To most newcomers in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles River is much like a mythical creature--often spoken of, but never actually experienced. That has thankfully changed over the past decade.
With projects large and small, the city has repeatedly rallied in favor of reviving this waterway and, in the process, returning the 51-mile river back to Los Angeles guided by the Los Angeles River Masterplan. The masterplan outlined a 20-year blueprint for the development and management of the river. In it, Angelinos could see a different vision of Los Angeles. As a result, the city has seen a growth of projects around the river and interest especially in the Glendale Narrows.
On January 24, Los Angeles is taking another step forward to take advantage of the growing public interest in the river by launching the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative (NELA RC), a holistic, collaborative urban planning effort to take advantage of the River as an economic development asset. The collaborative takes up the mantle left behind when the state's Community Redevelopment Agencies were dissolved last year, but with added emphasis on inter-agency cooperation and community-based approaches.
"The idea here is to use the [Los Angeles] river -- which has historically been a flood control basin -- and envision it as an actual fully-functioning river and to use that to create a district where it'll be a unique feature," said Louis Morales of Tierra West, project manager of NELA RC. Morales came on board the project December last year.
NELA RC is an ambitious effort that attempts to break down the barriers that often exist in agencies, said George Villanueva, researcher for the Metamorphosis Project at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. "It's not just government agencies, but non-profits, universities, commercial real estate people. It's really ambitious to get all of these people working together." Should it prove successful, it could become a template for future urban planning and management.
Funded by a $2.25 million Community Challenge planning grant from the Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the NELA RC is a cross-disciplinary and cross-agency effort to build an identifiable Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront District along an eight-mile stretch of the river. The district comprises all of Atwater Village and Elysian Valley and portions of Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and Glassell Park. It is bounded by the 134 Freeway on the north, Main Street in Lincoln Heights on the south, the L.A. River on the west and the 5 Freeway to the east.
The collaborative is a many-headed hydra all trained toward this 8-mile riverfront corridor, which was designated a priority in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership program.
Villanueva, who has been part of the project since its earliest phases, says the NELA RC has five different program components: economic development, work force development, community planning, civic engagement and technology development.
Real estate consultants Tierra West will undertake an economic development study that will outline financing mechanisms to fund growth in the NELA District. Once the grant culminates in spring 2014, the goal is to have a comprehensive report that outlines actual projects that could be engines of future growth.
"Not only would we identify goals and objectives, we're going to identify implementation strategies, so that if we're successful in getting grants, we can actually carry out what we have in the plan," said Morales. Unlike most general plans that do not specify any funding mechanisms, the final report would have teeth.
With an eye toward placemaking and increasing mobility, NELA RC, through the Department of City Planning (DCP), will be taking a second look community plans within the district -- seeing it now as a whole rather than isolated parts.
"The idea is not necessarily to change land uses," said Morales. "We're going to work within the general plan and the River Masterplan and see how to define properties so they are used to they're at their highest and best use."
With the Department of Transportation (DOT), DCP would weigh the possibility of introducing "integrated mobility hubs" meant to bridge the often-faced "first mile - last mile" problem, or the "I would take the train but the closest stop is so far away from my house/office" mentality as defined by LA Streetsblog's Damien Newton. Possible programs include bike parking, bike sharing, fold-n-go bike leasing program, and a car sharing system. Plans are under way to create wayfinding and signs that would identify the Riverfront District.
But, a place only becomes one when animated by the people who live and work there. Thus, the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) will be investigating what labor sectors are in the area and what types of work can be encouraged given the district's resources.
Occidental College's Urban and Environmental Policy Institute on the other hand will be working on a feasibility study looking into the possibility of turning the district into a regional food hub. Establishing a hub in the district could mean access to healthier food for consumers and developing green jobs in the community.
Knowing all this can't succeed without the support of the people, NELA RC emphasizes bringing the community into the process. "This is really going to be a community based approach," said Morales. "Whatever the residents feel is needed or not needed will be taken into consideration."
Metamorphosis will oversee design, development and implementation of civic-based engagement activities and community-based research. Building on our work around the river, KCET Departures will give voice to the community through online and neighborhood initiatives, allowing the NELA Riverfront District to introduce itself to the rest of Los Angeles.
Already, KCET Departures has installed kiosks in the neighborhood and online venue asking people to complete the sentence, "I want my river to be..." The site will later become an online hub for all things NELA. In it, residents can show the city what makes their neighborhood so distinct, but also give real-time feedback to proposed projects that grow out of the NELA RC effort. A mobile "Bike the L.A. River" tour map is also in the works to bring more people on the river and into the neighborhood.
"Economic is definitely a big goal in the project, but we want to ask residents themselves what they think about where they live and what do they want to see," said Villanueva. "The neighborhood is extremely diverse: Latino, Chinese, Filipino. If more people become involved in their community, that's a sign of success."