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Proposed L.A. River Improvement District Gets 90 Days More For 'Tweaks'

A 90-day continuance was approved by the Planning and Land Use Committee last week, in the hopes of fine tuning some concerns raised by Sherman Oaks and Tarzana neighborhood councils on the proposed River Improvement Overlay (RIO) and its more geographically specific version, the Los Angeles River Improvement Overlay (LA-RIO) zone. "I support this proposal, but there is a need for more clarity, more tweaks," said Councilman Gilbert Cedillo.

A project specified in the Los Angeles River Revitalization Masterplan, the creation of a RIO district was meant to lay out specific guidelines for land sited near waterways. The proposed district has gone through a number of meetings since 2008. "I think we had over 180 meetings," said Mia Lehrer, who worked with the city on crafting the RIO guidelines.

As it is currently proposed, the LA-RIO encompasses property within 2,500 feet (or half a mile) of the river and follows the 32 miles of river within the Los Angeles. It extends from Topanga Canyon Boulevard going east and then south at the point in which the Los Angeles River flows out of the city on 26th Street in Boyle Heights. Its guidelines would also only apply to new projects, or those undergoing major renovation (defined as renovation projects that cost 50 percent or more of the property's market value.)
The new district is meant to contribute to the health of the city's watersheds, open up connections from river-adjacent property to river parks and greenways, support native habitat, and promote pedestrian and bicycle access to the river.

If passed, the new LA-RIO would require native landscaping or river-friendly plantings on 75 percent of landscaping for a new single-family home. Parking facilities would be screened off from the public right-of-way and the river.

For properties adjacent to the river, as opposed to just within the zone, the rules are more stringent. Twenty-five river-friendly trees should be planted for every 20,000 square feet of landscape. New projects should also provide a 10-foot landscape buffer from the river. Except for single-family homes, gates abutting the river should also be ADA-compliant and accessible to bicycles.

Once a supplemental use district specific to the river is approved, it would make it easier for other communities to adopt similar guidelines for water-adjacent properties, such as those by the Arroyo Seco or Ballona Creek, both L.A. River's tributaries. They can further tailor it to their community's needs by adding additional regulations, explained Bowin.

RIO area in Tarzana

Despite strong community agreement for the tenets of river development, communities in the affected areas were most concerned about the zone's borders.

"We strongly support efforts to improve the river," said David Garfinkle, president of Tarzana Property Owners Association. "However, this ordinance has onerous flaws in it. Boundaries are much too wide [in Tarzana]. The 300-foot width perimeter they used in the past is more reasonable than the two miles in Tampa from the river to Sherman Way. Those people aren't part of the river. They're not affected by it."

Ron Ziff, Land Use Chair at Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council, was concerned that the guidelines put forth weren't as relevant to the proposed Sherman Oaks zone. "In Sherman Oaks, there's just 18 inches of slime on the river. Nothing but algae grows there. Signs, fences and sandbags block the approach." Ziff had requested for more time for Sherman Oaks to reconsider the city's proposal.

Despite the two council's objections, Barry Johnson of the Studio City Neighborhood Council praised the changes in the proposed ordinance, saying it incorporated the changes requested by Sherman Oaks and Studio City councils.

Los Angeles River advocates also came out in support of the RIO. Nancy Steele, executive director of the Council for Watershed Health says, "The RIO would create communities adjacent to the river that aren't just water-wise, but watershed wise. RIOs implemented in other cities have inspired people to open their streets. It's strengthened cultural ties in neighborhoods by linking destinations."

It's clear that having a more beautiful, verdant riverfront that opens the river to the city would be an amenity to all of Los Angeles. The city just needs to smooth out all the final details that go into making a plan that every property owner can get behind.

Read the full ordinance here and here.

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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