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LA RIVER REVITALIZATION MAKES PROGRESS, BUT BIGGEST CHALLENGES LIE AHEAD

Daniel Freedman, Executive Board Chair, Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative.

 

At this point, most people in the environmental and urban design community are aware of a growing movement taking shape to turn the cement and spray paint lined Los Angeles River into a green, clean, and family-friendly oasis complete with parks, public spaces, bike-ways, and other amenities. To label this movement as “ambitious” is an understatement. Politically, financially, and logistically, the concept is a major undertaking, which will cost billions of dollars and a good chunk of a decade to complete. If brought to fruition, the investment will create one of our nation’s most innovative and grand public park spaces, likely only rivaled by New York’s Central Park. If taken on and championed by Mayor Garcetti, Governor Brown, or other elected leaders, the project could serve as a crowning environmental achievement for whoever seeks to champion it, and may ultimately define a legacy.

LA RIVER MASTER PLANS

While the LA River revitalization effort has definitely been gaining momentum over the past few years, it has been on the environmental community’s radar for decades. The first major government backed effort to address remaking the Los Angeles River was done by the County of Los Angeles in 1996, when it produced the Los Angeles River Master Plan (or “LARMP”). Somewhat ahead of its time, LARMP’s mission was focused around “optimizing and enhancing the aesthetic, recreational, flood control and environmental values by creating a community resource, enriching the quality of life for residents and recognizing the river’s primary purpose for flood control.” LARMP’s scope covered the entire Los Angeles River, and set out specific goals and recommendations for each segment of the river and the adjacent city agencies.

More recently, the City of Los Angeles produced a slightly more targeted plan, titled the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan ( or “LA City Plan”), which focuses exclusively on the 32 miles of the LA River segments located within the City of Los Angeles boundaries. The LA City Plan, produced in 2007, overlaps substantially with the LARMP, but was generally produced as an independent document with City of Los Angeles centric recommendations and goals. Both plans are highly ambitious, and have provided a much needed conceptual vision for the LA River revitalization efforts.

PROGRESS TOWARDS REVITALIZATION

Since then, substantial – although not wholly transformative – steps have been taken to implement some of the visions outlined by these plans. In May for example, after being closed from the public for recreational uses for nearly 80 years, the river was opened up for kayaking and other activities. Additionally, the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, an organization spearheading the LA river effort, is organizing “Bike-In” movie community events around the river, and is actively looking for funding sources from federal, state and various other potential sources to advance the revitalization effort. Private entities are even pitching in; NBC Universal for example,agreed to spend $13.5 million towards installing an additional 6.4 miles of bike path and park space along the river (adding to the 26 miles of existing bikeways traversing the bank of the river). Furthermore, philanthropist Morton La Kretz agreed to contribute $5 million to assist in the construction of an iconic pedestrian bridge in Atwater Village that will provide an important linkage for the equestrian and bike communities in the neighborhood.  While this progress provides good reason to be hopeful, the rivers transformation remains at its infancy, and the toughest and most complex challenges are still to come.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

One of the biggest challenges the LA River faces is obviously financial. As it stands now, there are no official estimates as to the total cost of a river wide “revitalization,” however  the “revitalization” effort may be defined (which remains a question). The LA City Plan does include some basic cost estimates, but these estimates are now more than 6 years old, and were not project-wide.  For a project likely to cost many billions of dollars, all possible financial resources will need to be considered and evaluated, including federal, state and local governments, private donors, foundations, and possibly other public-private partnerships. With scarce financial resources, and no clear consensus as to either a defined river-wide plan, or an understanding as to which aspects/features of a revitalized LA river should be prioritized, some challenges may arise in the future in which LA river supporters may be pitted against each other and advocates forced to pick sides based on specific interests. For example, one could imagine a situation where funding could be earmarked for either habitat restoration or bikeway expansion/improvement, potentially leaving bike advocates at odds with conservationists.   Similar conflicts may arise as to what segments of the river will receive funding first, and which segments will be funded last, pitting downstream communities against upstream communities.

Another challenge will be managing the various partnerships, cross-jurisdiction approvals, and multi-party/agency negotiations. With so many overlapping federal, state, and local jurisdictional boundaries covering the 52 mile river, navigating these interests will be a huge endeavor. While this issue is unresolved as of yet, UCLA Luskin’s Center has begun the process of investigating these issues in cooperation with the LA River Revitalization Corporation.  If funding begins to flow, a regional convening entity may need to be formed in the vein of the Desert Renewable Energy Conversation Plan[ing] process. The Southern California Association of Governments, who recently completed the very complex SB 375 sustainable communities strategy planning process, or the County of Los Angeles may be able to play a role in convening such a forum in order to balance potentially conflicting local interests.

Connected to this challenge, is the issue of public approval. Building public support and establishing a clear mandate for legislation and revenue measures will be absolutely critical to seeing this process through. To build this support, LA River advocates will need to develop a clear message to the public, laying out both the recreational and environmental benefits of a revitalized river, but also a bottom-line dollar-and-cents case.  In an effort of this scale, it will be critical that advocates clearly and influentially describe how and why our communities will benefit from various revitalization elements including but not limited to (1) a new transit connected pedestrian/bike path running from Warner Center to Long Beach that falls within one mile of a third of all metro stops in LA City (the “LA River Greenway”), (2) hundreds of square miles of new park and recreational space, (3) a new and thriving ecosystem to protect local flora, fauna, and endangered species, and (4) an array of environmental benefits such as improved water quality, cleaner beaches, reduced air emissions, and new tourism amenities/attractions.  With so many interests and possibilities, tailoring and simplifying this message to the public will be critical, and building clear coalitions and influential and outspoken advocates will be a must.

MOVING FORWARD

The Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (or “LA River Corporation”), headed by its very capable Executive Director Omar Brownson, is working diligently to make river revitalization a priority for elected and community leaders at all levels, and is creating a much needed connected and influential network of advocates through the “LA River Navigators” network. The LA River Corporation is also working with UCLA’s Luskin Center to research potential strategies for some of the most substantial challenges lying ahead. I have also reached out to the LA River Corporation  directly on behalf of the Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative (or “LASC”), and have begun the process of exploring how the LASC can be supportive on some of the issues discussed above. Moving forward, it is imperative that LA River advocates continue to support the LA River Corporation in its effort to inspire and progress the revitalization effort, and to work as a community on overcoming the many challenges that will be faced.  While the revitalization effort won’t be easy or cheap, it will definitely be an adventure worth taking, and the results will pay dividends for generations to come (life-jackets are recommended).

Special thanks to Omar Brownson, Executive Director of the Los Angeles River Corporation, and Henry McCann, recent graduate of UCLA’s Urban Planning graduate program and UCLA Luskin Center researcher for taking the time to speak with me about these issues.

If you have any thoughts or comments about this article feel free to comment or email me.

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