New LA River plan would leverage public land to increase housing, green space

Multinational construction firm AECOM on Wednesday rolled out a revitalization plan for hundreds of acres of land alongside the downtown section of the Los Angeles River. 

The company says it did the research at no charge and with no formal client because it wants to guide the development of under-used, sometimes polluted industrial land along the river and improve the quality of life for current and future residents.

“All we’re trying to do is be thought leaders and just say, ‘Region, public decision-makers, elected officials, please, stop and think,'” said Nancy Michali, an AECOM vice president leading the project. “This is how the pieces could fit together, and this is what the vision could be for the future rather than continuing on in this piecemeal perspective.”

AECOM says the company could snag construction work from the plan.  It has its eye on a project to remake the 120-acre Piggyback parcel, a railroad yard on the edge of downtown, reducing the footprint used by trains and converting it to open space with access to the river, Michali said.

Company officials called their plan a “generational” opportunity to reshape the river-adjacent land and city core to provide more housing, green space and river access for recreation and tourism over the next few decades.

L.A.-based AECOM officials propose that public agency landowners form a joint powers authority and leverage their ownership of more than one-third of the land within the plan area to form a taxing agency that could fund new streets, housing and other development. The plan also relies on significant private investment and cooperation from railroad land owners to make river-adjacent parcels available for public uses like bike and walking trails.

AECOM’s plan is one more entry in an expanding field of companies and agencies putting forward competing visions for remaking the Los Angeles River. The City Council last year approved an 11-mile plan with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revitalize the river from Griffith Park to downtown. Architect Frank Geary has a plan. And in June, Los Angeles city officials took the wraps off a plan known as LA River Downtown Design Dialogue (unfortunate acronym alert: LARDDD) with entries from several different firms including AECOM.

The Los Angeles River forms in the San Fernando Valley and ends 51 miles downstream at the Pacific Ocean. AECOM’s plan includes four miles that are completely within Los Angeles City limits from the vacant Lincoln Heights jail to 7th Street. It overlaps some of the 11 miles in the Army Corps’ plan.

A few elements set the plan apart from other river proposals, company spokesman Michael Chee said.  It calls on public agencies that own significant tracts of land to collaborate: Metro, the Army Corps, the state of California and Los Angeles County. Those five entities own about one-third of the land within the project area. Railroads also own a big chunk of the land.

The company started with a mashup map that combines approved plans representing about eight million square feet of development and various community master plans that have been vetted by neighborhoods and the city. The AECOM proposal adds in features like bike paths, open space and transportation lines to help all those plans work with each other.

“Instead of having a patchwork of development develop disconnectedly along the river, we want to look at how to integrate it,” Chee said. “Because this is about raising quality of life that addresses multiple concerns for everybody.”

The company says it is using quality of life improvement – and not square feet of taxable new development – as the metric for success. Transforming the quasi-industrial area into a green space full of homes and spaces for business could take decades.

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