Last month, the Army Corps of Engineer’s Alternative 20—the preferred habitat restoration plan for 11 miles of the Los Angeles River—completed a critical stage of the federal process. In light of this, TPR spoke with two experts on the waterway: Lewis MacAdams, president and co-founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, and Barbara Romero, Deputy Mayor for City Services and a member of the LA River Revitalization Corporation Board. They commented on funding and implementation challenges still ahead, as well as offering perspectives on Frank Gehry’s recently revealed involvement (at the invitation of the LA Mayor) in river revitalization.
“A letter is about to go out urging them to go to the Corps of Engineers under the phrase ‘50-50: It’s Only Fair.’ The 80-20 split between local and federal funding needs to be changed, because it puts parts of the restoration in danger.” -Lewis MacAdams
Barbara and Lewis, given you both have decades of experience with the Los Angeles River, please comment on the Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works Review Board’s unanimous approval of Alternative 20. What is the effect of the board’s approval on the federal/local funding split? What are the project’s next federal hurdles?
Barbara Romero: The Army Corps’ approval of Alternative 20 means that they support the boundaries and framework that the city and stakeholders, like FoLAR, had asked for. Next, the project will undergo a 30-day “State and Agency Review” period, which is typical.
After that, the Corps will respond to any comments received and finalize the project with a recommendation to the Army Corps Chief of Engineers, who will produce a “Chief’s Report” that he will then send to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy. She will then submit it to the administration—the Office of Management and Budget—for its approval, and, after that, to Congress. A completed “Chief’s Report” means that our project will be eligible for Congressional authorization. That’s the simple version of the process to come.
Lewis MacAdams: Barbara, that was a brilliant and succinct description.
At Friends of the Los Angeles River, we have 28,000 people on our social media list. A letter is about to go out urging them to go to the Corps of Engineers under the phrase “50-50: It’s Only Fair.” The 80-20 split between local and federal funding needs to be changed, because it puts parts of the restoration in danger—like the Piggyback Yard. How much it will shift is unclear, but we need to get a lot closer to 80 percent of the cost covered federally than 20 percent.
The original price tag for Alternative 20 had been $1.08 billion, and now I believe it has risen to $1.36 billion. What caused the increase, and what is the impact on the project’s feasibility?
Lewis MacAdams: The increase reflects the cost of land.
Barbara Romero: First and foremost, the Army Corps refined their numbers once the recommended plan was decided. In some opportunity areas, it increased the cost, while in others, like the area around the Cornfield site, it decreased the cost. Specifically, costs increased at the LATC site because they have now included relocation costs as well as acquisition costs.
The last time TPR interviewed you, Lewis, Alternative 20 had just been selected as the preferred alternative. Your thoughts on the progress made to date are most welcome.
Lewis MacAdams: When I started Friends of the Los Angeles River, I very quickly realized that it wasn’t about just making people see that the river could be a better place, but it was first about convincing people that the river even existed.
Right now, everybody knows the river exists. What it’s going to become is still happening in little baby steps—small parks moving toward larger parks and then moving toward regional parks. It will evolve over the years. We don’t get the last word—and I wouldn’t even want to have it.
A preliminary funding framework was adopted by LA City Council in March to consider funding possibilities for river revitalization. Could you comment on this process and the sources of funding that were identified?
Lewis MacAdams: It’s important to remember that the cost is assessed over a number of years. I’ve never seen an accurate or definitive number on that, but we’re talking 30 or 40 years before this is all paid out. We’re not talking about the check being handed over tomorrow. The atmosphere will unfold over decades.
The cost also needs to be thought of in terms of other projects in the city. People are not batting an eye about spending $2 billion to buy the Clippers or to build a football stadium. This project will bring a lot more happiness to a lot more people than a football team will.
One of the big missing pieces is the state, which traditionally has not been actively involved in the LA River. That’s beginning to shift. It’s a new player, and there’s more money coming from that direction.
It seems unlikely that the city is going to spend its entire annual budget on the LA River, but it’s going to spend some to get it started, as will the state. I think that it’s fair enough to say that nobody really knows how much money is going to come from where and when it’s going to happen.
Barbara Romero: Lewis makes a good point. There is a 25-to-50-year horizon on the City’s LA River Revitalization Master Plan—just on the 32 miles within the City of LA. The Army Corps piece can also reasonably be expected to have a 25-year horizon even though, for budgeting purposes, the Corps needs to plan for a 15-year horizon for implementation. At the end of the day, the money that the Corps gets is via Congressional appropriations following Congressional authorization, which happens in a WRDA bill—that’s a Water Resources Development Act. WRDAs don’t come annually. There was one in 2007 and then the next one was in 2014. Congress determines the sequencing and, particularly, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. They will kick-start the next WRDA—hopefully soon, but maybe not. Given that, the 15-year horizon seems unlikely.
Even so, we need to budget wisely now, but understand that this is a long-term investment plan.
Lewis, as founder of FoLAR, one of the major players in this effort, could you characterize the ongoing collaboration within the coalition—including the LA River Revitalization Corporation and the mayor’s LARiverWorks team?
Lewis MacAdams: It varies player-by-player, time-to-time, and issue-to-issue. Generally speaking, people are pretty collegial about this.
It’s really important to look at new ways to govern the river watershed. In terms of the river, we’ve got a form of government that is obsolete. A major part of the work ahead is trying to create a coherent governance structure that serves the river and its development. It’s not clear what that governance form is yet.
Barbara Romero: The mayor established the LARiverWorks team in his office to elevate river revitalization city and region-wide; that team reports to me. It’s a multi-disciplinary team tasked with delivering on promises already made while also embracing new ideas. The City’s River Plan called for a new form of governance, which included establishment of the LA River Revitalization Corporation as the “entrepreneurial” arm of a 3-tiered structure, which also included a JPA. We still need to pursue the building of capital projects, which helps us to understand what’s going to be needed. To develop a governance structure that works in this complex environment, we need to ask: Do we do a linear river governance system or a watershed governance system? Does it cover 51 miles, or just within the 32-mile stretch? There are still so many unanswered questions about the right direction. These next couple of years are going to be critical in starting to formulate workable options and it requires that we conduct some key analyses.
Ultimately, governance is about funding. I don’t think we’ll go with a new governance structure if there’s no money attached to it. We have some work to do collectively to determine: What is our priority in these next several years in implementation? I think the number one priority today is starting to put more significant projects on the ground.
Lewis and I have had this discussion a lot—we don’t agree yet.
Lewis MacAdams: We all have to be cognizant that we’ve had incredible support from Mayor Garcetti. The symbolic gesture of those photos at LAX of him kayaking on the LA River has had a lot of effect. His visits to Washington to talk to the president had a lot of effect.
We can’t be guaranteed that the next mayor of LA will take this on as such an intense, personal issue. It’s really important that we create the structures that will allow this to continue, to grow, and to thrive. It’s not a slam-dunk that it’s going to go that way.
News broke today that Frank Gehry is now involved in designing a master plan for the river. Could you comment?
Lewis MacAdams: The Gehry proposal, from my point of view, is an example of top-down planning. That is the opposite of what Friends of the Los Angeles River is about: planning from the ground up.
Barbara Romero: I don’t agree that it’s top-down or a plan—right now, it’s a process.
We need to figure out how to build on what we’re already doing. As you have noticed from my remarks, I constantly refer back to the city’s River Master Plan. A lot of work went into that.
My job is to ensure that a community process is going to happen, that it isn’t a top-down approach, and that it helps us deliver on promises already made.
Since you both brought up the role of the public in defining a plan, what is your take on the involvement of residents who live along the river in revitalization efforts? What is the best way to address concerns of some residents, especially in Northeast LA, that the incoming development due to river revitalization could lead to displacement?
Lewis MacAdams: Frogspot, our little oasis and visitor’s center along the river in Frogtown, is a model for this so far. Every Saturday night during the summer, we present three bands. We have inexpensive wine and beer, and a lot of food donations. Rick’s gave us burritos the other night. It has become a gathering place, not just for hipsters or for the river community, but also for the neighborhoods around there.
The gentrification issue is real and I have yet to see any coherent way of dealing with it. Given the world we live in, property increases in value for the people who own it when amenities are added. As somebody who lives in a one-bedroom apartment, I understand that people who don’t own are in a different ballgame.
What we’re seeing at the Frogspot is that there’s no secret to it. You just program for everybody. That makes people happy. It makes them want to come to the river and dance.
I invite everybody to come down to the Frogspot at, say, 6pm on a Saturday and see what grassroots development feels like. It was a vacant lot, basically—a slab of concrete—two years ago. Now it’s a vibrant community of artists, musicians, grandchildren, and grandparents, with cheap date nights, beanbag throws, and bicycle repairs. That stuff is there to do—it just takes imagination and hard work.
A motion has unanimously passed to explore an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District for the river. Our readers would appreciate an update on that process, particularly which areas of the river might be included in an EIFD.
Barbara Romero: As we discussed, there isn’t one funding stream that’s going to implement the revitalization of the river. We have to explore all options. This is one of the latest new tools that Council has begun to explore.
The city is in the process of hiring a consultant to look at the framework: What are the regional boundaries? What kind of projects would be eligible for its funding and which ones wouldn’t? Where is an EIFD most suitable? Obviously, we’re going to look at the entire river and all of the different reaches. To maximize the amount of money we can actually produce and capture through this vehicle, what entities would be involved? That question will impact the boundaries, because we have to make sure that there’s enough value to capture.
Lewis MacAdams: I completely agree with what Barbara is saying. I’d like to point out that this would be a very solid argument for a new form of governance along the watershed.
The river includes many jurisdictions outside the City of LA. To what degree is the city working regionally to craft the solution that we all desire?
Lewis MacAdams: It’s going in that direction. How much, on a specific day-to-day basis, I’m not really in a position to say. But we all share a similar goal. There are a lot of vehicles to help us move toward that goal. More and more people, for example, are interested in the arts and want to be part of a community that adores the arts. That’s the kind of world I want to live in.
Barbara Romero: For me, the question is: How do we deliver projects? The way you deliver projects is by identifying funding sources for them.
Fortunately, most of these projects have multiple benefits. In this time of limited resources, how do we cobble together money to finance them?
Are we thinking about that? Absolutely. We’ve been thinking about it project-by-project. The Army Corps restoration project covers an 11 mile stretch of the river within the City of LA, but will surely result in benefits that magnify across the region. There will be other such projects in the future. So we need to think about how to partner regionally on projects that have inter- and cross-jurisdictional benefits. We’re at that juncture now, so we can start looking more closely at questions like: What is going to be our financial plan? What are the different ways that the city can proactively invest in sustainable-infrastructure finance that results in multi-benefit outcomes?
Working with the LA Business Council is very intentional, because we do need the private sector to partner with us. But we also need the state, the county, and the federal government to be partners in implementing (which also means financing) projects in the city’s plan.
Switching gears, Los Angeles recently won a Public Art Challenge Grant for a million dollars from Bloomberg Foundation, which will create a public art biennial likely focusing on the river. What does this mean for reimagining the waterway?
Lewis MacAdams: I think that anybody who brings a whimsical point of view to the river is doing a good thing. We’re starting to see a level of public art that we haven’t had before. In the past, it’s been more localized.
People like Sean Woods, Superintendent of California State Parks for Los Angeles, and Julia Meltzer from Clockshop are bringing a real understanding of public art to the river. It’s more than welcome.
Barbara Romero: The Bloomberg $1-million arts grant is, for us, fulfilling a goal and recommendation of the City’s River Master Plan. Art has been happening organically, as Lewis talked about. But it’s exciting that now we have funding, as a city, to help different neighborhoods experience and embrace art and bring in different kinds of artists and art forms. We can be intentional about making sure that all neighborhoods—even some that currently don’t have access to the river—can participate in an art project that inspires these communities to look at the river as a vehicle for arts expression.
Rendering courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers & City of Los Angeles.