Developers and Environmental Advocates Outline Challenges at L.A. River Forum

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Developers and environmental advocates are often pitted against each other when it comes to the question of how to move communities forward, but in a forum dedicated to the Los Angeles River, the case was made to change that old dynamic.

The Council for Watershed Health hosted the "The Restoration and Development Challenges of the L.A. River" forum last Friday at the CBS Studios. As expected, many challenges were outlined and aired. These included finding ongoing funding for maintenance of projects, working with multiple agencies, and creating an engaged community around the river. By far, a recurring theme was getting pivotal people on board so water-related projects and its benefits could be realized.

"The people who own land and the people who are able to finance -- those people need to be in this room to make this pop," said Cecilia Estolano, co-founder of Estolano LeSar Perez Advisors, a consulting agency that seek to grow healthy, vibrant communities. Out of roughly 180 attendees, only two or three representatives fit into the financial or land-owning categories. But ironically, they are a crucial part of any project.

Why would profit-motivated investors take a second look at these community projects? Simple. "Healthy communities translate financially to more bankable investments," said Melody Winter, Head of the Federal Reserve Bank, overseeing community development in Southern California. "Fifty to 60 percent of mortality and morbidity [incidence of disease] actually hinges on the behavioral and environmental."

By working to provide healthier environments, investors would actually be increasing the quality of life and nurturing a population that could better contribute to economic growth.

Los Angeles has come a long way in its relationship with the river. From treating it as simply a flood control channel to be ignored, the county has started to embrace its riparian roots. Little by little, it has inspired the community to take a second look at the river. With that change comes the prospect of tying economic and environmental goals together along the river's corridor.

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One day, Omar Brownson, executive director of the L.A. River Revitalization Corporation, hopes visitors to Los Angeles will someday be faced with a difficult decision: "Which would you like to visit today, the beach or the river?"

To get to that point, speakers point out, river advocates need to engage even further than their respective communities. They need to start working with those who are looking to develop Los Angeles. That means having difficult conversations to find solutions.

"What drives anything in Los Angeles is development. We have to co-exist," says Don Sepulveda, executive officer with the Metro, who spoke more generally but briefly tackled Los Angeles' delicate balancing act between building a regional transportation network and managing the impacts that creates on communities. His talk pointed out that the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo corridor is the second busiest in the country. With that traffic comes commerce and jobs that invigorate the city.

One tool that could be used is community benefit agreements. Community benefit agreements are legally binding contracts between a developer and a coalition that exchanges community support for benefits from the developer such as funding for affordable housing or open space to be built. Identifying multi-benefit projects is also another way to coalesce goals between different organizations. A recent example is the South Central L.A. Wetlands Park that transformed a bus lot into a nature park and treatment facility.

With the Los Angeles economy predicted to get over its slump in 2013, developers are starting to gain more confidence in making investments, said Estolano. "This is the time to talk to them because they're feeling like [the economy's] coming back."

Though it is easy to articulate the challenges that lie ahead, it would take much longer to get on the same page but it is a Mount Everest that needs to be conquered. Nancy Steele, Executive Director for the Council for Watershed Health set it all in context. "The water community is only a small subset of the whole population. We have to communicate beyond our borders."


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