Redesigning the L.A. River (again)

If you want to feel good about L.A. and try to move beyond the ecology of fear, there could not have been any finer place to be a few nights ago than the cafeteria of the downtown headquarters of the Department of Water and Power, where I sat in on one of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan community workshops. The atmosphere admittedly felt a tad nicer at previous workshops I've attended, in a day-school gym in North Hollywood and at a neighborhood rec center in Atwater Village. The DWP, after all, has a moat around it. A moat. The architect seems to have modeled the building on the Rock of Gibraltar--I'm not the first to point out this aura of metaphor--and to each side, a big suspended lake in a concrete basin hovers in the air over a big parking lot, and big fountains spout-aculate from the big suspended lakes. There might as well be a big sign across the front--WATER IS POWER IS GOD--or maybe just a rooftop sculpture of a catapult aimed at northern California.

Still, the workshop was exciting. It was the 13th of the 19 planned meetings--to discuss what I have abundant company in believing is the most ambitious, right-minded, quixotic, and now ultimately doable vision to redress L.A.'s well-known troubles with air and water quality and with public space and with general livability. The project is really quixotic--it makes Don Quixote seem a bit timid.

But for the last year, the City of L.A. has been developing an aggressive master plan for its 32 miles of our notorious 51-mile Grand Sewer (and there are many plans in motion for the rest). By summer, the design team had zeroed in on five sites they plan to begin with. As they work to complete the plan by January, you can go to these community workshops to hear about it. And you can head to the tables in back with the maps, the magic markers, and the post-its, and you can draw and write in what you would like the plan to include. Sounds a bit hokey, but it's fantastic to watch people drawing and proclaiming, "Make connecting paths to the schools!" and "I want bridges to Griffith Park!" and "Soccer fields here!" and "Riverside cafes on Ventura Blvd!" And suggestions and counter-suggestions from these workshops are being realized in each new set of drawings.

Imagine turning L.A.'s ultimate symbol of Everything Gone Wrong into a 51-mile greenway through the heart of L.A. County. At these workshops, I haven't needed to call on superhuman powers to do that. I've just stared wide-eyed at the drawings (the warehouse district downtown could look like that?). In the near term, imagine walking paths, bikeways, promenades, pedestrian bridges, outdoor art, gateways, wildlife habitat, pocket parks, medium-size parks, large parks--all built to maximize our water quality and supplies and to ensure flood protection. And trees--a lot of trees. Next, imagine shops and cafes along the stretches of greenway that run next to commercial streets, and pedestrian and bike loops that lead out from the river through adjacent neighborhoods. For now, imagine some of the green pathways cantilevered into the walls, but in the long term, the city aims to do considerable naturalization of the channel itself.

In 1877, when the river was still the city's sole source of water, William Mulholland--the founding god of Water and Power--called it "a attractive to me that it at once became something about which my whole scheme of life was woven, I loved it so much." A hundred years later, his successors at County Flood Control and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called it "a useful contraption" and "the river we built." In the 1980s, David Letterman (so I'm told) called it "the last two-lane river left in North America," and a state assemblyman famously called it "a [potential] commuter expressway and truck thoroughfare...[that] could result in a 20% reduction in traffic on the Ventura Freeway."

So I especially loved the moment at the workshop when the Army Corps spokeswoman got up and said, "We created the channel in the first place, so now we're going to go in there and try to naturalize it." It's hard to beat that statement for sheer jaw-dropping, though I love what D.J. Waldie has called the river--"the river the Anglo city misplaced"--and that Mayor Villaraigosa has called it "a way to unify the city, a way to connect the communities." And that every single elected or appointed official these days seems to support the river's revitalization. And that Senator Barbara Boxer came south to look at it a few years ago, and pronounced it to be exactly what the river's growing fan base now passionately believes that it is: "A diamond in the rough, a resource just begging to be restored to improve our environment, provide greater flood protection, and enhance the quality of life for residents throughout the region."

(To see the drawings, or to get info on the next set of workshops in November, go to the L.A. City Council's Ad Hoc River Committee website.)

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