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Advocates promote the other L.A. River

Left out of a $2-billion makeover, downstream cities plan upgrades.

March 12, 2007|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

As Los Angeles gears up for a historic makeover of its namesake river, the grand plans aren't flowing south.

The much-trumpeted $2-billion blueprint for revitalizing the Los Angeles River ends at the city line, omitting the last 19 miles of the river as it cuts through some of Southern California's poorest, most crowded communities.

So Long Beach and at least five small industrial cities desperate for parkland are going solo along the "Lower 40%," designing fledgling efforts to turn their slices of concrete waterway into greener shores.

Although this stretch of the river can make the upper 60% seem as refined as the banks of the Seine in a Seurat painting, there are signs downstream that change is on the way.

From Cudahy to San Pedro Bay, a few idealistic planners are crafting projects. The most ambitious is at the river's mouth in Long Beach, where a far-reaching plan would line concrete banks with parks, trees and trails.

Smaller communities are also paying attention to a river ignored for decades. "We know we can't take the L.A. River back to what it was," said Paul Adams, South Gate parks director. "But a lot of cities are coming together, developing plans for the greening of the river."

The river is squeezed from Vernon south to the sea amid factories, warehouses and the truck-clogged 710 Freeway. Concrete-lined banks are strewn with trash and lined with battered chain-link fence and rusted railroad tracks. Its bridges are blanketed with graffiti.

"As stark as it looks in Canoga Park, it's worse down in South Gate," said Larry Smith, executive director of the nonprofit North East Trees Inc., which has aided riverfront park projects.

The mostly Latino and black residents have no access to the water along much of the lower river. Although it widens dramatically as it moves south, truckers and commuters ensnarled in traffic enjoy the best views, but only when they can peer over concrete balustrades.

The 710 Freeway long ago supplanted the river as the spine of the county's southeastern communities.

The most visible hints of nature are the scraggly weeds growing in cracks in the river's concrete flooring, algae lining the water's edge and shorebirds hovering in search of food.

"It's the forgotten part of the Los Angeles River, and nary a mention in the L.A. River revitalization plan," said lawyer Tim Grabiel at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Long Beach, for instance, just unveiled a far-reaching vision called RiverLink to create more greenery along the river in the city's northern and western sections, which average one acre of parkland per 1,000 residents. On the wealthier Eastside, the ratio is nearly 17 acres per 1,000 residents.

In Paramount, where parkland is even scarcer, Ralph C. Dills Park is being expanded along the river. City recreation official Dave Johnson hopes to add new trails as well as sycamores and other native plants such as pitcher sage, woolly blue curls and California barberry.

Several people strolling Saturday morning in Dill Park said they would welcome more greenery. Darlene Sanchez, 28, of Paramount, pushing her 10-month-old son, Nathan, in a stroller, said that she goes to the park daily, drawn by the birds and the open river view.

Ramon Martinez, 44, of Compton crosses the river to Paramount to walk along the water three or four times a week.

"I like to see the other people walking, and the birds. And the river," he said.

Despite the river's popularity, the hurdles to restoring it are enormous.

The "Lower 40" flows through 11 cities without Los Angeles' political and economic clout. Most lack large city hall staffs to write proposals and apply for money for river projects

The river runs through the territories of three Los Angeles County supervisors and a crazy quilt of state legislative and congressional districts, making cooperation even harder. The county developed a modest river plan in 1996, and Supervisor Gloria Molina has aided cities with their projects, but no single agency is advocating for the lower river.

The Friends of the Los Angeles River and like-minded groups are focused on the upper river.

To the south, environmental activists are more concerned with reducing air pollution from freeways and rail yards and monitoring the controversial expansion of the 710 Freeway.

The project could have a chilling effect on river greening efforts, because some freeway plans would move traffic lanes to the river's edge.

The river will never be fully restored without a rebirth of its lower reaches, some civic leaders acknowledge.

"We have this huge length of the river between Long Beach and Los Angeles," said Lewis MacAdams, a founder of the river restoration movement and chairman of the board of Friends of the Los Angeles River.

"What is really needed is what we've been calling for, for a long time: a Los Angeles River Authority that has jurisdiction over the whole river," he said. "Increasingly, I see evidence of people in political power acknowledging that."

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