One Year Later: L.A. Remembers It Has a River

Last year, as part of the Big Issue: The Year in Preview, TakePart brought you to the banks of the Los Angeles River. The river has long been ridiculed for functioning as little more than a concrete-encased flood channel. But with booming development, a $1.35 billion Army Corps of Engineers habitat restoration plan, an athletes’ village set alongside the green banks of a restored river placed at the center of L.A.’s 2024 Olympic bid, and famous architect Frank Gehry working out a master plan, the river’s moment for restoration seemed like it had finally come.

The accelerating pace of fundamentally changing the river from dreary flood channel back to open, natural green space also raised many questions. Why, after years of planning by river advocacy groups, was Gehry involved? Who would benefit from the development of a vision the architect described as a “linear central park,” weaving through 51 miles of Los Angeles County? Would the restoration be an opportunity to restore the river’s natural ecosystem and open up much-needed outdoor space for the largely working-class people living along the river? Or would it become ground zero for gentrification, with developers buying up relatively cheap land with an eye on profiting off restored riverfront property?

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Many of those questions remain, but the river’s future began to come into focus in 2016.

In the past year, L.A.’s first public art biennial featured sites along the river, and funding bills for land acquisition and river restoration started working their way through by city, county, state, and federal governments. Construction has begun on projects up and down the 51 miles of river stretching from the San Fernando Valley to the ocean in Long Beach.

Olympic dreams for the river have been put on hold, scuttled owing to the high cost of restoring and developing an athletes’ village in a river-adjacent, contaminated rail yard. (If the Olympics come to Los Angeles in 2024, athletes will instead stay in converted dorms at UCLA.)

Development of a Single Vision

Despite this progress, the river still lacks a singular vision. To reconcile the multitude of restoration plans that various groups have developed, the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors voted in October for the creation of a committee that would update the current 20-year-old river master plan. The committee would bring together city officials, river advocates, and regional agencies to develop one cohesive vision to implement going forward.

“So many people are excited about the 51 miles of the LA River,” L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said in a statement. “In order to avoid ‘plan-demonium,’ this motion is designed to ensure that the LA River Master Plan engages all stakeholders and develops a unified vision that reflects the needs of all communities.”

Gentrification

The question remains as to whom that plan will end up benefiting. The potential for gentrification is particularly felt in the Frogtown area of Los Angeles, a low-income riverfront neighborhood whose residents fear displacement from rising rents and real estate demand. Over the past year, zoning changes have slowed large-scale luxury development projects. Like the rest of Los Angeles, however, rents and home prices are continuing to rise, according to Helen Leung, who grew up in the neighborhood and is coexecutive director of LA-Más, a nonprofit design firm that in 2015 released an extensive report on the changing neighborhood.

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“The past two years, there was a lot of high-density, high-end residential projects being proposed in Frogtown. We’ve seen new policies, new zoning, and you see less of that—less dense in scale, more affordable units,” Leung said, “Frogtown property rates continuing to rise because L.A. as a whole is one of the least affordable cities in the nation. But the pace of change has slowed down from a year ago.”

Continued Investment

Other river restoration projects have identified funding and are gaining momentum. In November, Los Angeles County voters approved a sales tax to fund transportation projects, including one to complete a bike path along all 51 miles of the river. The project is budgeted at $425 million and is scheduled for completion in 2025. Another ballot initiative, Measure A, will generate millions of dollars in revenue for park space in the region and is also expected to fund some green space and recreation areas along the river.

“We’re thrilled that the improved transit network will empower more people to visit the river,” Marissa Christiansen, senior policy director for Friends of the L.A. River, said in a statement. “Voters demonstrated their support of the River at the polls, and we are excited to be a part of the bright future this victory promises.”

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Chris AlexakisL.A. River