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Does the L.A. River Need a Design Review Board?

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Proposed designs for four different bridges on the L.A. River

These days, one cannot go a day without hearing of yet another project along the Los Angeles River. From being a forgotten concrete storm drain, the 51-mile waterway has become a lightning rod of public attention. It has inspired a never-ending stream of idealistic design proposals that seek to recast the waterway into an urban paradise. See examples of their varied schemes here, here, and here. Has the Los Angeles River truly taken its place as one of the city's landmarks?

Not yet. Though Angelenos might now know a river runs through their city because of increased recreational opportunities, clean-up events, and more playful public engagement, it has yet to achieve the same reverential status other design destinations such as L.A.'s own Disney Concert Hall or even New York City's High Line, which are instantly recognizable even to those not in Los Angeles. Until today, the river is still often likened to an open secret, out where everyone can see but still inexplicably under the radar.

Only recently are Angelenos waking up to the reality of the flowing waters in their backyards. With this comes growing economic interest along the river's banks, making this once neglected land a hotbed of development activity and also the latest prize in the eyes of many in real estate and its related fields of design and construction. As design firm RAC Design Build has noted, in the last 24 months, almost half of Elysian Valley has traded hands.

There are about 239 projects under way along the Los Angeles River as part of the Los Angeles River Revitalization program. Of the 23 ongoing capital projects worth about $1.058 billion, half are bridge projects, which isn't too surprising, given that historically bridges have been a mainstay on the river.

Ever since the city was founded along the river, people needed a way to traverse its banks. It first began with unsightly but utilitarian wooden or metal span bridges, but eventually gave way to the excitement around the City Beautiful movement. In the early 1900s, Los Angeles -- boosted by media and property owner support -- built a slate of bridges. In 1923, Los Angeles voters approved financing ten new bridges across the Los Angeles River, all overseen by engineer Merrill Butler.

Many of the historic bridges built over the L.A. River were overseen by engineer Merrill Butler | Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering
Many of the historic bridges built over the L.A. River were overseen by engineer Merrill Butler | Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering

Though not as iconic as the San Francsico's Golden Gate bridge, these bridges in classical Beaux Arts and Art Deco styles did become part of the L.A. landscape and have become reminders of the city's history.

Today some Los Angeles River Revitalization projects seek to preserve that history with straightforward retrofits, such as the North Main retrofit that will refurbish the original bridge railings, ornamental lamp posts and keystones.

Some quietly sweep a bit of the past away, such as the controversial Riverside Drive Bridge, the last steel truss bridge on the L.A. River. Residents had hoped to turn into an elevated park. It will instead be a standard, freeway ramp-like bridge with four lanes and bike lanes.

Then, there are the splashy bridges such as the Sixth Street Bridge replacement by HNTB, which replaced one of the 14 historic bridges traversing the Los Angeles River with a futuristic design that includes pathways for bicycles and pedestrians. There is also the boxy, wiry bridge suggested to bridge Cypress Park and Elysian Valley. Finally, there is the equestrian-friendly Calatrava-esque La Kretz bridge.

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Each of these projects adds a different flavor to its surroundings, ostensibly contributing to the atmosphere around each riverside neighborhood. But do they in some way knit this future riverside area together? Do these bridges somehow relate to each other? Apart from futuristic design, would they also contribute to increasing access and visibility for the Los Angeles River? That remains to be seen.

Given this diversity in design just in bridges alone, it begs the question, would it benefit the Los Angeles River and its nearby communities to establish a Los Angeles River Design Review Board?

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) defines design review boards as bodies that "oversee design, sign regulation, and site plan review as part of redevelopment, ordinances, and standards for design quality. They also direct special-use permits, overlay zoning districts, and historic districts." AIA's definition hints at broad concept of a design review board. Boards can sometimes supervise grants and financial incentives for projects. Other boards can also have strong political power or serve only in an advisory capacity. Most boards have from five to eight members that balance geographical familiarity and expertise.

Bridges over the L.A. River | Photo: Justin Cram/KCET Departures
Bridges over the L.A. River | Photo: Justin Cram/KCET Departures

Many Los Angeles neighborhoods with specific plans have design review boards in place. They act as guardians for the specific plan, ensuring that the intent is carried out in specific projects proposed along the prescribed area. Some areas with design review boards include the San Vicente Scenic Corridor, Westwood, and the city of Pasadena.

The boards have met with varied amounts of success. Perhaps the most successful is Old Pasadena, especially along Colorado Boulevard. Despite being a major commercial area in the early 20th century, it fell into disarray with the depression and became a Skid Row. Subsequent redevelopment plans sheathed parts of the city in glassy corporatized architecture that felt out of step with the area's predominant Spanish Colonial or Art Deco style. In response, a plan for revival was set up in 1978. The plan was bolstered by a parking meter revenue scheme that funded development back to the area. Today, Old Pasadena has become a bustling destination that Angelenos even from the San Fernando Valley would drive to.

In contrast, Westwood continues to falter despite its specific plan and its design review board. Constituents remain torn about the merits of the specific plan and the measures undertaken by the design review board overseeing it. According to the Daily Bruin, Christopher Hameetman, owner of Westwood Village Square, views the rules as "antiquated and counterproductive, and keep out potential quality tenants." Dean Abell, manager of Sarah Leonard Fine Jewelers, on the other hand seems to appreciate the efforts of the plan and the board. Abell sees the plan as a way to preserve "charm and upmarket feel."

A quick sampling of design intentions and the boards that implement them gives us a glimpse of the complexity of creating an efficient Los Angeles River Design Review Board. In theory, it might sound straightforward, but it's implications spiderweb across bureaucratic and social lines.

Upcoming posts will explore the possible benefits and drawbacks of creating such a body to oversee the redevelopment along the Los Angeles River. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on creating a unified Los Angeles Riverside identity? Are design review boards the best way to accomplish this?

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