February 28, 1995 - From the February, 1995 issue

The Los Angeles River: Reshaping the Urban Landscape

The Los Angeles River drama is between the Corps of Engineers versus a coalition of environmental groups. Arthur Golding, chair of the Los Angeles Task Force fo the American Institute of Architects, Los Angeles Chapter, appeals to Angelenos' pride by declaring that the Los Angeles river is the origin of the city. Mr. Golding cauntions that merely adding more concrete, as proposed by the Corps of Engineers, will further seperate the natural wonder from residents of the City.

When the Los Angeles pueblo was founded in 1781, the mountains, the river and the shore formed the landscape. Today, extended grids of streets and a superimposed network of freeways cover the lowlands of basin and valleys. Punctuated by periodic clusters of tall buildings and seen against the mountains and shoreline, they define the urban landscape of Los Angeles, providing occasional landmarks and the structural underpinnings of the city's identifiable neighborhood places. 

Only the river is invisible, reduced to concrete-lined drainage channels, denuded of its riparian vegetation, bounded by rail lines, hidden behind industrial plants and beneath freeways. We are abruptly reminded of the river's extent and significance every few years when a storm leads to a loss of life in the swift-moving brown waters of its channels, but in our everyday perceptions the river no longer plays a role.

Downtown Los Angeles owes its seemingly haphazard location to the river, on which it has long turned its back. Following Native American precedent, the pueblo was located adjacent to the river, well below the big bend where the water, flowing eastward through the valley, swung wide as it curved southward around what is now Griffith Park. It was sited below the seasonally turbulent confluence with the Arroyo Seco, in an area easily forded, well above the marshes (las cienegas) that stretched inland from the sea. For an agricultural settlement the location was ideal, and the river served as the principal source of water for pueblo and growing city until the opening of Mulholland's aqueduct in 1913. 

With the selection of San Pedro as the site for the city's harbor in 1899, rail lines were needed to connect the city to its port, and the river provided a direct route with minimum grade change. Industry followed, and after repeated floods, so did flood control. Never navigable, already a back rather than a front, the river was finally reduced to a storm drain system, little more than concrete plumbing.

Following the railroads and similarly attracted by the level grades, freeways were built along and sometimes over the Los Angeles River system. The Arroyo Parkway, in 1938 the first freeway, with its native California sycamores and its chain of parks along the Arroyo Seco channel, might have established a precedent that combined roadway, parks, and desirable frontage for residential and commercial development. It could also have accommodated alternative flood control and channel design strategies, but by 1960, when the Pasadena/Golden State Freeway interchange was constructed, obliterating the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and the Los Angeles River, and the freeway severed Griffith Park from the river, even the memory of a living river system was gone. The Golden State (5), Long Beach (710) and San Gabriel River (605) freeways were all developed without sensitivity to or mitigation of the riparian environment.

The Los Angeles River today is a relic of the physical, economic and intellectual landscape of the 1930's that shaped it. The river was channelized to control flooding by means of a great engineering and public works project begun in 1938. Mountain runoff was captured at a series of dams and flood control basins, with excess water carried swiftly to the ocean in concrete channels. Large, heavy industrial plants backed up to the river and its flanking rail lines. 

In the years since the river was paved, every condition of the 1930's landscape has changed, save only the Southern California pattern of rainfall. Rain still concentrates most often in the mountains, but unanticipated downstream runoff from the great increase in built and paved areas of the San Fernando Valley and LA basin, reducing percolation and accelerating the flow to the river, is the new cause of flood danger. Improved weather data, too, suggest that the engineers of the 1930's may have underestimated the magnitude of storms. 

Now the constructed river is obsolete and on its lower reaches, according to the Corps of Engineers, it is an accident waiting to happen. The channel is too small for the enormous and very rapid urban runoff projected in a major storm. The Corps' ill-conceived solution to this flood hazard now proposes adding 21 miles of two­ to eight-foot-high concrete walls atop the levees from the Rio Hondo southward to the river's mouth, modifying some 25 bridges, armoring the backs of levees and other "improvements" at a cost of some $280 million. Alternative flood-control strategics, the Corps asserts, would not be cost-effective, but critics question the out­moded single-purpose planning and cost modeling the Corps employs. 

The Corps proposes to treat the symptom (channel capacity) rather than the cause (urban runoff). We ought instead to recognize that the flood hazard presents the necessity for change and with it an opportunity to rethink the river and to reform our regional approach to stormwater management. 

The urban flood hazard attending the unprecedented extent and density of development is only one of the new conditions along the river. Heavy industry is gone. Auto and tire plants, closed as part of the worldwide realignment of industrial production and distribution, will not return. Many large sites are underutilized or vacant. The Alameda Corridor project is being designed to move nonstop freight trains through, not to serve, the lower LA River area. Railyards like Taylor Yard on the river opposite Elysian Park or the Cornfields in the City North area are now for sale. Much of the rail right-of-way along the river has recently been acquired by the transit agency, MTA. 

Population has continued to grow along the river corridor. Recent immigrants arc crowded into neighborhoods once occupied by the workers at the defunct plants. Continuing densification increases the need for public open space and recreational facilities in a city already severely underserved. 

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Taken together, these changed conditions present an opportunity to rethink and revitalize the river, to reverse and remediate our approach to stormwater management, to begin to use public policy and public investment to improve both the physical and the economic environment rather than to perpetuate the myopic engineering of the 1930's. 

Several public agencies and nonprofits have begun the process. In a January 1992 report the Mayor's Los Angeles River Task Force called attention to the potential of a revitalized river. While its 11 goals, including meeting flood control needs, restoring the river's natural ecosystem wherever possible and maximizing public uses and recreation opportunities along the river, were endorsed by then-Mayor Bradley, its three proposed demonstration projects remain unrealized. The only tangible result of the effort to date arc a few blue signs on city bridges identifying the river.

Presently, as part of the current General Plan Framework effort, the Department of City Planning and its consultant team are proposing a series of "Natural Systems and Open Space Connections." The proposal includes watershed management, incorporation of the river into a Citywide/regional open space network, protection of riverside rights-of-way and improvements for public access. 

The Los Angeles County Departments of Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and Regional Planning are engaged in preparing a "Master Plan" for the river. Although it does not deal with the entire river system, the County's planning process, under way for over two years, has included representatives of 13 cities and various agencies, environmental and community groups. Goals of the plan include: improving river aesthetics, promoting economic "development, preserving and restoring environmental resources, meeting flood control needs, involving public participation, coordinating among jurisdictions, and providing a variety of recreational opportunities. 

The County's success in bringing most of the interested jurisdictions together and initiating conversations about the river and its future is tempered by its timidity in dealing with any potential controversy. Jurisdictional turf is sacrosanct, governance is not a subject, nothing requiring significant expenditures is discussed and the Corps' flood control plan is taken as a given. The County's plan threatens to come out in full support of motherhood and apple pie, but the staff has produced very valuable mapping and analysis of land use, ownership, jurisdictions, vacancy and other data essential for any future planning efforts. 

Friends of the Los Angeles River (Fol.AR) and Unpave LA, a coalition of environmental groups, have been advocating restoration of the river, creation of a wildlife corridor from the mountains to the sea and a radical change in the way we deal with rainwater on individual properties. 

The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a new player in the river drama, has a powerful State mandate to connect Elysian and Griffith Parks to the mountains. With an initial budget of $1,000,000, MRCA is evaluating the acquisition of properties to create parks and trails along the river between the two large parks. 

The California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, published its Los Angeles River Park and Recreation Study in 1993, identifying potential projects along the river. This past November, Unpave LA sponsored a well-attended conference, Rethinking the River, to promote discussion of LA River management options. 

The flood control hazard and the Corps' proposal are reason enough to look seriously at the river. The economic development potential of a revitalized river corridor, accommodating miles of frontage for residential and commercial development together with active and passive recreation and a renewed riparian habitat, is even more significant. Though it is no longer a principal source of water sustaining the city, a living river would be an emblem of responsible water management in a dry climate and a symbol of sustainable development. To deny the river is to deny the origin of the city. To rethink the river is to discover a unique opportunity to define urban places, join neighborhoods and communities together and reconnect us to our landscape and our history.

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