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Why Buildings Turn Their Backs on The L.A. River

Posted every Monday, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy) Laws That Shaped L.A. column spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Flood Control Act of 1936
Year: 1936
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Mitch O'Farrell
Previously nominated by: Jenny Price

Throughout history, a rule of thumb has been that it makes more sense to face and embrace a body of water than to turn one's back on the welcoming wet.

Certainly, there are exceptions. Consider the ambivalence of a parched gazelle, warily visiting some savanna watering hole, rightly fearful of a lioness creeping up on him.

But for most of the rest of us -- from Pacific Coast Highway and Venice Canals residents to Lake Michigan beachgoers to escargot-eaters at Seine-side bistros to people at places anywhere and everywhere water trickles, ebbs, waves and flows - wherever there is an ocean, sea, lake, stream or other liquid space -- we tend to set ourselves up to gaze out at the H2O.

That's in part what makes the in-retrospect folly of ignoring the Los Angeles River seem even more inexplicable.

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But thanks to a law that regular readers of this column may already be familiar with, the mighty Los Angeles River is an exception to the-let's-look-at-our-waterways-rule.

That law? The Flood Control Act of 1936. One consequence of that Act: Los Angeles developers and residents spent the majority of the 20th century constructing edifices that -- no matter how close they are to the River -- fail to provide clear views, much less easy access.

"People say, 'Oh, there's a river?' That still happens, which is amazing, but it is also understandable," Mitch O'Farrell says. "For the last seven decades, the perception that was pushed is, 'It's not a river, it's a channel."

O'Farrell continues: "That's why all development backs into the River, as opposed to faces it in the front. Backyards, the backs of businesses, barbed wire, you name it. All development is oriented away from the River."

O'Farrell is well-versed on the 51-or-52 mile, navigable waterway. He calls himself a "River rat" and talks about biking and hiking along the River and holding meetings on its flanks.

From 2002-2012, O'Farrell was a staff member in the Los Angeles Council District 13 office. He rose to the position of Senior Advisor to outgoing Council Member Eric Garcetti. He was active in the city's Ad Hoc River Committee and organized a quarterly River Management Maintenance Task Force. Today, as Garcetti runs for Mayor, O'Farrell is running for the CD-13 seat.**

O'Farrell -- like so many other advocates for the River's revitalization -- takes great pains to explain that he is well aware of the reason why the Flood Control Act seemed so useful back when it was passed.

O'Farrell cites the horrible L.A. Flood of 1938, reciting from memory statistics about the loss of life, acreage flooded and percentage of the city then directly affected.

"The notion back then was the river meant danger, it meant flooding," O'Farrell says. "We've got to channelize the thing and just get the water to the ocean ASAP."

O'Farrell says that we now all know that's not environmentally sustainable. "We've come a long way," he says. "And it's kind of ironic that our partners now in reversing the whole thinking are the feds who channelized the River."

While the front doors of these domiciles along Glendale Narrows face away from the River, at least windows provide a view | Photo by KCET Departures

For a greater explanation of so much else that the Flood Control Act wrought, please see this Laws That Shaped LA column featuring environmental writer, LA Observed contributor and L.A. River expert and tour guide Jenny Price.

The short version: The Flood Control Act, along with sibling versions from 1915 and another in 1941, provided the substantial federal dollars that led directly to the straightjacketing of the River.

And here's an extended version, via Price piece:

"We took a river and we cut it off from its river basin," she says, "so the river can no longer replenish the soils with nutrients, the beaches with sand and the aquifers with water."

And that's just one series of symptoms from a critically ill watershed. "The consequences are enormous," Price says. "How does paving and burying the central artery of your major watershed screw up your city in really magnificent ways? Channelizing the River is deeply implicated in almost every problem that Los Angeles is notorious for worldwide."

Such a checklist of L.A. woes includes both the social and the ecological, Price says. That list includes but isn't limited to gang violence, obesity, polluted beaches, a lack of parks, a lack of public space, budget issues, sewer issues, and the gap between the rich and poor.

The second word in the title, Flood Control Act, referred to controlling the pace and location of where water went. But upon further examination, that word 'control' also carried for all these years additional meaning.

O'Farrell points out that after the Flood Control Act passed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over from local authorities jurisdiction of the River. "We handed the River over to the feds, essentially," O'Farrell says.

O'Farrell credits environmentalists for standing up to the Corps during the 1980s and 1990s. "They were very resistant, there's no doubt about it," O'Farrell says of that era's Corps towards visions' such as Lewis MacAdams and FoLAR.

Too bad so few people had a view of this: Dr. Larry Perkins crossing the Los Angeles River on horseback, near the Griffith Park Golf Course, in January 1997. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

The same was true into the 2000s. O'Farrell says that even with all his efforts -- including the occasional "cage rattling" -- he and others would have trouble getting Corps officers to attend and then answer questions at various city-organized meetings.

When Corps reps did attend, O'Farrell says, "I heard dozens of times in these meetings, 'The Army Corps of Engineers considers the L.A. River a channel. We do not call it a River.'"

With time, though, O'Farrell reports that all the hard work of relationship building undertaken by so many people in and out of government has paid off and the Corps has become closer collaborators on the River's restoration. "Thank goodness there is more partnership than ever before," O'Farrell says.

Meanwhile, O'Farrell has a specific plan to raise the city's 35% share of the money needed to implement the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. (The feds will owe 65%).

He also talks about looking deeply forward to "a series of accessible river parks that will link into the existing urban trail system," and about water conservation being "the next huge thing" in Los Angeles.

And O'Farrell looks forward to how the Master Plan's River Improvement Overlay District encourages future development to face the River - literally, not just in some metaphoric sense.

"The front doors will now be at the River," O'Farrell says. "Not the back doors. That's just going to be incredible."


To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: Twitter @LosJeremy, email arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

** Note to other candidates: Please feel free to contact the columnist on Twitter @LosJeremy if you too would like to nominate a Law That Shaped LA.

Top Photo: Elysian Valley buildings blocked off from the L.A. River | Photo by KCET Departures

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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