint powers authority and possibly contribute heavily to the planning process in other jurisdictions so that the waterway can became a regional asset. Many of the same communities participated in the Alameda Corridor JPA to build a short-haul railway. Why not a similar effort for the river, perhaps as a means to get some more state and federal dollars?
Of course, inter-governmental cooperation would take a miracle in L.A. County, but miracles have been known to happen.