September 15, 2011 - From the August, September, 2011 issue

L.A. River Revitalization Presents Unique Opportunities for Public-Private Partnerships

The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan is one of the more aspirational planning documents guiding the development of L.A. The potential benefits of the LARRMP are obvious and numerous, but deliverables have been in short supply. To detail the public-private partnerships and developing improvements to the river corridor, TPR presents the following interview with L.A. River Revitalization Corporation Executive Director Omar Brownson.


"After significant public and private investment, Hollywood now lives up to its brand. The L.A. River has the inverse challenge."

What enticed you to take on the responsibilities of Executive Director of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation? 

I’m a social entrepreneur at heart. I’ve always been interested in how to achieve social, environmental, and economic benefits. This was an opportunity to do that—at scale. The L.A. River runs 51 miles. It connects so much of our city. It is a game changer, and the opportunity to work here was too tempting.

Revitalizing the L.A. River has been a project of the region for almost a hundred years. Early on  it was canalized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after devastating floods every couple of decades. The watershed covers 870 square miles. What now is being planned for the River? 

 The L.A. River Revitalization Corporation was created in 2007 out of the master plan that the city adopted after 18 months of community outreach, engineering studies, and designs. Recognizing that it alone wasn’t going to make the revitalization happen, the city created three entities. One is the River Cooperation Committee, which is a joint committee between the city, the county, and the Army Corps, but the Army Corps is a non-voting member. There’s also the L.A. River Revitalization Corporation, which is meant to be the entrepreneurial arm. There will also be a River Foundation, which will promote activities and events along the river. The city took a very comprehensive approach in looking at the master plan, but also helped to create some organizations to move it forward.

Revitalizing 32 miles of waterfront space is a mammoth undertaking. How is the LA River Revitalization Corporation approaching this challenge?  

We’re looking at a couple of different scales. For one, we’re looking at proof of concept, projects that we can move forward to show that investing along the L.A. River makes sense. An example of that is that we are working with private donors who have committed up to $4 million to build the first privately funded crossing on the L.A. River—a multimodal (equestrian, bicycle, and pedestrian) bridge. It will be an iconic structure that says, “Hey, we’re here.” The second is at the policy level. How can we better integrate the different programs that are out there to make sure that the river is prioritized? Whether it’s the Sanitation Department and the Clean Water Fee that they want to propose, or DWP and its water supply issues, or the EPA and how it handles brownfields, it’s making sure that at the local, state, and federal level, the L.A. River is getting the attention it needs.

Has the city in effect outsourced to LARRC all the joint development and infrastructure investment opportunities needed to realize the vision you have advanced?

The city has appropriately recognized where its greatest strengths are and where it needs to bring others to the table. This is a creative public-private partnership. We have the blessing of both working with the city’s support and being able to reach outside of the city’s institutions and bureaucracy. It’s a nice blend of public and private work. 

What entrepreneurial public-private opportunities have emerged?

As I mentioned, pushing forward the first privately funded bridge along the L.A. River. We’re working on a joint-use project with LAUSD to take an asphalt lot and turn it into a community and school playground space at Dorris Place Elementary School. We’re working with the city of L.A. on the Lincoln Heights jail, to adapt and reuse this historic building that once held Al Capone. One of the possibilities with the Lincoln Heights jail is anchoring it with a vertical farm and creating a food hub by working with social entrepreneurs and others to not only create jobs but also to give community benefits. We have a number of other innovative economic development type projects as well.

Perhaps one of the learned results of your CORO fellowship decades ago is that everything one imagines is probably already being done in L.A. and we just don’t know about it, including the Ballona Wetlands’ new river park which just opened this summer.  What are you relying on to formulate LARR Corporation’s efforts going forward?

I take a lot of my lessons learned from working on the Hollywood and Highland project in Hollywood, close to 15 years ago.  Hollywood, at the time, had a great global brand but was not a great place for tourists or residents. After significant public and private investment, Hollywood now lives up to its brand. The L.A. River has the inverse challenge. The L.A River image is usually as a backdrop to a movie like the Terminator.  However, many people who go to the LA River enjoy the opportunity to run, bike, or walk their dogs. The challenge is that most people don’t know that it’s an asset already. I take some lessons from that. 

Another exciting idea that many others have identified is to create a temporary dam on the L.A. River that helps to wet the bottom, particularly on more of the concrete sections, as opposed to the soft-bottom sections where there is already a natural habitat and birds.  Along the concrete channels, this would make it feel a lot more like a river. There is already precedent for this in L.A. County. Those precedents are important because we’re working with the Army Corps of Engineers, and they, like everyone, want to be cautious in order to protect property and residents from floods. 

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Share with us who the partners involved are. The Corps of Engineers, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and FoLAR have played a significant role in the river to date. How do they align with what you’re trying to do?

What’s great is that this is my third start-up and it has the perfect balance of plenty of entrepreneurial space to work with and also a lot of institutional support. There are also the long time players like Friends of the L.A. River, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the local, state, and federal resources, which are at hand. President Obama recently created the federal Urban Waterways Partnership. They identified seven urban waterways across the country, the Los Angeles River being one of them, to direct 11 agencies to better coordinate the environmental, economic, and community strategies to help those rivers to better service their communities. There are certainly a lot of people in play and that is a benefit. Having everybody together makes it more robust, as opposed to it being all dispersed. 

Give our readers a little sense of the investments and work going on now in the watershed, in public works projects, and in others, upon which you are relying to dovetail with your entrepreneurial activities. 

The Sanitation Department has a Clean Water Fee that they are likely to bring to property owners over the next couple of years. For the city of Los Angeles that could generate up to $100 million in revenue to deal with stormwater and water quality issues. We’re looking at how we can direct those resources in a more systematic way, particularly along the L.A. River. DWP is looking to refocus on supply issues, like how to best integrate local supply and how we can do a better job at capturing stormwater for the purposes of supply. As a recent example, Proposition O has been instrumental in creating new water quality infrastructure projects. Those foretell the future in the sense that our infrastructure can’t have single uses. The L.A. River was created just as a flood channel, but it created a host of other problems because it was designed only to address flooding. Another water quality infrastructure project, for example, Albion Park, is going to be a $40 million, 6.5-acre water quality project that is also going to be a park. Most people will only experience it as a park and not understand or appreciate the benefits that it’s having on the river and the overall environment.

Because LARRC is focused on a partnership with the City of L.A., please allow TPR to ask: how good a partner is the City in going forward with you? --Especially given  the City, LADWP, and the redevelopment agency’s financial hardships.

The City’s been a great partner. It has emphasized the need to invest in this place that connects two of our greatest resources. From the Santa Monica Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the L.A. River is what brings all these things together. The City laid the groundwork, and it’s up to the rest of us to keep moving it forward. 

I tend to look at the silver lining. For example, the redevelopment agency needing to write a big check to the state has an impact on its financial wherewithal. The silver lining is: how do we rethink our infrastructure financing districts or other financing districts beyond these redevelopment districts to create the kinds of places where we want to live, work, and play? 

With the river passing through  county land and through a number of cities before flowing into Long Beach harbor, what are the intergovernmental issues you must deal with to be successful?

There are intergovernmental and then there are intragovernmental relationships to deal with. There are a number of things that are at play here. We want to make sure that we are not reinventing the wheel but that we are leveraging everybody’s resources and sharing information. For example, within the City of Los Angeles, we need to make sure that the council districts understand what the Major’s Office wants, that the Bureau of Sanitation understands what the Bureau of Engineering wants, and vice versa. The same is true when working with the county and the adjoining cities. It really is an organizing principle that says  “it’s not either/or, it’s both.” The question is: How do we work on the L.A. River together and utilize this resource so that it’s not just an alleyway in the back of our minds but our front yard that we showcase? 

If we talk together in a year, what will we be our focus? What benchmarks of success will you highlight?

Hopefully, our multimodal bridge will be under construction. We will try to develop a couple of projects, like the playground and garden for the Dorris Place Elementary School. There will be the proof-of-concept projects on the ground that people can see and touch, to help activate and make people more aware. As an organization, we will set our own path of financial sustainability. We will figure out creative ways to be a hybrid because we are not a government agency, and so we can act more nimbly and quickly than government often can. As a nonprofit, we take a place-based approach to creating community and economic benefit for all. And, as a social enterprise, we have the know-how to translate good works into good business.

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