October 26, 2002 - From the October, 2002 issue

Ed Reyes Leads L.A. Council's Effort To Redevelop The L.A. River

The Los Angeles River has long been the butt of jokes, known more as the backdrop to a car racing scene in the movie "Grease" than for its vital history as the lifeline that facilitated the establishment of the city over 100 years ago. This month, Los Angeles City Councilmember Ed Reyes convened the Ad Hoc Committee on the Los Angeles River, aiming to redevelop the river and dramatically change its utility and image. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Ed Reyes, in which he lays out his objectives for this committee.

Ed Reyes

On October 7th, you convened the first meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Los Angeles River. Some might argue that the Los Angeles River has become the city's most blighted real estate. It's been well documented that Los Angeles is also extremely park poor. What does the committee hope to accomplish under your leadership, given the aforementioned challenges?

The most important thing we need to accomplish is to have the stakeholders at all levels-at the grassroots, industries, government, and financial institutions-look at the river in a different light and change its image. It's important to recognize the river as a resource. And, if we can embrace and nurture it the way it once nurtured the city when the city was first settled, we can establish a green corridor that has the ability to accomplish a multiplicity of objectives, primarily bringing back its natural habitat. One thing that people don't understand is that bringing back the river's natural habitat positively impacts economic development.

When we chose to run the freeways, the sewer systems, the rail lines, the junk yards, and develop all of the brownfield environments, we did it all along the river-we've poisoned that which gave our city life. What I'm trying to do is refocus the way in which we view the river, treating it like our front yard instead of our backyard.

Give us a sense of the committee's agenda. How do you intend to use the committee to activate your vision for the river?

If you look at who makes up the Ad Hoc Committee, you see the councilmembers who represent the committees that will have the greatest impact on the resources necessary to develop the river and achieve these objectives. We have Jan Perry, the chairperson for the Public Works Committee, which is a pivotal decision-making entity in the city on how we allocate public work resources. We have Eric Garcetti, the chair of the Economic Development Committee, giving us the ability to set economic development agendas with federal, state and other resources. We have Wendy Greuel, the chairperson of the Housing and Community Development Committee and Tom Labonge, the chair of the Government Efficiency Committee. Merging those interests with my chairmanship of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, we can now interweave all the different variables that can re-establish a different sense of space along the river.

Is there a set of objectives and a timeline that the committee, even though just getting started, has begun to formulate?

Our first action was to establish guiding principles. I'm pushing to establish short-term objectives that show immediate results so that the rest of the region can see how this river can change. First, we need to grapple with what is already happening along the river and learn from the communities that have projects underway. Based upon their experiences, we can begin to focus on how we can further their performance by realigning and coordinating with the various city departments involved. We have many mandates to meet, both at the federal and state level, that will cost us significant resources. Why not leverage the multi-jurisdictional investment and create the biggest ‘bang for our buck' in promoting these new environments.

As you say, there are a lot of demands on the city for an allocation of scarce land and resources--i.e. economic development, housing, open space. As the only certified planner on the council, how is balance achieved?

We can learn from what has been accomplished on the Platte and Cherry Rivers in Denver and what that did for the city. They brought in housing, they brought in institutions of learning, they brought in commerce, they brought in retail, and they have open space-they've done this! And if you've been to this corridor, it's amazing how comprehensive their attention to these planning issues has been over time.

When you look at Tempe, Arizona, they actually converted their river, or some water, to the point that it looks like a lake. They have created a place attractive to private development. However, the city paid attention and gave priority to the natural habitats and the whole process of what they call "polishing the river."

When you talk about the expected growth in population, the millions of people that are anticipated to migrate into Los Angeles, we need to think now about how we re-establish these corridors, redefine that space, and balance out these different uses. Of course, we need to work with the neighborhood councils, the community groups, and the various grassroots environmental organizations to understand how we can create this compatibility and where to establish the most strategic locations for these projects.

From your experience with, and now on, the city council, how challenging is it for a councilman to interface with the many committees, jurisdictions and departments in the city to achieve holistic program goals? How is program collaboration and leverage best achieved within the city?


The key here is understanding that this is a problem for everyone. This is one instance and one opportunity where we have to collapse a variety of resources and various committees and departments to focus on a set number of demonstration projects. The benefits will extend beyond just one councilmember or one jurisdiction. It's one of the rare occasions when combining different jurisdictions and crossing boundaries will yield a greater good for the whole region.

What do you envision the early committee agendas will include?

Well, the first few sessions will be about bringing together the various jurisdictions and entities that are doing work on the river. We need to learn what is already happening. We've looked at the various watershed programs and efforts that are occurring with the support of the state and the coordination of the Army Corps of Engineers up in the watershed council area in the northern part of the city. That's a tremendous example of how things can come together.

When you look at what happened towards the southern part of the city, in terms of how we're dealing with the issues as the river comes into the ocean-the things that are happening with Heal the Bay and their advocacy, and the Friends of the L.A. River and how much work they've been able to accomplish-we need to put this within the context of a system. What I'm hoping to do is work with my colleagues so that they also can be informed about what other cities are doing so that we can build from their successes.

This month you participated in a visioning exercise on regional growth. The essence of that planning effort was to acquaint participants with how difficult it will be to accommodate six million more people in the Los Angeles basin in the next 20-25 years. What are your thoughts on that exercise and its implications for your constituents?

Well, I felt that it's important to get in one room the range of decision makers in their respective fields to look at the region as a whole, understanding we have this challenge to accommodate six million more people. I felt it was important to see, and to inform others of, the conditions that we are experiencing. At my particular table, I had one individual promoting more density in the inner city and not looking at the areas that were open as destination points for people.

And I argued the point that this area needs more schools, faces higher levels of homicides and crime, and higher levels of gang activity because of the pressures of significant density. The reality check for him was to hear that it is not acceptable to enhance these imbalances. We need to share the wealth as much as we need to share the burden.

And, last question. Everyone in California since Proposistion 13 has realized that the planning process has gotten the short shrift of every cut, whether it's with infrastructure or housing. Relying on your expertise in planning, how do we reintroduce the value and concepts of planning into the budget environment that so constrains you?

If we can factor in the opportunity cost of what is feasible so that we can capture the scenario that shows that planning out an area will not only address the issues of housing and schools and increased tax base, but can also generate an income stream that speaks to how we continue to fund these kinds of developments, then you have a different incentive to planning. I don't think we've done a good job of establishing these kinds of understandings from a financial point of view.

If we understand the economic benefit of choosing to promote air rights, or if we're going to waive parking fees or parking requirements because we're collapsing more than one use in an area, then we can know if that benefit can help pay for the cost of maintenance of these kinds of uses.

We have yet to study, analyze or promote case examples of how that happens so that the decision makers can see that it's not just about planning ‘pie in the sky' theories and ideas, it's about pragmatic approaches to how you reintroduce the mixtures of scenarios to generate income streams that can help sustain and address the cost of these kinds of developments.


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