The view from the river

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: "No part of the natural or built environment is as emblematic of the third Los Angeles as the river," Christopher Hawthorne, the LA Times architecture critic, said last week as he brought to a close his "Third Los Angeles Project," a series of public events this spring exploring what comes next for the city of angels.

The setting could not have been more fitting. As dusk fell along the Glendale Narrows, Hawthorne led a tour of "the Bowtie parcel," a California state park property on the north side of the river, just east of Highway 2, along with Sean Woods, the Los Angeles superintendent of state parks, and Julia Meltzer, founder and director of Clockshop, a nonprofit arts organization collaborating with state parks to "activate" the 19-acre post-industrial site with art and public programs, including overnight campouts along the river.

Bowtie.jpgThe scruffy site is squeezed between the river and rail lines, much of it covered in deteriorating asphalt, old structures covered with graffiti scattered amidst buckwheat, sage, and palms, and high power electric lines running overhead. But there is a sublime beauty here, and not just for a fan of urban industrial decay. The river here actually looks like a river. It even meanders some between trees and reeds that have grown in the soft bottom. Birds flit amongst the trees. The eastern edge of the Santa Monica Mountains ends at Griffith Park and Dodger Stadium, forming a green ridge to the south, with the Verdugos framing the northern horizon. Here, you can really see why this is called the Elysian Valley.

But even more than what is here right now, it is what is possible here that feels sublime. The space is filled with possibilities that fire the imagination, inflame passions, and fan controversies. And that was the subject of the conversation that Hawthorne orchestrated as night fell over Elysian, a bar, restaurant, and event venue in Frogtown run by Meltzer and her husband David Thorne just across the river from the Bowtie.

The history of the "three Los Angeles," Hawthorne said, can be seen in the river. In the beginning, the river was "untamed." Then it was channelized, made predictable, "a cousin of the freeway." Now, it is becoming something else, at the center of a "complicated relationship between nature and culture." And neighborhoods along the river, once largely forgotten, are the center of attention as the third Los Angeles doubles back and turns in on itself, instead of expanding ever outward. No neighborhoods have "more potential for reinvention" to "reanimate and repair the public realm" -- "the chief challenge central to the third LA," Hawthorne said -- than those along the river.

Acknowledging a protester who had stood on a corner greeting visitors outside the venue, Meltzer said while the mood on the river is "generally exciting," there are "mixed feelings" and "people equate change with gentrification." She added, "People who have lived here a long time have not been treated well by the city."

Barbara Romero, who was appointed deputy mayor for city services last month, said a $2.5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies is being used "to look at gentrification." When the innovation grant was announced last year, the city said it would be used to explore ways neighborhoods could be improved without disrupting existing communities so that economic and social benefits flow to low-income residents.

New development is a big part of the picture on the river. A new interpretive sign by designer Rosten Woo in the Bowtie parcel shows the rapid pace of property sales in the Frogtown neighborhood. A new condo complex has recently gone up nearby, to the dismay of some local residents.

As speculative investment often moves much more quickly than public agencies, Hawthorne wondered what the city can do to accelerate its own planning process or alternatively hold speculation at bay long enough to robustly shape how neighborhoods are growing, so the river is not eventually lined with a "wall of uninteresting condos."

"It's easy to say 'no,'" said Carol Armstrong, director of the city's LA River Project Office. But new projects should instead be judged on whether they are "riverly," she said. "It's not good or bad, but is it what you want to see?" Armstrong said. She encouraged people to "start Instagramming what you want to see" on the river. "Instead of saying 'no,'" she said, "let's hear what's good."

Architect Michael Maltzan, who designed the new bridge being built across the river downstream at Sixth Street, said the river is an amenity that the city can use as a "chip" to negotiate with developers to get good design at the right scale. Los Angeles is not just "creating a river," he said, "but creating the city." This moment, he concluded, is our "opportunity to look at what the newest version of the city" will be.

As the full house dispersed into the night, two questions Hawthorne had posed at the beginning of the evening hung in the air. He had exhorted participants: "Let's not be ashamed of utopian thinking for the river." But he also wondered: "How many visions can the river bear?" And: "Who decides?"

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