Revitalizing the LA River Will Take a Lot of Green

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom tours the Los Angeles River with architect Frank Gehry and Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis. (Nathan Solis/CNS)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Along the concrete flood channel of the Los Angeles River on Wednesday, renowned architect Frank Gehry’s soft-spoken voice described a greener update for communities along the river as state and local officials listened, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Earlier this year, LA County hired Gehry’s architecture firm and two other groups to update the 22-year-old master plan for the river. That plan will include installing 2 or 3-acre parks in “park poor” communities with a linear Central Park-like approach.

“We think it’s going to be possible without spending billions of dollars,” said Gehry, his voice lost in the din of traffic from the 710 Freeway in South Gate, part of a semi-industrial corridor south of downtown Los Angeles made up of working class residents. County officials say the neighborhood is one of the “park poor” communities.

The nonprofit group River LA began collaborating with Gehry’s firm about four years ago with an eye to revitalizing and transforming the communities along the river. Omar Brownson, president of the nonprofit, said he approached Gehry’s firm and Gehry said he was open to the idea because it was so ambitious and “crazy” enough to work.

Wednesday’s brief tour met on the lip of the concrete bank at the confluence of the Rio Hondo tributary. Only some of the participants wore sunglasses or hats and squinted in the sun as Gehry, 89, discussed a transformative plan that has been met with some opposition.

The concrete flood channel and sloped banks are synonymous with Los Angeles – from the drag race in the movie “Grease” to the chase sequence with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” – but in some sections of the river the concrete lining has been removed, providing a much more natural looking body of water where some people have taken to kayaking and other forms of recreation.

But Gehry is adamant that removing the concrete would be a disaster for riverfront communities.

“Ninety-eight percent of the time the river is like this. Dry,” Gehry said, motioning with his arms. “But the other two percent of the time it’s dangerous. You’re making it less capable to channel water. This was designed for a 100-year flood.”

At least one group, the nonprofit Friends of the Los Angeles River, question Gehry’s involvement and his vision for the river. Gehry’s firm has brought on a landscaping firm and a Florida-based engineering firm, though talks for the developments are in the early stages.

Architect Frank Gehry discusses a revitalization project for the Los Angeles River with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Gehry and Newsom were joined by Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who presented several goals for the revitalization of the Los Angeles River in her district, including economic and social developments and even new transportation projects.

So far, River LA and Gehry’s firm have studied only a portion of the 51-mile Los Angeles River. They plan to go slow according to Tensho Takemori, partner at Gehry’s firm.

“This area has a lot of ideas that are germinating at this time,” said Takemori.

Newsom said he’d support a project to revitalize the river and bring more green space to communities that have been deprived by systemic racism and lack of economic opportunities.

“To have Frank Gehry involved it does not have to be a good project. It has to be a great project,” said Newsom.

“I don’t like this, I love it. I couldn’t be more enthusiastic,” he added, noting bluntly this type of revitalization would take funding from philanthropy groups and government entities, like the state.

Later the gubernatorial front-runner joked, “It’s going to take money. I’d imagine that’s why I’m here.”

Solis said there has been some funding from the state, considered seed money at this point. The development of the transformation project will see a more complete plan by 2020 and in the next 18 months they will narrow in on that.

Volunteers with River LA were happy about the tour and posed for pictures as the tour wound down, and a Los Angeles County utility truck and a bicyclist rolled down the dry river.

Famed landscape architect Laurie Olin and his team and the engineering firm Geosyntec will be working with Gehry and the county.

Meanwhile, a previously approved 11-mile revitalization project by the city of Los Angeles will see the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study the river and attempt to restore the flood channel into a natural ecosystem. Approved in 2017, the study is expected to cost $8 million and construction could top $1 billion.

A section of the Los Angeles River, mostly dry for much of the year.


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