Los Angeles Reimagines It’s Waterway

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The Wall Street Journal
Updated January 11, 2013, 9:42 p.m. ET

Los Angeles Reimagines Its Waterway

Options Explored for Restoring Habitat


[image]Dan Krauss for The Wall Street JournalMost of the Los Angeles River, including the area near downtown flows over concrete.

LOS ANGELES—Eighty years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cast the Los Angeles River in concrete, turning this city’s original lifeblood into a storm drain, a new generation of Corps members is working to bring back at least some of its natural habitat.

Strewn with trash, the 51-mile river’s mostly concrete route is lined with industrial yards, freeways and train tracks. Over the decades, residents and developers have come to see it as something that should be hidden—the city’s “backyard,” some have said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a study to find ways to restore habitats in and around the Los Angeles River, bringing people and wildlife back to the city’s original source of life.

“It’s the great L.A. joke—they even paved their river,” said Michael Manville, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University who earned his urban-planning degrees and conducted postdoctoral research at the University of California, Los Angeles. But, he added, planning experts have begun to see it differently.

By year’s end, the Corps and city engineers expect to complete a joint $10 million study that will offer a handful of options for restoring native habitat, likely creating wetlands along the river and potentially removing or reshaping some of the river’s concrete walls. The study examines an 11-mile stretch of the river on the city’s east side, where some resilient plants have survived in a narrow, muddy strip of so-called soft bottom at the center of the channel.

Restoring the Los Angeles River


Dan Krauss for The Wall Street JournalA bird flew over the Los Angeles River.

Efforts to manipulate the river’s concrete form without losing its flood-control function will be a “delicate balancing act,” said Josephine Axt, the Corps’ local planning chief who is leading the study, known as Alternative with Restoration Benefits and Opportunities for Revitalization, or Arbor.

It’s like “setting the table,” said Omar Brownson, executive director of the L.A. River Revitalization Corp., which coordinates economic-development projects along the river. “We’re creating a more attractive destination for investment.”

But the project has to overcome one big hurdle: perception of the Corps itself.

The Corps, which many locals have long seen as a massive federal entity disconnected from the community’s interests, has improved its reputation through the river-restoration efforts. But there have been some awkward moments.


Last month, to the surprise of many San Fernando Valley residents, the Corps cleared more than 40 acres of trees and plants near the river northwest of the study area, in the Sepulveda Basin. While not related to the Arbor study, the action set off an outcry among local environmental groups and has raised concerns about the future of the Arbor study.

“That’s the old Corps, the Corps that overruns everything,” said Lewis MacAdams, founder and president of Friends of the Los Angeles River, a local nonprofit that has been advocating to protect and revitalize the river for more than 25 years.

State Sen. Kevin de León, one of several local officials who has demanded an explanation from the Corps, said the Sepulveda project “doesn’t bode well” for the future of efforts to revitalize the Los Angeles River’s natural landscape.

In a statement, the Corps said it held public meetings on the Sepulveda Dam Flood Control Basin “vegetation management project” in 2009 and 2010, and posted a public notice encouraging comments on its Los Angeles district website for two weeks late last summer. The statement also said that only three nonnative species of trees—along with 80 tons of trash—were removed in order to restore native plants and habitat.

“When the L.A. River flood-control project was done, there was no environmental movement,” said Rennie Sherman, who oversees ecosystem restoration for the Corps in Washington. “There’s been an evolution in the desires of the public.”

Despite the Sepulveda incident, the Corps’ local district intends to present its Arbor study alternatives to the public in June. Once an Arbor study option is selected and pending approval by the Corps’ Civil Works Secretary in Washington, authorization for construction funds could be included in Congress’s next Water Resources Development Act as early as the end of the year. With that funding, the Corps can begin design work.

The river was put on a short list of priorities for President Barack Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, and it is one of seven projects targeted under the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, a coordinated group of federal agencies taking on waterway improvements in underserved communities.

The federal interest, the public’s desires and a noticeable change in recent years in the way Los Angelenos view the river have cushioned the blow of the Sepulveda Basin shearing. The momentum, stakeholders say, is harder to stop now.

Local City Councilman Ed Reyes said that when he took office 12 years ago, he would mention the L.A. River and people would ask him, “What river?” Now, with new residential and business developers exploring the area and residents taking advantage of the growing network of bike paths and running trails, Mr. Reyes says, “I want to see it get to the next level.”

Added Mr. Brownson, of the revitalization group: “Hopefully not in too far in the future, if a friend comes to visit you’ll ask them, ‘Do you want to go to the beach or to the river today?’ ”

Write to Erica E. Phillips at erica.phillips@dowjones.com

A version of this article appeared January 12, 2013, on page A3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Los Angeles Reimagines Its Waterway.

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