In the ongoing quest to reclaim open space in the City of Los Angeles, no feature has been worried over more than the Los Angeles River and adjacent parcels. It is, by some accounts, one of the world's most un-natural waterways. The city's Los Angeles River Master Plan has long called for greening and the removal of concrete banks, but debate has raged over whether it even qualifies as a true river.

This summer, that debate was resolved.

In July the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that the river qualifies as a "traditionally navigable waterway" – rather than a flood control channel – and therefore subject to protection under the Clean Water Act. This decision qualifies the LA River to receive more federal funding, stricter anti-pollution regulations, and greater protection of its tributaries. Local environmentalists also hope that it will lead to a transformation of some of the moribund industrial sites along the river.

The decision also takes ultimate authority away from the Army Corp of Engineers, whose main concern regarding the river has always been flood control. According to critics, the Corps has allowed the river to languish under its claim in a 2008 hearing that only four of the river's 52 miles were navigable. Beyond funding and protection, the EPA's decision seems important for a much stigmatized and even derided body of water. Though the concrete remains, the ruling might confirm for anyone who was in doubt, despite appearances, The Los Angeles River is indeed just that, a river.

One group that has never been short on imagination regarding the river over the years is the nonprofit, Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). Shortly after the EPA decision in July, FoLAR released a new vision plan for a 125-acre site owned by Union Pacific Railroad formerly called the Piggyback Yard. The yard, which is scarcely a mile from downtown Los Angeles is the largest privately owned portion of riverfront property in the city.

Currently inaccessible to the public, the Piggyback Yard is unique for a number of reasons besides its size and location. It lies within the footprint of the California High Speed Rail project and could provide much needed water detention to help with flood control downstream in cities such as Bell, Maywood, and Long Beach.

This has made the Piggyback yard a playground of sorts for planners, landscape architects, and environmentalists who envision an oasis literally in the middle of the city. FoLAR has solicited pro bono work from several firms, including Perkins and Will architects, landscape firm Mia Lehrer and Associates, and Michael Mazatlan Architecture.

"In the end what we wanted to accomplish most was, number one, river restoration and ecological restoration and number two, storm water detention," said Leigh Christy of Perkins and Will. "One proposal stresses restoring habitat in the bed itself while the other pushes maximum detention. But for both plans the second priority was always the other one." 

Carol Armstrong from the city's River Project Office who also contributed points out, the firms may have been "likely much more inclined to participate because of the economic downturn."

Landscape architect Mia Lehrer said that the planning process was freeing.

"By not having a real client, we were able to be much bolder in the constraint, we weren't beholden to anybody," said Lehrer.  

"It was like a graduate seminar class," says Shelly Backlar, the executive director of FoLAR. "There were so many presentations and after every one it was always, OK, now let's distill this into something that can meet these broad strokes we've just discussed."

Starting from the issues of land use, access and the river itself, with open space versus development being of particular concern, the vision that emerged for the Piggyback Yard projects a greener, more cosmopolitan, almost unrecognizable version of what is currently mostly industrial space. It includes wetland habitat restoration on 130- acres of parkland with water treatment facilities as well as considerable water detention.

Mission Boulevard would become a major connecter to downtown with mixed-use development including shops, offices and different priced levels of housing opportunities looking out onto the park. A pedestrian bridge across the river would link the Los Angeles State Historic Park, and an arts campus would be built adjacent to the Brewery Art Colony on East Main St.

At the same time that it attempts to make the city greener, the vision also takes into account the continued presence of the railway. Project supporters say that heavy industry and functional open space can co-exist.

"There was room for multiple levels of programming. We didn't only have to restore; we could also detain. We didn't only have to build; we could also carve," said Christy. "We didn't have to get rid of rail altogether, we could look at how it could be condensed and accommodated."

Much of this meant folding rail into the plan and finding solutions of where to put the existing routes. Accommodating the rail lines is crucial if the project is ever to be practicable. Of all the many steps it would take to start construction on what the PBy Group has proposed, or some version of it, it seems that the agreement from Union Pacific is the bottom line.

"It's not like the railroads are going, ‘C'mon, this is wonderful, let's make a plan!'" Backlar said. "They're aware of the plan, we've had history in the past, it's going to be a process for sure."

In the last ten years negotiations with rail have happened though, primarily at the Cornfield and Taylor Yard, both close by. In fact, the full completion of the city's Taylor Yard project hinges on acquiring another Union Pacific piece of land, the 42-acre G-2 parcel, which is unique in its ability for ecosystem restoration potential and that would connect the existing Rio de L.A. State Park to the River.

As of yet, the Piggyback Yard plan has received no formal approvals.

Los Angeles City official Councilmember Ed Reyes, who heads the council's River Ad-Hoc Committee and for whom the LA River has been primary focus since taking office, said the next step is community outreach.

"Many of these plans also need to be part of the consensus-building process," said Reyes. "That requires bringing in people who live in Lincoln Heights, Boyle Heights, the downtown residents, the people who are impacted on a day-to-day basis."

Reyes said an investigation into the Taylor Yard Corridor started at a similar grassroots level—in 1993. Now though the project is, according to Reyes, 80% complete.

"The Piggyback Yard plan is a great start but now need to start folding in the layers of stakeholders and interest groups," said Reyes. "If we start structuring it based on funding we can move a lot faster on these projects. The Piggyback Yard can start around those lines as well." 

Whereas previous transformations of the L.A. River came from federal funds funneled through the Corps, funding sources for the river's restoration are neither as robust nor as clear. 

Christy suggests a mix of private development and public funds.

"There's Prop O that can pay for water quality and prop K that can fund parks and recreation," said Christy. "Or an opportunity that Metro or Union Pacific—whoever came on the site to build a maintenance yard—could fund whatever goes on top of it. Depending on where the funding came from, there could be changes to the plan."

Ultimately, the PBy group hopes to generate excitement and give stakeholders a sense of the dramatic transformation that could take place along the river.

 "We wanted someone to look at the plan and say ‘this could actually happen' which is weirdly what we found happening," said Christy. 


Shelly Backlar, Executive Director, Friends of the Los Angeles River, 323.223.0585

Leigh Christy, architect, Perkins+Will Architects213.270.8438 

Mia Lehrer, Mia Lehrer+Associates213.384.3844

Ed Reyes, Councilmember, Los Angeles City Council, 213.473.7001 

PB Yard