The Unpaved Path Ahead for the Los Angeles River - Pacific Standard

The Unpaved Path Ahead for the Los Angeles River

With $1.4 billion and Frank Gehry designing the plan, L.A. tries to bring back its lost waterway.
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The Los Angeles River. (Photo: trekandshoot/Shutterstock)

A new vision for the future has emerged in Los Angeles. The city is getting denser. Subway lines are going in. So-called “road diets” are replacing lanes for cars with bike lanes. And downtown has become more than an abandoned hole on the map. The suburban, paved-over, car-dominated characteristics so entrenched in the city suddenly seem assailable. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne calls the city’s early years “First Los Angeles,” stretching from 1880 to 1940 and characterized by a massive streetcar system. Second Los Angeles is the freeway-dependent sprawl we know now. And before us lies Third Los Angeles, in which we restore our public transit system, and—if you’re the type of person who likes actual cities more than super-sized suburbs—our quality of life.

The symbolic heart of this hopeful moment has become the revitalization of the L.A. River. The city’s 2024 Olympics bid features an athlete’s village on the banks of a blue, tree-lined ribbon of water wending through downtown. Last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti lobbied President Obama to persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to support the city’s billion-dollar revitalization proposal, known as Alternative 20—the most ambitious of the options the city laid out for the Corps. Real estate developers and environmental activists alike have issued scores of artists’ renderings of the river’s future. These renderings feature native trees and grasses, water lapping the banks of public plazas, and no sign of the concrete that lines the waterway now.

Downtown L.A. is where it is because the river provided the nascent city with drinking water. But the city grew, and its relationship to the river changed. In 1913, with the newly completed Los Angeles Aqueduct, the city got access to water from the Owens River Valley. The river, now less important as a source of drinking water, filled with garbage and became an eyesore. Then, in 1914, 1934, and 1938, a series of floods ripped through town, killing citizens and destroying property. Most of the time, the L.A. River was nothing more than a trickle. (In heavy rain, though, the flow became torrential.) Because the flow was typically so minimal, the river barely had banks to speak of. So when it rained, the river would vary its course, spreading itself over the massive floodplain that stretches from downtown L.A. all the way south to Long Beach.

Imagining a revitalized Los Angeles River intoxicates Angelenos not just because the city would wind up with a 51-mile-long riparian version of Central Park, but because it would restore the city’s topographical reason for being.

The unpredictable river posed a problem for the growing city, so, between 1938 and 1960, the Corps turned it into what it is now—an ugly-yet-effective, concrete-lined flood-control channel. The river still has the same dynamic it used to—most often a trickle, sometimes a torrent—but now, that trickle isn’t the result of an aquifer rising to the surface in Glendale. The aquifer’s been diverted to an underground reservoir, and the new trickle consists mostly of wastewater from a sewage treatment plant.

Imagining a revitalized Los Angeles River intoxicates Angelenos not just because the city would wind up with a 51-mile-long riparian version of Central Park, but because it would restore the city’s topographical reason for being, a city re-connected to its lifeblood, an end to the arbitrary unrealness of this place, an answer to the contention that this city shouldn’t be here. Pulling up the concrete would feel like atoning for the sins of this city’s past, a restoration of the place to its origins, of Angelenos to their senses.

But how much restoration is actually possible?

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In August, news broke that the architect Frank Gehry, at the behest of the city-affiliated Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, had been working pro bono, in secret, for nine months on a master plan for the full length of the river. News of Gehry’s involvement did not land well. The secrecy of Gehry’s operation roused the suspicion of activists like Lewis MacAdams, whose organization Friends of the L.A. River (FoLAR) helped catalyze river revitalization efforts in 1986.

“I looked at the project, and I didn’t see where we fit in,” MacAdams says. What had felt like a moment of cohesion between the city, the federal government, the Army Corps, and river activists appeared compromised for the benefit of a celebrity architect.

And Gehry didn’t help his own case. Though he hasn’t gone as far as he did in in 2011 when he called Parisians “uncouth philistines” for protesting the plans for his Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne, he did tell those giving him blowback on the river to “grow up.”

The bigger rub, though, was the fear of what the architect who’d prided himself on his use of cheap, industrial materials might do with a river that was already entombed in cheap industrial material.

“Frank Gehry has a well-known aesthetic, and it would seem unlikely that he would abandon it,” says D.J. Waldie, author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. Central to this fear was the Los Angeles Times report that Gehry wanted to leave the river’s concrete intact.

Omar Brownson, executive director at the LA River Revitalization Corp, says the latter quote was taken out of context. “‘We’re not going to take out the concrete’ is what he was reported as saying, but the last word they did not include was ‘everywhere.’” Mark Hanna, a water resources engineer at Geosyntec, a consulting firm working with Gehry on the project, further clarified that Gehry anticipated leaving some of the concrete in place, but for logistical reasons rather than aesthetic ones. Says Hanna, “There are certain places where you might not be able to [take it out] in this day and age.” As far as what aesthetic choices Gehry would, in fact, make, both Brownson and Hanna stressed that Gehry hasn’t gotten there yet, and that he’s in a purely exploratory phase, making a 3-D map of the river, collating the myriad extant master plans from other agencies, and deciding what could be possible. Los Angeles magazine reported that Gehry’s study will cost $3 million to complete and should be done within a year.

What is possible? And what makes it so difficult to pull up the concrete?

The chief limiting factor in this project is flood control. Whatever you do to the riverbed, you can’t threaten the lives and property outside its banks. And this concern isn’t just worst-case-scenario paranoia. Diminishing the basin’s ability to handle worst-case flooding—the so-called 100-year flood—would not only threaten those in the floodplain at some point in the indeterminate future, but also raise flood insurance costs for at-risk homeowners right now.

The channel succeeds at flood control because it gets water to the Pacific as quickly as possible. By traveling over concrete, the water has less friction to overcome than it would if it ran over rocks and grasses and trees. And since the channel’s mostly straight, the water travels down a steeper slope to the ocean than it would if the river meandered—think about the switchbacks on San Francisco’s Lombard Street, and then think about what that road would be like if it were straight. The result is that, after rain, water flies down the river at speeds up to 45 miler per hour. The only way to make it go faster would be to line the river with something smoother, like glass.

The engineers’ term for the amount of water that can get down the channel is “flow,” and flow is a function of two variables: velocity and area. If you reduce the available area in the channel, you reduce the channel’s capacity for flow. If you reduce the velocity of the water as it moves down the channel, you reduce the channel’s capacity for flow as well. And if you reduce capacity for flow, you reduce the channel’s ability to contain a flood.

Replacing the concrete with vegetation would reduce both area and velocity—trees and grasses take up space, and trees and grasses slow water down. This means that, for every artist’s rendering of a green, natural-looking L.A. River, there has to be a complementary plan either to find more space for the river, or to reduce the amount of water that flows between its banks.

In June, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power presented its Stormwater Capture Master Plan. Rather than let stormwater flush out to the ocean unused, the plan would direct stormwater into the ground where it would re-charge the aquifers, which currently provide Los Angeles with 12 percent of its water supply. The plan would make use of a range of large-scale projects such as increasing the capacity of the 150-acre aquifer re-charge site called the Tujunga spreading grounds, as well as programs to encourage smaller projects like rain gardens and green streets. The plan has the potential to direct as much as eight times more water into the aquifers than the city does now.

In addition to working with Gehry on his plan for the river, Geosyntec developed the Stormwater Capture Master Plan. “Everyone thinks that when we implement the Stormwater Capture Master Plan, it’s going to remove a lot of water from the river,” Hanna says. But the issue is that, in the heaviest of storms, the sort of storms that the L.A. River has to be able to accommodate, the ground becomes saturated. And once saturated, the ground loses its ability to take on more water, and the rainwater flows right over the rain gardens and green streets and into the L.A. River. “When we need it [for flood control], the Stormwater Capture Master Plan is not going to help very much.” Hanna estimates that the most ambitious implementation of the Stormwater Capture Master Plan would reduce the amount of water in the river in the event of a 100-year-storm by three percent. In terms of revitalization potential, Hanna says that reducing the flow of the LA River by three percent would get us “a couple trees.”

More extensive revitalization work, then, depends on increasing the river’s area. There are a few ways to do this within the existing channel. One is to slice triangles out of the trapezoidal sidewalls and make them look less like a ramp and more like a staircase. Another is to remove the trapezoidal sidewalls altogether and replace them with vertical sidewalls. In places like the Arts District downtown, where the river is completely hemmed in by city, these are the sorts of options available. The general rule, though, is that the more space you can create, the more concrete you can remove.

Which is why, in order to make significant revitalization possible, the city has to find some land. When the Army Corps approved Alternative 20 a year ago, Mayor Garcetti suggested that jackhammers on concrete were imminent. But there is no way that’s going to happen until the city can find some land to turn into floodplain.

The two most important parcels to Alternative 20 are Piggyback Yard, just north of downtown, and the G2 parcel in Elysian Valley. The railroad company Union Pacific owns both properties. G2 is for sale, and the state has committed $25 million to its purchase, which State Senator Kevin de Leon says will likely cover the majority of its price. Revitalization in Elysian Valley is one step closer to reality. The next big question mark for G2 will be the extent to which it’s contaminated. In the best-case scenario, the land isn’t too expensive or difficult to clean up and turn into ecologically restored flood detention space—i.e, wetlands. In the worst-case the land is too contaminated to put into the floodplain at all and instead becomes river-adjacent soccer fields and parks—in this case, the concrete in the riverbed would remain in place.

The G2 parcel comprises 40 acres. At 120 acres, Piggyback Yard presents the much larger opportunity. With a price tag of $656 million, the acquisition and restoration of Piggyback Yard would eat up almost half of Alternative 20’s budget, which, since being approved in 2014, has grown to $1.35 billion. The major complication here, though, is that Piggyback Yard isn’t for sale. In a 2014 letter to the city, Union Pacific’s now former CEO John Koraleski wrote that, if the city can provide a re-location site, “it is possible a sale or exchange agreement could be reached.” Union Pacific’s director of corporate relations, Francisco Castillo, says that the city met with Union Pacific to discuss the topic in October 2014, and then had a brief phone call in August of this year, but that, “to date, we have not received any potential re-location sites.”

Complicating matters further, L.A.’s Olympics committee has its eyes on Piggyback Yard as well. The Olympics committee’s renderings of a blue ribbon wending through downtown also include an Olympic Village on Piggyback Yard. Given that area for flood detention is the main ingredient required for restoration, the Olympics plan seems to conflict with Alternative 20. But even if the Olympics committee were to step aside, it’s difficult to imagine that 120 acres in the heart of Los Angeles would be without competing interests.

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In 1930, two urban designers, Harland Bartholomew and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.—son of the Olmsted who designed New York’s Central Park—presented the city with a master plan for its park system. The plan included recommendations for 17.6 miles of park along two different sections of the L.A. River. The idea was to acquire land and widen the river significantly so as to retain flood control capabilities “without seriously injuring the landscape value of the river bed.” Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, calls that plan “a window into a lost future.”

Olmsted and Bartholomew presented their plans five months after the stock market crash that began the Depression. The plan had a cost of $230 million, which was seven times L.A.’s annual city budget at the time. The plan’s timing and price tag presented major hurdles. But also, writes Blake Gumprecht in the Los Angeles River, while the plan’s river portions did address flood control, the plans “lacked the technical support that might have prompted government engineers to pay attention.”

In 1986, the river was closed to the public. Then, Lewis MacAdams cut a hole in the chain link fence, created FoLAR, and made the river accessible. At the time, many Angelenos didn’t know the river existed. It didn’t have the signs at its crossings that it has now, and it didn’t even appear on some city maps. A lot has changed in the years since. But to date, no concrete has come up from the actual riverbed.

Gumprecht published the Los Angeles River in 1999. A year later, he felt compelled to append a new preface. California Governor Gray Davis had just allocated $83 million for river restoration. In the preface, Gumprecht wrote, “the momentum of efforts to make the river more than just a flood control channel has reached such an intensity that ... I would no longer bet against this river....” Gumprecht hoped that, finally, some concrete might come up.

That money went not to the riverbed but to the acquisition of an adjacent park, a 32-acre parcel in Chinatown called the Cornfield. While it would be possible to engineer this park into floodplain—either by lowering it to river level, or raising the river level, or some combination of the two—California State Parks has put $18 million into a park re-design and construction project, making re-purposing the park for flood detention appear less likely. For now, the purchase of the Cornfield has not led to the removal of any concrete.

“It took a while to understand what was possible,” MacAdams says. “A lot of this was done very ad hoc.”

The revitalization coalition, from FoLAR to Geosyntec to the Corps to the mayor’s office, knows more now than it did then. At $1.4 billion, Alternative 20’s budget is a lot more than $83 million. There’s a picture of Garcetti in a kayak in the river hanging at LAX. The fever pitch of revitalization efforts has intensified since Gumprecht wrote that preface 15 years ago.

When Frank Gehry completes his master plan, it will join a list of existing master plans from the City of Los Angeles, the County of Los Angeles, the Corps, the City of Long Beach, L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, and others. Los Angeles will then have a choice about what to do with Gehry’s ideas. Whatever the city does will take time, money, and political will. During that time, more master plans will get written, and the river’s future will remain up for grabs.

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