SoCal Connected on KCET

Big Changes Coming to the L.A. River

Original Airdate June 18, 2014

Cara Santa Maria: Wouldn't it be great if every part of the 50-mile long Los Angeles River... looked like this? Unfortunately.....

This is the concrete reality most of us see. But there’s exciting news on the horizon. A billion dollars with a B has been pledged by the federal government and the city of Los Angeles to revitalize the L.A. River, transforming it from a cement channel to a waterway that’s teeming with life.

But you don't have to wait years to see what the river's gonna look like. There are already two sections of the L.A. River with birds and fish and all sorts of wildlife. And all summer long, they're both open to the public.

One recreation zone is in Encino, a mile and a half of greenery called the Sepulveda Basin. The other runs from Glendale to a neighborhood called Elysian Valley. Over the summer both areas are open to the public to fish, bird watch, or kayak.

And that's what I'm going to do today. I'm kayaking the L.A. River. It's actually my first time to ever step foot in a kayak. Steve Appleton here is gonna be my guide. I'm kinda nervous.

Steve Appleton: You're going to be fine. I'm tellin' ya.

Cara Santa Maria: When I said I'd never done this before... I wasn't kidding. I have no idea what I'm doing! Even with a crash course in river safety, sometimes my kayak seemed to have a mind of its own. But Steve's a great teacher, so I finally got my bearings... more or less.

Soon we found ourselves surrounded by the river's amazing natural beauty.

Steve Appleton: Look at us here right now, we're in the middle of city. But beyond that, we're having a very private kind of conversation within a dense urban area. You're really in, in engagement with nature, and moving in and out of social conversation. It's a very relaxing and interesting form that I think promises something beautiful for the future of L.A.

Cara Santa Maria: But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Cecilia Dominguez has lived in Elysian Valley for five generations. She's all for a bit of nature in the city, but she's wary about how a $1 billion investment will affect this close-knit community.

Cecilia Dominguez: Our neighborhood’s an old neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood of a tight-knit group of families that have known each other for many, many, many years. And what will that do to our community?

Cara Santa Maria: But one of her biggest concerns is high end development and rising property values. She’s even concerned her children may not be able to afford to live here.

Cecilia Dominguez: The amount of rental properties is just sky high now. So what will that do to the families that live there? The families that live there will be displaced somewhat. Having to leave, I don’t think my grandson will be able to come back as an adult and live in this community.

Cara Santa Maria: And that’s not all she’s worried about.

Cecilia Dominguez: Our neighborhood is too small to be bombarded by, and I want to say, outsiders that are coming in. Not only to see the river, but also they take up the parking. You know, the traffic. Sometimes when we say please don’t block our driveway. They’re like, where do you want me to park? I don’t have an answer for that, I don’t.

Cara Santa Maria: Steve is acutely aware of the local residents’ worries:

Steve Appleton: I’ve heard over and over again, you’ve got to do it right.

Cara Santa Maria: Do you think that we’re going to see waterfront condos springing up? Do you think we’re going to see a lot more development?

Steve Appleton: We are going to see a lot more development I believe. What the form will be is definitely open for debate. Some portion is definitely going to be housing. I think the local concern is to keep it at a density that is in keeping with what is here and a special place for the people who have historically been here.

Fernando Gomez: All eyes are on the river right now.

Cara Santa Maria: The Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority is a local agency charged with managing and preserving open spaces, trails, and park lands. Fernando Gomez is their chief ranger.

What is the most important thing to you personally that you’d like to see done with the L.A. River.

Fernando Gomez: Open more recreation areas, having recreations like this..pocket parks.

Cara Santa Maria: Like Marsh Park, it sits along the L.A. River in Elysian Valley and there are plans to expand it.

Fernando Gomez: There was a need for open space. There’s a need for people to recreate.

Cara Santa Maria: What do you anticipate the river’s going to look like? What do you hope it’s going to look like in 20 years.

Fernando Gomez: Wild.

Cara Santa Maria: I got to unleash my wild side. For a kayaker, the river is a palce for adventure. But for some folks, the river is home.
So how long have you guys been living here?

Grove Pashley: Now about four and a half years.

Cara Santa Maria: For Grove Pashley, his riverfront property is his sanctuary. So what really drew you to this property here?

Grove Pashley: Well, you know, I grew up in Utah and I was surrounded by ponds, lakes, streams, river. It was actually in my blood to be near water.

Cara Santa Maria: So what’s your biggest fear with this whole revitalization project?

Grove Pashley: Well, I don't know if you've been down to the Venice canals, and those are very expensive, really big houses that are crowded, really close to each other. And I think that's kinda my fear that something like that could easily happen here.

Cara Santa Maria: So you don’t want to see Elysian Valley turned into Venice.

Grove Pashley: No, I don’t. This neighborhood’s got a lot of character. I’ve had one guy describe it as...’cause people know each other here. Let Venice be Venice, let L.A. River be L.A. River.

Cara Santa Maria: Negotiating the river’s rocks and currents is nothing compared to the politics and bureaucracy that lies ahead. There are more than 15 agencies that have some jurisdiction over the river or its banks. But Steve is optimistic.

Steve Appleton: As concerned as I am about quote gentrification and those kinds of issues, what gives me hope is the people that are involved with it and have been for a long time.

Cara Santa Maria: And how close this river is to them personally.

Steve Appleton: Close to them personally and committed at this time to seeing, as we say, the right result.

Fernando Gomez: It’s a new chapter for the city, it’s a new chapter for this entire region to have this in our backyards.

Cara Santa Maria: It will be quite a few years before the first shovel hits the ground. And many more after that before the billion restoration is complete. But the river’s meaning is as varied as its landscape. For some, it’s home. For others, it brings development and homes. Yet for others still, a chance to give back to nature. For me, for one afternoon, it was a chance to see a serene side of Los Angeles – an urban oasis I had never seen before. I’m Cara Santa Maria for “SoCal Connected.”

In 1938, Los Angeles experienced a devastating flood that prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to step in and build concrete banks to form and transform what is now known as the Los Angeles River. Last month, the federal government gave the green flag on a $1 billion plan to restore an 11-mile stretch.

In this segment of "SoCal Connected," Cara Santa Maria interviews nearby residents, park rangers, and activists to find out how the new $1 billion revitalization project will impact nearby residential and wildlife communities.

In Elysian Valley, some residents believe that the project will bring more attention to habitat and wildlife restoration along the river. Others believe that the project will boost property values and generate more jobs.

But there are also concerns about the possibility of gentrification.

During a recent interview with KCET Departures, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed concerns surrounding the revitalization project. "Nobody's houses can be taken. Nobody can be kicked out of rent stabilized apartments close to the river. People in public housing won't be moved," he said.

Fernando Gomez, chief ranger of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, says he'd like to see more open recreation areas. "There's a lot of people who have been pushing for the revitalization...we're talking about moving concrete, making open space, and adding more waterways and more access for people to come and enjoy. That's what the plan is," he says.

The L.A. River is also considered a park space, according to Gomez.

"We treat it with the same rules, patrol it. Everything is treated like a park," he says.

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Steve Appleton, L.A. River Kayak Safari
  • Cecilia Dominguez, community activist
  • Fernando Gomez, MRCA chief ranger
  • Grove Pashley, Elysian Valley resident


Inside the World of Artist Jaime 'Germs' Zacarias


The Lawn Goodbye and California's Water Woes