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Talking L.A. River with Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell

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This year marked the last term of former Councilmember Ed Reyes, a strong supporter of revitalization along the Los Angeles River. With his departure came uncertainty over how the administration of river projects would progress.

As an answer to those lingering questions comes the newly-elected Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell, whose jurisdiction covers Atwater Village, East Hollywood, Echo Park, Elysian Valley, Glassell Park, Historic Filipino Town, Hollywood, Little Armenia, Melrose Hill, Mid-Wilshire/Koreatown, Silver Lake, Thai Town, and Virgil Village. O'Farrell heads the Arts, Parks, Health, Aging and River Committee (yes, it's a mouthful), which replaced Reyes' Ad Hoc River Committee. We talked to the new councilmember about his plans for the Los Angeles River.

Given former councilmember Ed Reyes' strong identification with river causes, people might not be as familiar with you and your work. Could you give us an idea of your history with Los Angeles River?

Back in 2002, I was new on staff with then-Councilmember Eric Garcetti. I went to the inaugural committee celebration of the Ad Hoc River Committee. From that moment on I would staff then-Councilmember Garcetti at the Ad Hoc River, at which he was Vice-Chair. In the 10 years I worked in Garcetti's staff, I was on river issues -- environmental issues, pocket parks, anything have to do with the river.

I also worked on the River Revitalization Masterplan with our consultants. It was adopted in 2007.

In 2005, while on staff, I started a river management and maintenance task force, which our objective on the task force was to improve the quality of the experience when you visited the river. We focused on things like removing graffiti, getting homeless services out there to interact with the homeless population in the river.

Did you know you might be championing the river when you ran for office?

Gosh, nothing was guaranteed. In public life, you just never know what the next steps may be. I always just did things knowing that that might be it. I was going to give it my best shot no matter where I was.

How did you find yourself in that role as lead for Los Angeles River project administration?

Since Council President Herb Wesson was folding in all the ad hoc committees into existing committees, he bestowed upon me the chair of the Arts, Parks, Health, Aging and River Committee, which he combined. Then, former Councilmember Ed Reyes, symbolically and metaphorically, passed me the baton. I became the new, if you will, river champion. It's a great honor to be in this spot.

Councilmember O'Farrell with Ed Reyes, Tom LaBonge, among others, at the opening of Sunnynook Park along the L.A. River | Photo: Rubi Fregoso
Councilmember O'Farrell with Ed Reyes, Tom LaBonge, among others, at the opening of Sunnynook Park along the L.A. River | Photo: Rubi Fregoso

Given that former Councilmember Ed Reyes' Ad Hoc River Committee has been folded in, how has that changed administration of river projects?

Administratively, the Ad Hoc River Committee met once a month. The parks committee meets twice a month. The first half of every initial meeting, which is the second Monday of every month, we focus on the river. Then, we'd have a few other general items. The second meeting of the month will be Arts and Parks in general. We are meeting and discussing the river with the exact same schedule that we did before.

So, you're not worried that the river projects will lose its focus?

I'm really not.

Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Tom LaBonge often figure in river projects as well. How do you work with other councilmen on projects?

My colleagues Gill Cedillo and Tom LaBonge are both on the committee along with Coucilmembers Curren Price and Joe Buscaino. With the institutional knowledge that we have -- Councilmember Cedillo worked on river issues while he was in state, Tom LaBonge brings in 12 years of experience as a councilmember, and 11 years on the Ad Hoc River committee -- we make up a great team.

What are the crucial river projects you'll be focusing on in your term?

We're about to hear an announcement as early as next week [Ed. note: the study is expected to be released online on September 13] from the Army Corps of Engineers on the alternative that will be chosen for actual re-engineering of part of the Los Angeles River. Re-engineering the river could mean bringing back wetlands and removing part of the trapezoidal concrete. This will be the most momentous decision made in the 30-year trajectory of activism in the river.

It'll result in hundreds of millions, up to a billion, dollar improvement, which will have to have local match as well, so we have our work cut out for us. We're going to have a wonderful benefit of a federal program, a very real project, which will make the river more of a destination place that it's ever been.

Councilmember O'Farrell at the NELA Riverfront Collaborative Press Event | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa
Councilmember O'Farrell at the NELA Riverfront Collaborative Press Event | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa

What projects are you looking forward to now?

We're going to build a couple of footbridges in the future. That's a huge feat.
We have one funded philanthropically by Morton La Kretz. It's going to be in the equestrian area in North Atwater.

Another bridge, starting in 2016, that I worked on funding for is going to be south of Hyperion. It's one of the conditions put forth by the Hyperion Bridge retrofit. It will provide another pedestrian access across the river, connecting Atwater Village with Silver Lake. Construction begins in 2016, but it is [already] funded and approved. We're recirculating the modifications of the bridge now.

You've only been on board for a couple of months now. What has been the biggest challenge?

There's so much to do. It's always a challenge. That's a great challenge to have. I personally do much better when there's so much to do versus not enough.

With the onslaught of projects on the river, some neighborhoods are worried of being left out of the process, not being able to profit from their area's progress, or being priced out of their neighborhoods. How would you answer those concerns?

That's a great concern for people to have. My intent and belief is that the river environment is for all Angelenos and that we pay closest attention to the people most affected by it, which are the long-term residents, businesses and merchants. There's so much room for growth along the river.

We're revitalizing the river because we want to enhance the quality of life there. That quality of life should benefit those most directly affected by it.

In terms of people being priced out, there's no question that with improvement comes with increased land value. As a policy maker, it's incumbent upon my colleagues and me to make sure that we have affordable housing in Los Angeles.

What's your measure of success for your role on the river?

By proof on the ground. New parks. Making sure those parks are maintained. By increasing foot, bicycling and kayaking traffic. I'd love to develop a measurable on that one.

I'm a huge believer in science and proven methods. I love the idea of getting a sense of how many people go to there now and where and comparing that with how many people will be going where in the future. Those benchmarks are important.

Then, also just physical improvements, which I've seen over the years already: graffiti staying for a shorter period of time and being graffiti free for a longer period. We've already turned some corners and we'll e turning a few more in the future.

Top: O'Farrell at the KCET Departures Northeast L.A. StoryShare event. Photo: Justin Cram.

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