February 25, 2016 - From the February, 2016 issue

VX2016 LA River Plenary Featured: Mayor, Gehry Partners, Edmiston, Romero

At VerdeXchange 2016 in Downtown Los Angeles last month, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti delivered a keynote offering a vision of the Los Angeles River that was by turns personal, historical, and practical. TPR presents the written remarks the mayor relied upon during his speech and edited excerpt from the panel that followed, featuring Tensho Takemori, partner at Gehry Partners; Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy; and Barbara Romero, deputy of city services and former board member of the LA River Revitalization Corporation.

Joe Edmiston

“The riverbed of the Glendale Narrows had trees, life, and possibility, but it also was full of trash, debris and pollutants. I said we’d do something.” —Eric Garcetti


Eric Garcetti: The LA River is the connective tissue of this entire city—geographically, historically, and conceptually. Los Angeles wasn’t named as a pueblo—as a town. It was originally named as a river. When Father Juan Crespí came through here in 1769, where the Arroyo Seco and Los Angeles Rivers meet, they set up camp on a day that two earthquakes visited them. They looked at the beauty to the northwest, staring up toward what is now Elysian Park on one side and Lincoln Heights and Mount Washington on the other, and they said it reminded them of what Saint Francis, their patron saint, had next to his church: his own personal refuge—a place called the Porciúncula, or in Italian Porziuncola, “the small portion of land.” They christened that river as they took communion in it: El Río de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula.

The idea of the city was born on the banks of our river—one that wasn’t new or brought by the Spaniards. The Tongva had been living alongside this crazy river that would disappear and be peaceful and then would rage in a 51-mile fall, equal to the fall of the more than 2,000 miles that the Mississippi River falls. This force must have informed who they were and how they lived. It was the life source for the pobladores. 

Indeed, we channelized water from all over the state. It was this perverse thing where any drop that fell to the north of us, we figured out a way to bring to us, yet every drop that fell here, we quickly wanted to wash out to the ocean—not because we weren’t long-term planners on water, but because of the danger.

When Frederick Olmsted, Jr. gave us an idea modeled on what he and his parents had worked on in the Emerald Necklace of Boston—to have a series of parks along the LA River that would be an Emerald Necklace for Los Angeles—the Chamber of Commerce and the city fathers said, “It’s too expensive.” However, in 1938, when 115 people died in one of the largest tragedies in America because of the raging river, local leaders changed course.

We put a concrete straitjacket on the river. We turned to the Army Corps of Engineers, which did a marvelous job with the mission they were given: to erase the river’s unpredictability and to contain it. Not one person has died in a flood since, here in Los Angeles.

I ran for City Council in a district with the only place that had not been entirely contained in concrete, for hydrology reasons. The riverbed of the Glendale Narrows had trees, life, and possibility, but it was also full of trash, debris and pollutants. I said we’d do something. This was only 15 years ago, but it was still pretty fringey to be “for” the LA River. We never thought of it as a living, breathing organism.

Indeed, when we talk about restoring the river, we’re talking about a vision in a new city that isn’t exactly just restoring the past. We don’t want that flooding, so we must be strategic about any changes to the river’s channel. I don’t think the steelhead are coming back soon, but we can  embrace a vision of what a new Los Angeles is, can be, must be—what we demand it to be.

And so we started turning our face to the river, with pocket parks and bike paths. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy started thinking about coming east, and this direction elevated the value of our urban ecology. An organization that had preserved the Westside’s mountains and the nature in the city began to show that the Eastside could do that, too. We’ve done the math—a quarter of the people in Los Angeles live within walking distance of this river, just as I did when I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and when I was living in Silver Lake and Echo Park. The river was a place where people could come, recreate, commune, and contemplate. They could see a golden osprey or a fish eagle come down.

But the river demanded our attention ecologically, structurally, and conceptually. I authored Proposition O, which we put on the ballot. All the folks at City Hall said, “People would never vote to clean it up.” We had the second highest vote in city history, second only to the zoo bond. 

It worked incredibly well, and we cleaned up the river. We put barriers to keep trash from going into it, and now the amount of trash has been reduced by 95 percent. Heal the Bay tested the fish that are back in the river, and they’re cleaner than the ones in the Bay.

When I became mayor, we had an amazing foundation laid by all of us: a master plan that we had done through dozens of meetings involving hundreds of people. I was vice chair along with Ed Reyes, our chair, of the City Council’s first LA River Committee—an ad hoc committee we founded that is now a standing committee led by Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell. 

We’d witnessed the building of a consensus—how it went from a fringe issue to a necessity for every civic leader. 

We saw Friends of the Los Angeles River, founded by my former writing teacher Lewis MacAdams, grow and step up in new ways—in 2009, FoLAR found a million dollars to help us complete the US Army Corps’ ARBOR Study. 

We birthed the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, and we reached out to people like Frank Gehry and his studio, who are doing extraordinary work to find a framework to unify the entire river. 

We saw leaders born—like Kevin de Léon, now the head of the State Senate, and our Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon—who care very much about the river. When I endorsed my colleague, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, we did it at the river and stood together proclaiming our pledge to work together on the river and realize its possibilities.

We went to the Army Corps in 2006 with an eye toward undoing the concrete straitjacket, to restore the river to its natural beauty. I took several trips over the years to meet with officials. I pitched President Obama on the tarmac here in Los Angeles, saying this was the most important thing that he could do for us here. We were turned down time and time again for something that was too big and too bold. Regarding the Army Corps, the President actually said, “I don’t know if I can help you with that one.” When the President says that he can’t help you with a bureaucracy, you know it’s a pretty embedded bureaucracy. It has to be convinced on the merits. 

But we knew the merits were strong, and we came back time and time and time again. The President opened that door for us. We were able to win on the merits. Just this past Christmas, the best present I got at the civic level was when they approved the report that allowed us to go for the project that will restore ecosystem values along an 11-mile stretch of the river—the largest urban ecosystem restoration project the Army Corps has ever approved. 

These benefits will be felt by all of us. Angelenos’ health will be improved, along with greater social connections, transportation networks, increased recreation, and revitalization of neighborhoods around the river, with a careful eye to preserving what’s special about those, including the income and racial diversity of them. 

It’s expected to create nearly 14,000 jobs in a city that continues to roar back from the recession with a 4-percent reduction in our unemployment rate, with 90,000 jobs since I became mayor—the fastest pace we’ve seen in a decade. It’ll bring space to park-poor communities, fulfilling my dream of having a park within walking distance of every Angeleno.

When we finally see this river restored to its natural beauty, it’ll be thanks to the work of thousands of people over decades. 

The work that Frank Gehry is doing builds upon this—looking at how we can stitch together these 88 cities of LA County, including the 15 different jurisdictions along the river’s 51 miles—some of the most diverse and interesting communities that we’ve ever known. We’re looking at how Metro can tie our public transit to and through the river corridor, how we can make bikeways and visual cues, whether it’s trees or signage, so that it doesn’t matter if you’re in Long Beach or Los Angeles, you won’t need to think about what municipality you are in—you can just know you’re at the LA River.

This vision of connecting communities builds on the decades of work that are reflected in the city’s River Revitalization Master Plan and the Army Corps’ LA River Ecosystem Restoration Project. This is a cooperative, collaborative, regional approach. In the end, people have put aside their differences and said: This is an opportunity to move forward.

We now need everyone to buy into this vision, to continue on this long journey. People come up to me all the time and ask: “When’s the LA River going to be done?” Well, it depends. Is it the $6 million we just put in Sherman Oaks and Encino along the river for a bike path? Is it the collaborative work with the County to design the bikepath that will close all of the gaps in the entire San Fernando Valley? Is it the work to look at what we can do to tear up some of the concrete banks or to buy the Taylor Yard G2 parcel, which we’re on the brink of doing?

No single group or entity will ever control the river. Only the river can control itself. It’s too long and too diverse. There is room for multiple visions. That’s why I’m so encouraged by the broad support for the river’s restoration. People are putting their money where their mouths are. They’re committing their vision and hard work. 

Every day it feels like we’re a little closer to a tipping point. Every day, whether it’s the small donations or the work that’s done in a cleanup by children along the river, or whether it’s a frog that we see in a place that we haven’t seen any, we know that river revitalization is not a matter of “can it happen.” It will happen. 

This investment embodies a new way of looking at the city. We aren’t about the short term. We are following a vision of what a city can be, a moment when we can seize this opportunity for good and lasting things—for our economy, for our neighborhoods, for us, and for our spirit.

We’ve arrived at this moment of unprecedented collaboration because of all of us, as well as local, state, and federal stakeholders who have come together at the government level. 

I look forward to hearing the music of this river for my entire life. I’m glad to help conduct it for a moment. I hope that we will see that this opportunity is not just for a body of water that gave us our past and our name and who we are. The Los Angeles River’s destiny is for us to find each other, and for us to find the city, once again. 


Tensho Takemori: About a year and a half ago, the LA River Revitalization Corporation talked to Frank and us about taking a look at all 51 miles of the river. It was such an incredible opportunity and A privilege. 


The one condition that Frank made clear is that we be given time to understand the pragmatic and functional requirements of the river. There was talk early on about what the High Line had done in New York. Frank was quick to point out that the High Line was a derelict elevated railroad. You could do anything you wanted with it, including tearing it down. The LA River is not that—it is an active flood control channel. The price of entry was that you can’t affect flood control—you have to figure out how to work within those constraints. 

We started by asking our client for a 3D model of the Los Angeles River. We found out something interesting: there wasn’t one. 

After many months of getting access to the river through the county, in one day we were able to mount a scanning unit on a car and drive all the hard-bottom areas—about 70 percent of the river—to create a point cloud scan. We can geoposition all these scans, stitch them together, and stitch photography over it. It’s the beginning of the 3D environment. We’ve also been talking to other firms about how to roughly model every structure within a half mile of the river. We’re trying to formulate a single comprehensive database that everybody who works on the river can use.

Parallel to that, we also did a lot of reading. A lot of master plans and studies have been done related to the river—some very comprehensive, like the City of LA’s Master Plan, but only covering 32 miles because of jurisdictional reasons; some perhaps more siloed. But, overall, the plans did not appear to coordinate across jurisdictions.

We created a series of “data evaluation topics.” We started with six and we’re up to 12, ranging from water to public health, arts and culture, education, and greenhouse gases. We came up with the idea of a framework: We could put all of the objective information from all the plans into a common database. Since most of this data exists in GIS format, it could actually be overlaid in the 3D model that we were talking about earlier. If we’re all working from a single common database, we can make the most bang for the buck in terms of dollars that we can argue for in Washington and Sacramento.

Now we’re delving into some of those topics a little deeper—water recharge and public health are two of the initial ones we’re looking at, among many others—to figure out a way to build an economic case. 

We’re trying to figure out a methodology of quantifying the return in water recharge if you invest a dollar in improvements to the LA River. How much water can we actually capture from the rain that’s simply going out into the ocean every day? 

The amount of water going into the ocean every day when it’s not raining is equivalent to the water needs of the entire City of Long Beach. The amount of water that goes into the ocean from rain, on average, is anywhere from four to five times that amount—about 280,000 acre-feet per year. Even if we captured a small portion of it, we could make a big difference in terms of trying to reduce our water imports. 

When you look at the data, you can also make correlations between areas that have a lack of open space and poor public health statistics. I think we can make a strong case that dollars invested in the 51-mile length can effect better flood control, reduce water imports, improve public health, improve education, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We’re also spending a lot of time with the cities in the lower regions, finding out what their needs are. We’ve met with 10 or 11 of the city representatives so far.

Joe Edmiston: The Los Angeles River is a metaphor, in an interesting way. 

The Los Angeles River is not the meandering, placid, wonderful thing of Lewis MacAdams’ poetry. It is most of the time. But on the Fletcher Bridge in the summer storm that we had, I saw the river lapping up on the bikeway itself. At Marsh Park (which the Conservancy developed in Elysian Valley), during our latest storm, huge, almost boulder-sized trunks of trees were going by at 30 miles an hour. It showed that nature has made its impact on Southern California, on Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles River is a metaphor of how nature can impact us—we do have to be worried about nature, and not take it for granted. Maybe our spine has to tingle sometimes. 

The Los Angeles River is also a metaphor for other problems that we have. That 115 people who lost their lives in the storms in the ’30s were a result of hobo jungles in the LA River that went down. Do we still have the equivalent of hobo jungles now? Absolutely.

A significant proportion of the poorest of Angelenos live next to the LA River. There isn’t a place in Beverly Hills where you can look outside your door and see a great blue heron. Yet everyone who lives along the Los Angeles River, in that wonderful 11-mile stretch where the river forces itself up and will not be contained, can see, virtually every day, a great blue heron. Nature is providing an opportunity for everyone to enjoy her bounties. 

Barbara Romero: Nature connects people to each other. If you actually bike through the different neighborhoods along the Los Angeles River, it becomes one city. 

How can we use the large infrastructure that crosses the river, like the rail, so that barriers can become opportunities? We can use planning, parks, and water to transform the way people connect. 

When the River Master Plan began, we weren’t focusing on climate change. We didn’t have a drought. We didn’t have extremes. But we currently have the threat of El Niño. 

The river can be resilient despite our interventions, at this point. I ask you to join us, because there is room for all the different disciplines in moving forward.

Tensho Takemori: The drought is very present in all of our minds. 

The average amount of water going down the river, I said, was about 280,000 acre-feet a year, but that varies from the lowest year, at about 50,000, to the wettest year, at about 950,000. Those two extremes happened two years apart: 2005 and 2007. Ideally for water recharge, nice little rains are spaced out every once in a while so the ground can soak in all the water before the next rain comes. But the climate’s changing. We’re working with our engineers to figure out a reasonable amount to take off the river.

An expert in public health at UCLA showed us the adult obesity statistics for LA County. When you look at that as a heat map relative to lack of open space, the maps correlate almost exactly. His research says that for every dollar invested in nature trails and active open space, you might be able to save up to $3 in public health costs. What does it mean if you look further into type 2 diabetes and asthma, and try to quantify a case for public health?

Joe’s right: In the end, it comes back to nature. We’re studying with Olin: What is the nature of typical dry arroyo? There are places in Mexico, Australia, and the Middle East where water is equally as precious. We’re looking at models that they use in terms of conserving water, but also trying to find natural models.

Joe Edmiston:  Historically, there was a great controversy about the future of water in Southern California. The Flood Control District head said, “We have enough ability to sustain ourselves here with water that comes naturally into the Los Angeles Basin.” William Mulholland made the case: “No, it comes in such episodic array that it’s too dangerous.” Mulholland won that bet. The Flood Control District became almost entirely a creature of making concrete channels. Now that is changing. 

At the very first meeting we had at the Los Angeles River Center 15 years ago, the Corps of Engineers representative—mercifully retired now—said there was absolutely no possibility of doing anything different on the Los Angeles River because of the coefficients and everything. I thought, “This endeavor is hopeless!” 

Now we have the Corps of Engineers that even Obama can’t control, saying, “I guess if the coefficients work, I can’t tell them what to do.” Planning has evolved from the guy that said nothing can change to the Corps of Engineers saying everything can change.

Barbara Romero: On the Westside, we have beaches and the coastline. A lot of people have protected that. For the Eastside folks, the river represents a shoreline. It’s access to nature and water.

How do we retain the people who actually live there, so they can enjoy these improvements? How do we protect affordability?

How do we provide enough water in the river? At one point, it was about getting it out as soon as possible to the beach. Now it’s become a resource. DWP is tasked with making sure we recycle and reuse enough water. But also, how do we keep enough water in the river to restore it, and for recreation?


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