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Increased Price Tag Puts $1 Billion L.A. River Restoration Plan in Question

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The Piggyback Yard is the largest river-adjacent open space where restoration is possible | Image: Perkins+Will/Friends of the L.A. River

Mayor Eric Garcetti may have tenaciously gathered all the troops last May to secure the support for the gamechanging $1-billion proposal to revitalize an 11-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River in Washington D.C., but it now seems that the L.A. mayor may also need to open the city's pockets further to realize this ambitious project.

A newsletter released by Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) indicated the plan's precarious position. It says:

Last May we reached an agreement with the City of Los Angeles and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Alternative 20, a plan to restore 11 miles of habitat on the Los Angeles River and transform the Piggyback Yard into a massive green space in the heart of Los Angeles. Now the Army Corps HQ in Washington is reassessing the deal and could sidetrack the project.

The reason for the change lies in the Piggyback Yard, or what is formally called the Los Angeles Trailer and Container Intermodal Facility (LATC) site. When the draft report was released, a comment letter from Union Pacific called into question if the appraisal method used reflected the true value of the site. The draft report released by Army Corps noted that Union Pacific is considered a "reluctant seller" and currently has "no intention of moving the Piggyback Yard." Its stance has repercussions for the city and this revitalization plan.

Union Pacific's letter, as well as the demands of due diligence, have prompted the Army Corps to revisit its assumptions, published Fall 2013. Upon consultation with the agency's attorney, the Army Corps is now taking a second, harder look at its cost projections and going into further detail. Any increase in real estate costs would have to be shouldered by the City based on its agreement with the Army Corps.

According to Dr. Josephine Axt, Chief of Planning Division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District, the original $1 billion price tag for the recommended plan will likely increase. "The cost has gone up, the numbers aren't final, so I can't really go into detail," said Axt.

Currently, the real estate and construction costs for both Alternative 13, the first plan originally supported by the Army Corps last September, and Alternative 20, the $1-billion plan overwhelmingly supported by Los Angeles, is being revisited.

No further information is forthcoming, but FoLAR fears the worst. Despite being pivotal in finishing the restoration study and even shepherding a study on the contested piece of property, FoLAR founder Lewis MacAdams says the organization has been out of the loop lately; by design or by neglect, it's unclear. "We were once part of the conversation, I feel that we're not part of the conversation now."

Rendering for 'Piggyback Yard' | Image: Perkins+Will/Friends of the L.A. River
Rendering for 'Piggyback Yard' | Image: Perkins+Will/Friends of the L.A. River

However, this hasn't stopped MacAdams from gathering information. "It's part of my job to know who knows what. As I was making my own phone and email rounds, it became clear that this was happening. I felt the city was being manipulated by the Corps of Engineers in Washington to get better a deal than they had agreed to in June."

He fears that this revisiting of cost will overburden the city funds. "We know the price has gone up tremendously, but who's making these decisions? We don't know. The public needs to know. It's clear that the vast majority of Los Angeles supported Alternative 20. We want to make sure that the city achieves what the people agreed to."

To what extent is the city committed to this project? If the cost of acquiring the Piggyback Yard proves too much, would it endanger its place in the river's revitalization plan? Doing so would prove detrimental to river revitalization.

The Piggyback Yard is the largest river-adjacent open space where restoration is possible. Without this, 113 acres of riparian habitat restoration would be lost. If the city is to restore a meaningful amount of habitat, then it would be foolish to remove this piece; yet if the price becomes untenable, what then?

According to the mayor's office, funding for river restoration projects will not just come from the city budget; it would also tap into state funds, funds from federal departments, charitable contributions and public private partnerships.

Vicki Curry from Mayor Garcetti's office adds, "The city has a great plan that goes above and beyond the Army Corps efforts. It includes bike paths, parks, open space, habitat restoration, and conversion of industrial land into new communities with housing, commercial, and office space that will be designed in a way that incorporates the river as part of L.A.'s new landscape."

As of now, the Los Angeles District of the Army Corps is continuing to work on its final report. It plans to present its findings during an internal civil works review in Washington D.C., sometime May or June. If approved, the Army Corps will allow the Los Angeles District to release the final report and environmental impact assessment for public review. The report would include the benefits, costs, and impacts of the recommended plan, as well as make public all the comments it had received during the process. An executive summary called the Chief of Engineers Report will also be written, which is the Army Corps' official request to Congress to authorize construction of the project. If authorized by Congress, the project will be eligible for federal funding.

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