Leaders Want to Turn LA River Into a 51-Mile Linear Park to Rival the New York High Line

As far as Scott Drucker knows, the Los Angeles River is an artificial concrete ditch that runs by his Canoga Park manufacturing business. So when he was asked how he felt about the river, the Woodland Hills resident responded with uncertainty.

“The canal right here that runs across?” he asked.

Drucker said that it was hard for him to think of the waterway as a river, much less one that had once been entirely natural.

“There’s no water in it,” he said.

There actually is a bit of water — and occasionally quite a lot of it — in the Los Angeles River. But Drucker was not far off, especially this past week when the river’s concrete bottom near Variel Avenue and Bassett Street in Canoga Park showed off only a slippery, thin layer of greenish water.

The water level typically only comes up to less than four feet during an average of 361 days of the year, and what is being called a river now was “primarily designed for the single-use condition of providing flood control,” according to RiverLA, a nonprofit that is now helping lead an effort to reimagine the river as more than just a flood risk management structure.

Much of the river was paved in concrete during the first part of the 20th century in response to fears of flooding. The water is meant to rush out to the ocean quickly, rather than meander as it might in a typical river.

So while Angelenos like Drucker may be skeptical, Los Angeles County officials are hoping people will aim for loftier plans in an effort to make the river something they can take some pride in. During a meeting in Canoga Park, near the headwaters of the river, they asked Angelenos to give the future of the Los Angeles River some thought.

The meeting was the kick-off to a two-year long input gathering and community engagement effort that is meant to help shape what goes into the update of the Los Angeles River Master Plan, a blueprint for various projects that could be done in and along the river. The last time a similar conversation happened countywide was more than two decades ago, before the existing 1996 master plan was created.

Los Angeles Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who was working for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy back then, said he remembers that time well.

“We were trying to convince people that this wasn’t just a drainage ditch, that you can have an amenity here,” he told an audience packed inside the cafeteria of Canoga Park High School on Wednesday.

Those listening to him included San Fernando Valley residents, water activists and bicyclists who said there was a need to connect up the bike paths along the river. There was a geography student from Santa Clarita who said he was there out of curiosity.

Proposals for some of the more recent amenities, such as bikeways and walking paths, that have since been built along the river were just being hatched during the conversations that led up to the 1996 plan. From that time on, “that vision has caught fire,” Blumenfield said.

Now the river is being framed by Blumenfield, as well as groups like RiverLA, as having the potential to become a single park area that would be really long and snake through Los Angeles and 16 other cities.

The concept of creating a “51-mile linear park” will be “transformative for us,” Blumenfield said. And it could rival a certain celebrated lengthwise park that was built along the former tracks of an elevated railroad line in Manhattan.

“New York High Line, forget about it,” he said.

The effort to update the river master plan is being led by the county’s Public Works department, which has contracted the work out to engineering firm Geosyntec. Also involved in the effort is Gehry Partners, which is architect Frank Gehry’s firm, and landscape architecture firm OLIN.

The nonprofit group RiverLA, which was responsible for making the first connection with Gehry, was also brought on to handle the “community engagement” aspect of the master plan update process.

The organization was originally formed by Los Angeles city leaders to pull together the funds needed to make river “revitalization” projects possible along the 32 miles of the river that goes through the city. But because a river does not adhere to political boundaries, RiverLA changed its “mission statement” to bring “people, water and nature together across 51 miles of the river,” about five years ago, according to the organization’s executive director Omar Brownson.

The vision of a park-like environment appealed to Canoga Park resident Miriam Paulus. She said she would look forward to having an area where she can walk and exercise, because there are few areas in her neighborhood where she feels like doing so while being safe from car traffic.

But Paulus said she rarely uses the greenway that opened along the Canoga Park portion of the river about four years ago.

“I was very excited” when it first opened, she said. “But I was very concerned, there were a lot of homeless people in some areas. And it was a little bit dirty.”

But she said there is potential there. The greenway has some nice features, such as “a lot of trees and flowers, and I love that they would have some benches where you can read and maybe just have a small picnic or whatever,” she said.

As with other parts of the river, there have been efforts in the San Fernando Valley to make the river more inviting to the public, including the completion of riverside greenways in Canoga Park and Studio City, and the opening up of kayak and fishing season in the area within the Sepulveda Basin Park. But much like Paulus, what residents now see in the river has more to do with safety issues, trash and the presence of homeless encampments.

Drucker was among them. He said he felt it was “fine” that celebrity architects like Gehry are attached to the master planning effort, and if elected officials want Angelenos to “dream” about the river. But he also suggested they “reimagine the school system, maybe pay teachers more.”

“I think the tax dollars should be going more towards focusing on our main issues like the streets here, the transients,” he said. “Our traffic’s out of control. The problems we have in the city that need to be addressed, I think, is more important than redoing the L.A. River.”

Blumenfield said Wednesday he is working to address concerns about safety, which was identified by many at the meeting as the reason they avoid the river. He said he is working to station more homeless outreach workers in his West Valley council district, and to streamline coordination among the various agencies that have jurisdiction over the Los Angeles River and that can make removing encampments less frustrating.

“One of the things that has worried me lately, is that support is starting to wane in some quarters because of the security issues, because a lot of homeless folks are up and down the river,” he said.

But he assured those in the cafeteria that he is working hard to fix those issue, and that for that evening at least, they shouldn’t “get caught up in the here and now.”

He said that Canoga Park is where the river starts, and also where the tone for the upcoming conversation can be set.

“Today is not just about thinking about the community issues or the problems that we’re experiencing on the river,” he said. “It’s about the future. It’s about the vision. … about the master plan. And this is meeting number one.”

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