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L.A. River Revitalization: A Century-Old Idea's Time Has Come

With the spate of exciting projects we've been covering around the Los Angeles River here at Confluence, one would be forgiven for thinking it is only in the 21st century we've thought to re-think the city's relationship with the river. But that isn't the case, as evidenced by this tantalizing Los Angeles Examiner article posted on native Angeleno and journalist George Garrigues's archive of Los Angeles in the 1900s.

As early as 1909, the Federated Improvement Association proposed a dam between Seventh and Nineth Street, extending as far north as Elysian Park, near where the Arroyo Seco meets the Los Angeles River.

The plan would have created a man-made lake where Angelenos could leisurely kayak on a warm weekend. During the rainy season, the dam could be "opened," carrying dangerous flood waters away from residents' backyards.

The proposed lakeside area would have "beautiful terraces with myriads of flowers, palms, shrubbery and other greenery" that would compete in beauty with the Hudson River. "Thousands of electric lights, located on the dam, bridges and banks, will make the lake most picturesque by night, and it no doubt will be one of the most favored amusement features of Los Angeles."

In an even more detailed entry found on page 156 of 1910's The American City: Volume 2, contributor John William Mitchell paints a picture of Los Angeles just transformed from adobe pueblo to metropolis. Mitchell details the many plans proposed for this new city including an expanded proposition by the Association.

Rather than just having one recreational lake, the Association's proposal outlines the making of six basins of concrete, 3,000 feet in length and 200 feet across, separated by folding dams that can be lowered in times of flood. Each side of the basin would have a six-foot sidewalk and 30-foot driveway. An ornamental bridge would adorn each dam, allowing pedestrians and motor vehicles to pass from one side to the other of the chain of lakes. Trees and shrubs would be planted to hide the commercial plants that have since popped up along the river. "The driveways on both sides of the river will be made attractive thoroughfares and be part of the boulevard system connecting the parks and parkways of the city."

As we know now, the idyllic proposal wasn't to be so. A series of devastating floods -- one in 1914, two more in the 1930s -- prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to build the concrete-laden engineered waterway we call the Los Angeles River.

Despite being a century apart, many of the core ideas in this proposal are still present in today's Los Angeles River Revitalization Masterplan. Like these earlier Angelenos, we look to the river not as a glorified sewer and trash dump, but as something that adds to our quality of life.

With more than 240 proposed projects, the Masterplan envisions a continuous river greenway that threads together the diverse neighborhoods of Los Angeles and extends open space and recreational opportunities. Along the way, we're re-defining our relationship with L.A.'s wildlife and ecosystem with projects that also function as flood storage and water quality control.

Since the Masterplan was adopted in 2007, miles of bikeways have opened, making it easier for cyclists to enjoy the river; parks have encouraged residents to play by the river, and stormwater is now something we try to capture rather than flush down to the oceans. (Good news, since a recent report predicts the Colorado River might soon be unable to handle Southern California's water demand.)

Much has been done with the L.A. River, but more is still to come. That's a boon to the Los Angeles economy. A study released last December by the Economic Roundtable, a non-profit research organization based in Los Angeles, found that every $1 million spent on water efficiency projects results in $1.91 to 2.09 million in economic activity. It also creates more jobs per $1 million invested than that of the motion picture and production industries. Take that, Hollywood.

The city's efforts have not only increased the River's reputation within Los Angeles, but across the nation. In January, the Los Angeles River watershed was twice deemed a priority project in two federal initiatives. In August, Governor Jerry Brown signed the L.A. River Access bill. President Obama has also included funding for the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study in his 2013 budget. It may have taken Los Angeles over a century, but now it seems nothing can stop the tides of support for this historic waterway.

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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