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$100 Million for L.A. River Completes a Trifecta of Funding for L.A. River Improvements

Los Angeles River | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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The future of the 51-mile L.A. River got significantly brighter with the State Legislature’s approval on Monday of $100 million in funding for restoration. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) applauded the decision, which allocates funds from Prop 1, a water bond authored by Rendon and approved in 2014, to the project.

Los Angeles River Biking
Biking along the Los Angeles River.

The $100 million commitment from the state will add to the $365 million committed by Metro to a bike path and an increase in fees towards parks exacted from developers approved by the city council in 2016, creating a comprehensive funding source for river revitalization.

The state funding will be distributed amongst organizations responsible for the restoration of each stretch of the river. The San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy oversee Lower River restoration through the Lower L.A. River Revitalization Plan. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy manages restoration on the Upper River.

Speaker Rendon represents Assembly District 63, which includes famously park poor neighborhoods in Southeast L.A.

“Organically, communities along the river have started to invest in it,” Speaker Rendon said in a video.

“There’s now a bike and running trail that’s widely used throughout the river including in my district. What we’re trying to do is to invest in it, and make sure some of the efforts to revitalize the river are more intentional.”

Revitalization efforts have drawn on the best of intentions from a wide variety of contributors over the years. The 2007 Los Angeles River Revitalization Masterplan was authored by the engineering firm Tetra Tech, with the help of landscape architecture firms Mia Lehrer + Associates, Civitas, and Wenk Associates. The LA City Council approved it after a series of over 200 stakeholder meetings in the community. In 2016, River LA quietly enlisted starchitect Frank Gehry to revamp the Masterplan. Revitalization efforts have focused on returning natural habitats and green space to the river.

Mia Lehrer, the landscape architect who has spent two decades working on the river, sees this $100 million as an important sign of commitment on the part of the state.

“It gives other government branches, foundations, and private funders a certain level of confidence,” she said.

This $100 million contribution from the state completes a trifecta of funding sources for river improvements announced in the last year.

In September 2016, the City Council unanimously approved a change to the Quimby Fee structure, which collects funds for public parks from residential developers, for the first time in 30 years. The change raised existing fees on all new residential units (affordable units are exemption) to a maximum of $10,000 per single family home and $5,000 per apartment unit. It also expanded the radius in which Quimby fees can be implemented from up to two miles from the development to now up to 10 miles from the development. 

“Once people start building directly on the river, the Quimby funds will go up,” said Lehrer.

Another $365 million was allocated to the Los Angeles River Bike Path Gap Closure Project as part of Measure M, approved in 2016. Metro completed a feasibility study for the project, to construct an eight-mile stretch of in-channel bike path to connect Elysian Valley through Downtown to Vernon. The project will go through an environmental review and community outreach process and could break ground as soon as 2023.

“This will increase conversation and transparency about what the priorities are and how to deploy funding.”

Signage for L.A. River
The L.A. River would benefit from improved signage, according to Mia Lehrer. | Atwater Village Newbie/Flickr/Some rights reserved

Lehrer thinks that the money is best spent on the kind of additions that activate and increase access to and by extension, understanding of the river. The more access the public has to the river, the better they’re able to see the opportunities that exist in that space.

Increased understanding from these projects might also spur funding from public-private partnerships and a maturing philanthropic community, according to Lehrer.

She points to the existing stretch of bikeway that connects Studio City and Elysian Valley. The state funds could be put towards widening that path to make it more user-friendly, adding freeway crossings where necessary, improving access points to the bike path itself, and the addition of rest areas “for people to sit and contemplate the river.”

Signage could also be a small-scale improvement with a big impact on the River.

“Signage that provides a better understanding of where you are in the city,” Lehrer said.

The bike paths already feature mile markers spray-painted onto the pavement. Lehrer envisions the addition of information booths along the river, called “river stations,” that help visitors orient themselves. They might feature geographical or environmental information about the area, or indicators towards the nearest café or restroom. Some might incorporate restrooms themselves, bike stations, or shade elements.

The 51-mile river, known to many as the “concrete ditch” made famous in films like “Grease” and “Drive,” starts in LA County in Canoga Park. It flows through the San Fernando valley, through Burbank and Glendale, along Griffith Park and Elysian Park, through Downtown LA and then through the cities of Vernon, Commerce, Maywood, Bell, Bell Gardens, South Gate, Lynwood, Compton, Paramount, Carson and Long Beach. It was channelized in the 1920s and 30s for flood prevention.

Workers building framing for concrete and digging during reconstruction of Los Angeles River, Calif., 1938
Workers building framing for concrete and digging during reconstruction of Los Angeles River, Calif., 1938.

The L.A. River watershed area covers 872 square miles. The L.A. River Corridor is home to 1 million people, according to the 2000 census.

Local organizations advocating on behalf of the river were pleased with the development coming out of the State Legislature. Friends of the Los Angeles River and River LA have been working together towards the revitalization of the Los Angeles River.

“This is a historic moment for the Los Angeles River,” Executive Director of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) Marissa Christiansen said in a statement. 

“Pro Tem de León and Speaker Rendon have demonstrated the type of unified, collaborative leadership that will ultimately lead to a thriving natural resource for all Angelenos. This funding comes at a pivotal moment in the River’s history and will truly make a meaningful impact in its progress forward.”

Omar Brownson is River LA’s Executive Director.

"We want one great 51-mile river and greenway. Having Pro-Tem de León and Speaker Rendon lead the way to bring together the various local agencies and stakeholders, along with the financial resources to make a difference is huge. There are 2,100 acres of land within the flood control channel that we want to unlock for increased public benefit. This investment is key to moving this vision forward," Brownson said in a statement.

River LA and FoLAR are working together towards the revitalization of the Los Angeles River. River management has long focused on protecting residents from rare but potentially devastating floods resulting in the current concrete channelization. The emphasis has shifted from emergency preparedness towards a transformation of the river into an activated and available resource for members for the community.

Top photo: The LA River thrives as a main artery through the city's most urban environments. | Ian Shive/ Pacific Southwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

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