April 30, 1996 - From the April, 1996 issue

LA River: Open Letter to Mayor Riordan & Progress L.A. Board

Dorothy Green, Founding President of Heal the Bay, recalls on the past to argue for the Mayor and Progress L.A. Board to help the revitalization efforts.

Dorothy Green: “It is this process that I challenge you, Mayor Riordan and Progress LA, to join and to help lead.”

We have in our city a major resource that has been overlooked for a century—a resource that could provide a new focus for development and create an opportunity to help Los Angeles be the world-class city we all want it to be. We challenge you, Mayor Riordan and your Progress L.A., to grab this opportunity: it is called the Los Angeles River. 

Almost everyone laughs when the Los Angeles River is mentioned—those who have lived here for years and know the river, and those who are movie buffs and appreciate the chase scenes that have been filmed in the river. Those that don't laugh are likely the new comers who can't imagine a river in the City, or can't conceive that a local elected official has proposed to build a freeway inside it. 

But the river does exist. The L.A. River is 51 miles long, starting in Chatsworth in the west San Fernando Valley. The river flows through the Sepulveda Basin, running just north of Ventura Blvd., into Burbank where it curves around Griffith Park and heads south through downtown and through a number of small cities on its way to the harbor in Long Beach. The river's major tributaries are the Tujunga Wash, the Arroyo Seco, the Rio Hondo and Compton Creek.

People laugh because our "river" doesn't look much like a river. Most of it is paved with concrete on both sides and the bottom. There are, however three stretches where there is a soft bottom: the Sepulveda Basin; the Los Feliz area where the water table is too high to support a concrete bottom; and the last few miles of the estuary. These soft bottom areas are surprisingly green and full of vegetation, birds, and even some aquatic life.

Cities have historically grown up around rivers—the source of drinking water, transportation, recreation, and respite from the urban environment. Los Angeles however, has turned its back on its river. Our river can only provide drinking water for 300,000 people and so we have become dependent on imported water for growth. 

The river is also seasonal, with much of it flowing underground, so that it cannot meet our transportation needs. Instead a railroad corridor was built to connect the City to the harbor, and an industrial base evolved along this corridor, second only to the Ruhr in Germany. As the city grew and land was paved over with new development, the land next to the river was fully developed, forcing the river into a concrete channel designed to contain and move storm water to the ocean. 

Now that this industrial corridor has outlived its usefulness, and many of the existing factories and warehouses are for sale, we are confronted with an opportunity to completely revise our vision for the river—both for what it can and should be.

Instead of turning our backs to the river, the new vision embraces the river as a focus for creative redevelopment. We can rip out the old, worn-out buildings and replace them with a greenbelt along the river. Greenbelts and river restorations are proven means of increasing property values by as much as 30%. A new city can grow on the site of the old, improving the value of the land, stimulating new development, and improving the quality of life for local residents. 

We can restore parts of the former wetlands and riparian habitat that was once a vital a part of our community, and still maintain adequate flood protection. Parks and greenbelts along the river can provide much needed green, recreational and open space, as well as a means of connecting the communities that live along the river, with trails and bike paths, giving them some pride of place, as well as a place to play and breathe clean air in this most park poor city in the nation. 

We can better manage the water resources in the river, capture more of it for ground water recharge to augment our drinking water supply, find ways to retain more water on site when it rains, and construct combination parks and detention basins that can hold water for the few days a year when we are threatened with flooding. This land can quickly revert back to soccer or baseball fields. Restoring riparian habitat and wetlands will also have a major impact on water quality in the river, as it wends its way to Long Beach and the Harbor. Unpave L.A., filling it with trees and shrubs, mostly native, if only to reduce our energy bills and clean the air.

The vision also includes incredible economic opportunity. Study after study confirms that the value of homes near greenbelts and river restorations increases in the range of 25% to 30%. Should this vision catch on with the development community, and it certainly can with strong political leadership, and investments made in new apartment buildings, commercial and community centers created next to the new greenbelts, whole new communities could evolve using the amenity of a restored river as the focal point. It could provide the impetus for a whole new way of looking at or thinking about our city—as a wonderful place in which to live. 


Riverfront restorations are happening all around the country and are sparking massive reinvestments in old, worn out parts of town. When Senator Dole was campaigning recently in San Antonio, Texas, he was photographed on the river next to the now-famous RiverWalk. Chicago, Denver and Portland, Oregon are other examples of cities that have totally rebuilt the areas around restored rivers. 

Some planning has already occurred in both the City and County of Los Angeles. There was a river planning Task Force in the Bradley administration, and County Public Works in just now completing a "Master Plan" for the River. This plan has successfully raised local consciousness as to what might be, particularly in the small cities that are located along the river course. 

Restoring the river is an idea whose time has come. Many groups are involved in planning and in active restoration work. Friends of the Los Angeles River is an all­volunteer group who has gotten grants to develop a plan for the Taylor Yard that combines restorations with playgrounds and a detention basin. Taylor Yard is an old railroad facility near Elysian Park, most of which is no longer needed for transportation purposes. They have also done a study of the upper watershed and have filed a law suit challenging the Army Corps of Engineers and County Public Works over their flood control plans along the river. Joining in this court challenge are Heal the Bay, TreePeople and a number of other environmental and homeowner groups such as the Wrigley Association in Long Beach and Long Beach Area Citizens Involved. 

The local American Institute of Architects has also worked hard to develop an alternative vision of Taylor Yard and flood control. AIA sponsors a major community outreach program in the neighborhood around Taylor Yard. 

The Trust for Public Land is actively working to purchase land along the river and in the central city to convert to park and open space purposes and has already made its first purchase. It is now working with the American Society of Landscape Architects. Together, they are together preparing a map and a visioning document about the river. 

Northeast Trees is planting trees along many miles or the river and the Arroyo Seco. Groups are working to restore habitat in the Sepulveda Basin, in the Tujunga Wash and at the head of the Arroyo Seco. Students at Pasadena City College are engaging in a water quality monitoring program. Other local colleges and universities are looking at alternative ways to redevelop the Taylor yard and other soon-to-be-available sites, at the biota in and near the river, and at alternative flood control methodologies that will also improve water quality. Water quality in the river and in urban runoff generally impacts ocean water quality at our beaches. 

A process for beginning the integrated kind or planning that is needed to coordinate and consolidate all of these activities into the broader vision has also begun. People representing all of the stakeholders in both the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers (they are joined hydrologically) are now meeting regularly to define the issues that need to be addressed most quickly, and in the long term. The stakeholders include land owners, developers, regulatory agencies, consultants, community groups of all kinds, everyone with an interest in the rivers. It is a process designed to develop a long range plan for the watersheds and to resolve conflicts between agencies and other stakeholders with different goals and objectives by bringing them together in the planning process. 

It is this process that I challenge you, Mayor Riordan and Progress LA, to join and to help lead. The River's success is dependent on the support and involvement of the political and business leaders in the community. You can help to maintain the public focus on the tremendous possibilities embodied in this vision, and to stimulate interest and investment in transforming this worn-out part of the City into the center of a restored, alive, and vibrant new Los Angeles. 

In fact, I encourage everyone who is interested in participating to join with the substantial number of people, agencies and community groups who are already committed to this restoration process.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.