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Reimagining the Arroyo Seco as an Alternative Transportation Corridor

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Opportunities in the city abound, if only we have the eyes to see them. Highland Park resident Jack Moreau has such vision and he's looking to share it with others this Saturday, by leading a walk along the Arroyo Seco with the help of pedestrian advocate group Los Angeles Walks.

"The Arroyo Seco has this great bikeway on it. It's the best piece of bike infrastructure in Northeast Los Angeles and it can really connect us to the city if we let it," says Moreau. "The funny thing about it is that chain link fences run all along the path; when you also realize that it's the same path that is also lined with parks, you begin to see how strange that is."

Moreau astutely points out that the bikeway allows cyclists to speed through one point to another, but doesn't allow them to really enjoy the amenities that are just over the chain link fence -- amenities such as Debs Park in Montecito Heights, the Hermon Dog Park in Highland Park, all the way to the Arroyo Seco stables in South Pasadena.

The path could even go beyond the neighborhood, says Moreau. Horse trails on the north side go from the Arroyo Seco through Pasadena and into the foothills, all the way up to the Angeles National Forest. On the south side, the bikeway could go all the way to Los Angeles' downtown -- an idea that's been around for more than a hundred years.

Photo: Courtesy of Jack Moreau
Photo: Courtesy of Jack Moreau

At the turn of the 20th century, Pasadena mayor Horace Dobbins envisioned the California Cycleway, a nine-mile elevated bicycle path with easy grades that would connect Pasadena's Hotel Green to Los Angeles Plaza. The project, which was projected to cost a hefty $200,000, would have been funded through 10-cent tolls from cyclists using the bikeway. The advent of the automobile, however, heralded the demise of such an ambitious project. Only 1.25 miles was ever built of the 9-mile path, and four decades later the Pasadena Freeway took over much of its right of way.

But such dreams of a bikeable neighborhood continues to be resurrected. After major floods had resulted in a cemented Arroyo Seco, the County of Los Angeles built a path on the riverbed in 1983, as an experiment in joint use of flood control facilities. But unlike the modern day bike path proposed for downtown, the Arroyo Seco path is just that -- a path with no six-inch elevation above the riverbed to allow for water flow. As a result the path can be slippery with algae on a particularly wet day, and dangerous during heavy rains; nonetheless, it continues to be a scenic place that holds a lot of promise.

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That promise was glimpsed back in June of 2003 when the river-adjacent Pasadena Freeway was closed to car traffic and over 3,000 cyclists and several thousand pedestrians took over, for the much talked about ArroyoFest. The reclaiming of the Arroyo Seco for recreational use was a topic in many people's minds during the event.

"That's exactly what we want to aim for. There's so much room in the riverbed, you could have festivals right down there," says Moreau. "The goal is to inspire people with something like that, to see the potential. But the first step is just increasing access to it."

A transportation planner for Metro by day (he's currently arranging the festivities for this year's Bike Week), Moreau is used to seeing potential for non-motorized ways of getting around. "We're always looking at how we move around the city and trying to find alternatives to driving alone in the freeways," says Moreau. It isn't so strange that this Highland Park resident suddenly saw the opportunity right in his backyard.

Photo: Courtesy of Jack Moreau
Photo: Courtesy of Jack Moreau

Moreau sees a lot of wasted opportunities in this part of the neighborhood. He says that access points to the parks from the bikeways are few and far between, despite the community obviously wanting more. During his research he found many clandestine access points carved out by the community. "There are four or five legal access points that are so far apart," he says. "There are about ten to fifteen more holes just cut on the wall. Clearly people want access and we shouldn't have to go through these means to get it."

One of the aberrations of the path is also what he calls the "stairs that lead to nowhere" -- flights of stairs that go up to the parks from the bikeway, but again, blocked by chain link fence. "It wouldn't be that expensive to take these out," says Moreau.

The sight is also a poignant symbol of the city's history with water and how changing views have affected physical access to our waterways. The stairways were created at a time when this area was meant to offer grand, sweeping views of green landscape and the bustling city. The coming of the chain link fences heralded an era of protectionism, when flood protection was the highest priority, thus impeding access by the public to became the solution.

But times are changing once again. More and more people are clamoring for a change in the way we relate to our water. A recent momentous decision to revisit the city's vegetation clearing management practices on the Los Angeles River and the introduction of river-specific guidelines for nearby properties, not to mention the increased incidences of residents using the river as a place of gathering and community building all points to a dawning of a new river sensibility.

Moreau is simply raising the question, "Why not make simple changes along an already great amenity in Highland Park and be part of this change?" With his easy two-mile walking tour on Saturday, he hopes to start such a conversation. He says, "I just want people to be aware of what's happening and share some ideas of what can be."

The Dry River walking tour is on March 7, 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. More information here.

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