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Lower L.A. River Master Plan May Help Boost Projects in South East L.A.

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City of Vernon off the L.A. River | Photo by Laurie Avocado

Efforts to transform the concretized Los Angeles River have reached critical mass this year and it seems that before the ink dries on newly penned river projects, another project starts taking shape. For example, the City's Alternative 20 got approval for its $1.3-billion plan from the Army Corp of Engineers and construction started on the $440 million project to replace the historic Sixth Street Bridge. However, these projects have worked to move only a portion of the County's Los Angeles River Master Plan forward, since most of these large-scale projects are concentrated in the upper portion of the river, from Downtown up through Northeast L.A. and toward the San Fernando Valley. And while revitalization efforts along the lower portion of the L.A. River have lagged behind, it may have finally gotten the boost it needed to help it catch up with the upper portion.

The densely populated and underserved communities along the lower L.A. River — which in this case start at Vernon and run south toward the ocean in Long Beach — have dealt with a river that lacks sufficient lighting and even pavement along its bike paths, among other problems. But in October, Governor Jerry Brown approved AB-530, a bill that authorizes the Secretary of Natural Resources, in consultation with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, to appoint a working group to update the County's master plan for the river by drawing up a revitalization plan for the lower Los Angeles River.

River revitalization projects along the 11-mile stretch of river within the city's borders have been significantly pushed forward within the past two years with the help of Mayor Garcetti, who championed Alternative 20, to bring cohesion to the numerous projects along the upper portion of the river. And as housing prices continue to shoot up in river-adjacent communities within the city, projects along the river proliferate as if in a race for development that city officials, local businesses and developers have been eager to support. Bringing the same level of cohesion and support to projects along the river in South L.A. has proved to be more of a struggle. The 20 miles of the river south of Vernon flow towards Long Beach through a mishmash of jurisdictions that include numerous agencies and more than 10 cities, including Maywood, South Gate, Lynwood and Long Beach.

"There's more people, more density, and because there's too many cities, this hasn't moved forward yet. There are still a whole lot of different cities in the area that don't look at the river as a resource and we're hoping to change that," said Marybeth Vergara, project analyst at the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (RMC).

The working group will be organized by the RMC along with the Gateway Cities Council of Governments (COG) and the County Board of Supervisors. The RMC has received $30 million in funding through water bonds approved by California voters in 2014 and is currently seeking local and state sources for funding. The process to form the working group will begin when the bill takes effect on the first day of January, and planning will carry through to March 2017. Vergara said that although they hope the RMC will play a key role, they want to make sure the group is inclusive of the community and has representatives from organizations and nonprofits that deal with issues relevant to the surrounding communities, like health, environmental justice and water conservation. The working group will also include elected officials and staff members of the Gateway COG and cities that border the river.

Although not as frequently as the upper river, there has been activity along the lower portion of the river and RMC hopes to use those projects as starting points for the master plan. This lower L.A. River master plan will help bring the projects, which currently stand at different levels of development, under a single umbrella. For example, the UCLA Luskin Center's L.A. River Greenway Toolkit Project is developing plans for multimodal pathways and green space along the river. The Watershed Conservation Authority's Gateway Cities and Rivers Urban Greening Master Plan aims to develop greenways, parks and access points along the river corridors. Long Beach's Riverlink plans to create a continuous greenway along the east bank of the river. Mark Stanley, executive officer at the RMC, said that although this will be a planning phase, he's hoping to move some shovel-ready projects into the implementation stage.

"We are not trying to reinvent the wheel. I think we are going to pull from all these sources when doing the update of the master plan for the river," Stanley said. 

Characteristically, the upper and lower river differ greatly. The lower river has less soft-bottom portions and more concrete, which functions to keep the river flowing from the north out into the ocean without backing up. Areas near the southern portion of river are heavily populated and built right up to the river's edge, calling for a level of flood protection to be maintained. However, Stanley thinks that this shouldn't have to limit some of the more creative opportunities for the river. They hope to have in-channel activities in places like the Rio Hondo confluence in South Gate, where he said a large concreted area could play host to concerts and other events. Some of the ideas currently being floated around include enhanced riparian zones, terracing of the channel walls, improved aesthetics, urban greening and enhanced access to the river for local communities.

One major project the RMC has been working on and is looking to move forward is plans for the Parque de Dos Rios, near the Rio Hondo confluence. The 8-acre parcel is currently in the stages of planning and has secured $1.5 million in funding from the county. The parcel will undergo habitat restoration and will be a bike stop along the L.A. River Bike Path with a two-deck structure overlooking the river.

The lower river master plan will build on other existing projects such as the Rio Hondo confluence in South Gate. Parque de Dos Rios will undergo habitat restoration. Photo courtesy of Watershed Conservation Authority.
The lower river master plan will build on other existing projects such as the Rio Hondo confluence in South Gate. Parque de Dos Rios will undergo habitat restoration. Photo courtesy of Watershed Conservation Authority.

Improvements to the lower river have been long-awaited by groups who see the delay in river revitalization projects as negligence from the cities and county, rather than a lack of cohesive planning. The upper river runs through affluent white communities, whereas the lower river runs through low-income Latino communities. The disproportionate amount of resources allocated to the upper river along with the high level of pollution experienced by communities surrounding the lower river has been described by Hugo Lujan, community organizer with the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, as "environmental racism." EYCEJ, an environmental health and justice nonprofit organization, has been pushing for improvements along the river with Community Alternative 7 (CA7), a list of recommendations presented to the I-710 Corridor Project. Their recommendations included improvements to the exterior bank of the river and bike trail. They provided support in moving the bill forward and are now hoping to have a seat on the working group. In forming CA7, they took a grassroots approach to engaging hundreds of residents who live along the river in South L.A. and are ready to put forward a plan so that they can help get the work group running, said Mark Lopez, executive director at EYCEJ.

"We want to participate in a very formal way. It's an institutionally supported working group that can utilize a lot of the grassroots work the East Yard has already done around the L.A. River, gaining knowledge in what communities in the lower portion of the river would like to see with the L.A. River," Lopez said.

The communities along the river in South L.A. are diverse and EYCEJ hopes to see a plan that can address the different needs of the communities while linking the different communities together, Lopez said.

Although AB-530 will allocate funding for the working group that will set the framework for the river, there will be no funding associated to the projects identified in the master plan for the lower L.A. River. And ultimately, what EYCEJ wants to see is that the projects outlined actually secure funding and materialize.

"We want to create a plan that will be funded as well so we want to ensure that this isn't just an exercise in urban planning, but a real project that can be moved forward," Lopez said.

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