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Lincoln Heights Jail as a 24,000 Square Foot Urban Rooftop Garden?

So long, farm-to-table. In a few years' time, jail-to-table might just be the newest byword in gastronomic goodness, if the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (RRC) succeeds in its current proposal for the historic Lincoln Heights Jail.

Long before the behemoth jail was built on the banks of the Los Angeles River, it seemed the site was already destined for dark, noir-ish tales. In the 1850s, it held an adobe that was home to Los Angeles' first prisoners. In 1931, an Art Deco-style concrete facility was built to replace an earlier jail constructed a decade earlier. By the early 1950s, it expanded with another Bauhaus addition. At its peak, it crammed about 2,800 inmates at a time. Infamous and notable alike saw the inside of the Gray Bar Motel including the likes of Al Capone (who spent the night after a tax evasion arrest) *, Zoot Suit rioters, and finally Watts rioters, who clocked in jail time right before Lincoln Heights Jail was decommissioned in 1965. Dark and dingy have been so ingrained in the site that it's played a lockup even on the big screen for movies such as "Con Air" and "L.A. Confidential."

Now, the RRC and Council District 1 is working to change the course of this jail site's destiny with comprehensive conceptual designs created pro bono by architectural firm Perkins + Will. "There's over 230,000 square feet of potential real estate to be redeveloped in this jail facility," said Jennifer Samson, project manager at RRC. Square feet that major stakeholders in the community have envisioned to be live-work lofts, commercial space, and light manufacturing among others.

"Everything got thrown to the wall and then we saw what stuck," said Leigh Christy, Senior Associate at Perkins + Will. Looking at the plans -- which represent a 30-year horizon -- one can't help but look forward to the future of the jail, which is folded into the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan and part of the Cleantech Corridor. Happily kayaking Angelinos can be seen making their way down the river, which can easily be accessed from the jail site. Overhead, the Metro Gold line passes through, while below Angelinos enjoy a bit of sunshine on a river overlook, a High Line-esque elevated park structure.

By far, the proposal's most intriguing prospect is the potential for a 24,000 square-foot urban agricultural space right on the rooftop with room for an event space. Samson shares that RRC is already engaging possible urban agricultural operators and are going on farm tours within the coming weeks. A demonstration project could be up and running in 18 months' time, she estimates.

Rooftop agriculture makes perfect sense, says Christy. Based on the firm's analysis, the jail site doesn't have enough exits and stairs to support a full-blown event space, but it would be an ideal set-up for urban agriculture, which has less volume of people moving in and out.

To gain access to the roof, RRC is planning to use the $450,000 it has received from the Community Development Block Grant Program. "It's a jail that's been abandoned for quite some time. In order to get to the roof, we have to fix the elevator. We have to fix the corridor. Nothing is in working condition," said Samson.

RRC is also in the process of applying for Prop K funds, set aside for development and maintenance of active, youth-oriented facilities, to build out a recreational climbing wall. "That's really phase 1 of this project because our goal is to activate the space in an immediate way," said Samson. With these two projects in place, RRC hopes to kickstart more financing.

Though ambitious, Samson says, "This isn't really pie in the sky stuff." Boston turned an old police headquarters to a four-star hotel, and San Antonio's 125-year-old Pearl Brewery has now become a thriving mixed-use development. "There are tons of projects that have successfully been done, it's time for Los Angeles to have one too." RRC is betting their cabbage and kale on it.

*[UPDATE 6/21: In a phone conversation with Deirdre Capone, Al's grand-niece, it was noted that Al Capone did not spend time at the jail for tax evasion; rather he spent a night there on his way to being released from prison. You can read all about these details in her new book about her great uncle.

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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