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L.A. will take its river to a new level

Proposed $2-billion makeover of the ugly concrete waterway calls for a string of parks, housing and offices.

February 02, 2007|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

After decades of enduring jokes about the city's concrete-lined waterway, officials today will release an ambitious master plan for restoring the Los Angeles River, a project that reflects lofty dreams and carries a big price tag.

If anything, the plan is significant not for its specifics but for its sweep and boldness in proposing to turn the industrial-strength storm drain running from the San Fernando Valley to the sea into "one of the city's most treasured landmarks."

The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan proposes a $2-billion-plus makeover that would replace vast tracts of industrial land along the river with parks, clean up the river and make it appear more natural while retaining its important flood-control role.

The plan is intended to guide construction of a series of parks along 32 miles of the river from Canoga Park to downtown Los Angeles over 25 to 50 years.

Channeled decades ago to protect the city against periodic flooding, the river has provided an ugly contrast in a city known for the natural beauty of its setting. The waterway in recent years has attracted new interest from those who would like to blast away its walls and replace them with a semblance of a natural river.

Up to now, however, visions for doing so have been vague or piecemeal. The master plan offers the first comprehensive -- and as yet unfunded -- proposal for a restoration.

It consists of 239 projects, most of them small. Some, however, would be immense. In two places -- Chinatown and Canoga Park -- residential and office villages would rise along the river's newly greened banks, replacing factories and warehouses. The plan also envisions widening the river channel in some places to preserve its flood-control capacity while creating more riparian habitat.

Advocates say that the plan offers the possibility of constructing the kind of grand public gathering places that have been in short supply in Los Angeles. The restoration's new parks would appear in many parts of the city, rich and poor, including downtown, which is undergoing a revival.

"All of these statements about it being impossible have been made before, and I listen to it and understand it," said Councilman Ed Reyes, the head of the council's river restoration committee. "But impossible? I don't believe it is."

'Wildly ambitious'

Gail Goldberg, the city's planning chief, praised the plan for its scale. "These kind of plans are always long-term," she said. "And they need to be wildly ambitious to capture the public's attention and imagination. Urban design should be bold."

At this stage, the plan is largely hypothetical. Most of the money has not been secured. Beautifying the river could be a hard sell in a city that chronically struggles to hire more police, repair streets and sidewalks, and find funding for transportation improvements.

But the plan-- drafted by the city, consultants and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the behest of city officials -- has growing political momentum on its side. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has said he is a supporter, and a majority of the City Council wants to see something happen.

Powerful and deadly floods in 1914, 1934 and 1938 prompted civic leaders to tame the river to protect the city growing on its floodplain. By the 1950s, most of the river had been encased in concrete, though some portions north of downtown and in the Sepulveda Basin still have a natural bed.

River restoration efforts have come into vogue for cities across United States in recent years as a way to bring parks into the urban core and reclaim nature. Los Angeles County has built several parks along the river's southern reaches over the last decade, and the nonprofit North East Trees and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority have constructed a series of pocket parks along the river between downtown and Glendale.

City Engineer Gary Lee Moore said he believes that the plan will begin with relatively small projects designed to bring people closer to the river. Among those are the completion of a bike path connecting Chinatown and Griffith Park via the river's banks and new pedestrian bridges over it.

"We're talking about signature bridges -- a bridge that people really want to see and that will allow them to see the river," Moore said.

The next phase would be to construct parks along the river while softening its edges with greenery. If that goes well, the city would move on to the biggest project of all: widening and deepening the river channel.

The idea is to preserve the river's current flood-control capacity while slowing its peak flows. Accomplishing that would allow more vegetation and wetlands to be created in the channel because the tamer current wouldn't wash them away.

The Corps of Engineers -- the same agency that channeled the river between the 1930s and '50s -- is in the early stages of a three-year, $7.3-million study to determine what is technically possible.

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