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What's Taking Los Angeles River Revitalization So Long?

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There was a time when the Los Angeles River was in danger of becoming a freeway. In 1988, California Assemblyman Richard Katz proposed exactly that. He figured that by turning this concrete drain system of a river into a freeway would ease traffic congestion on the Ventura and Long Beach freeways by as much as 25 percent . A preliminary report showed, Katz wasn't off the mark. The river could support traffic lanes and congestion would be eased, but it would cost $30 million per mile.

Mayor Tom Bradley, a major supporter of river revitalization.
Mayor Tom Bradley, a major supporter of river revitalization.

Instead of catalyzing the construction of a freeway, however, Katz instead kickstarted advocacy for keeping the river. Just as darkness emphasizes light, former Mayor Tom Bradley eventually opposed the plan, advocating instead for a river restoration. Instead of concrete and trash, Bradley imagined parkland and open space, trails and bikeways. He eventually appointed a taskforce in the 1990s that would study turning the river into a recreational amenity.

That was almost three decades ago. Since then, advocates for the river have only grown more vocal and active. A masterplan for the river was approved by city council in 2007 containing about 240 projects that would be built within 20 to 50 years . The waterway has been included in President Obama's America's Great Outdoors initiative, as well as Urban Waters Federal Partnership program . From a concrete ditch, the river is now, very, very, very slowly becoming that green, recreational space many supporters have imagined. But, the question is, what's taking so long?

As anyone who's ever set out to build in Los Angeles knows, things aren't always as simple as they seem. A vision becomes reality at a glacial pace, which can be a good or bad thing.

Community Outreach
Communicating and reaching out to the public is a crucial part of the process to be considered when taking on public projects. In the case of the historic Sixth Street Viaduct, it took the form of many, many meetings. The first public meeting that discussed the original Sixth Street Bridge's inevitable demise happened back in 2007. The original estimate for the project's completion was optimistically three years.

Fast forward eight years plus numerous public meetings later and we are finally moving on the bridge's replacement. Part of the difficulty of moving ahead with the Sixth Street Bridge replacement was getting the community on board.

Some would have liked to hold onto the historical bridge because of its strong connection to the community. Apart from making appearances in countless movies and commercials, the bridge is also a favorite route for lowriders in the Boyle Heights area . Others wanted a totally new bridge that would break away from the past. Still others like the L.A. Conservancy had wanted a bridge that would fit within the context of the bridges, yet be distinctly different.

Historic Sixth Street Bridge has multiple strong emotional connections with its local community.
Historic Sixth Street Bridge has multiple strong emotional connections with its local community.

In fact, the current design that will be constructed is still up for debate. In a Los Angeles Times article, Adrian Scott Fine, Director for Advocacy for the Conservancy says, "We would have liked to have seen something more contextual, something more in keeping with the massing, the materials and the rhythm of the other bridges." Suffice it to say pleasing a whole swath of stakeholders is no small feat.

Demolition of the Sixth Street viaduct will begin in January 2016, according to Michael Affeldt of the LARiverWorks team and will take three years to complete .

Another obstacle for any undertaking is funding. A multimodal bridge across North Atwater has been talked about for about twenty years. In order to get the wheels moving, it took funds from private philantropher Morton La Kretz which the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation brought to the city. La Kretz would put up to $5 million on the project, but the city still needs to find additional monies to finish construction costs.

It has been six years since La Kretz first stepped forward with this donation and since then estimates for full construction costs have ballooned from $6 million in 2013 to about $9.66 million, which have now been covered through various sources.

The California Transportation Commission (CTC) awarded $3.66M in Active Transportation Program funds to the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (LARRC) for the La Kretz Crossing. The city and county have collectively contributed $1 million toward the project in funds and in-kind services. The increase in costs is due to changing construction costs, as well as additional funds needed to cover changes in design as it moves from concept to reality, according to Eastsider LA.

Rendering of proposed La Kretz bridge.
Rendering of proposed La Kretz bridge.

Layering funds is often necessary to complete projects along the Los Angeles River in what Omar Brownson, Executive Director of the LARRC, calls "lasagna financing". He says, "We need to layer public, non-profit and private capital and still make it taste good."

Large infrastructure projects are complicated affairs that need constant vigilance, says Armstrong at the USC conference. "You're talking very expensive capital projects, bridges, railway, all that kind of stuff. And any kind of changes to that are going to be really expensive and complicated and take a long time. So, there's excitement that builds and then there's short-term wins and then there's a long-term goal. And so, you have to fight each and everyday to make sure that the river stays in the conversation for the long-term infrastructure funding."

Not Just the Bunnies
But, landscape architect Mia Lehrer, who has spent nearly two decades in river projects, points out though that it is really the process that hinders a faster implementation. "It has to do with the permit process and, you know, [the city hasn't] done a bridge in a long time and this is basically a bridge that's for pedestrians, bicycles, and equestrians. It has a column in the middle. It challenges on the way the water moves. And it's just very complicated to get these projects in the ground." She says during a discussion at USC's Price School of Public Policy .

To realize the complexity of any river undertaking, one has to realize the number of stakeholders and agencies involved in the process. The Los Angeles River Masterplan boasts of about sixty-six organizations at the federal, state, local, and international levels involved. "It's closer to two hundred now," remarks Carol Armstrong, director of LARiverWorks at the Office of the Mayor during the USC conference.

"When you start to look at how you revitalize a waterway that is 51 miles and drains at a 870 square mile watershed, all of the sudden it snowballs on who needs to be included. And it's really not just about the bunnies and the butterflies and the bees, it's also about all different kinds of organizations, social justice, environmental justice, economic development, community revitalization, artists," Armstrong continues.

Arroyo Seco Confluence.
Arroyo Seco Confluence.

Additional agencies mean added processes, just to get things done. Imagine having one project and having to figure out whom to secure approval from and then gathering the necessary documents to get your permits.

Perhaps the most critical part of the approval process is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Since the agency had channelized the river in the 1930s, it also assumed responsibility for its maintenance and its flood control aspects. Any project on and by the river needs to be approved by this agency.

"What's important for everyone to remember is the role of the federal government in controlling the space through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As far as I understand, the creation of the river channel in the 30s was a federal project. Ever since then, the Army Corps is the agency that has control over what happens, so now all the plans the city and different municipalities have are just plans. They have to ask permission from the federal government to do anything," says Tanner Blackman, the former city planner and Planning Director at Huizar's office.

With projects along the river, says Blackman, "It's a question of what exactly and in what form the Army Corps of engineers will green light. Their engineers have to review and approve it."

Let's take the case of the Los Angeles River Bike Path. This is one of the earliest projects that has been on the books for the river. Michelle Mowery, Senior Bicycle Coordinator in the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) recalls that the project has been in the city's bicycle plan since 1997. Completing that river bike path is "a lot harder than people think," explains Mowery.

"All that bike infrastructure is expensive. It's not just grading the roadway. We have to build the bike path by taking the existing road out, rebuilding it as a bike path, adding grade separations," says Mowery. "For the most part, we're also going under roadways, which is extremely expensive and complex. It's something we have to work out with the county and the Army Corps because of flood control. So we're dealing with hydrology, civil design, right of way issues, funding, and multiple public agencies."

Among the agencies involved in making the LA River Bike Path happen at the moment is the Mayor's LA River Works team, who are working on the overall river revitalization implementation. LADOT is the project manager for implementation of the river bike path. They work in coordination with the Department of Public Works in terms of design and solving any real estate issues with the properties involved.

"The biggest issue we're facing is that we have to implement this network within a built out city. This is a city where everything is already taking place on something else. The bike path is on a service road that belongs to someone else. The river path can be a utility corridor for Edison and the Department of Water and Power. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages flood control. There are property owners and utilities. Someone else was already there before us."

The Built-Out City
In short, there seems to be a lot of entanglements when it comes to working on the river, where jurisdictions are sometimes murky or overlapping. "Things are harder in Los Angeles because of its scale," says Blackman, "We have these big agencies for functions that in other cities are just one guy in a cubicle. There's Bureau of Engineering and Department of Transportation sign-offs, Bureau of Street Services. You need local approval and then you have to check in with funding sources. Then, you need to get the final approval from Army Corps."

The bike path has been given a boost lately, however, thanks to a well-received Greenway 2020 marketing campaign launched in 2013. During a conference produced by the Council for Watershed Health on development issues along the Los Angeles River, LA River Corp's Omar Brownson rightly pointed out that everyone has been agog over New York City's High Line, but in reality the elevated railway, which has become a prime tourist and community destination since its revival is only a half-mile long, but the Los Angeles River is 51 miles. What if we could somehow connect all those miles of river into one continuous greenway and bike path by the end of 2020? Imagine the possibilities.

A continuous greenway along the LA River would make for an unbroken bike path.
A continuous greenway along the LA River would make for an unbroken bike path.

Creating that continuous greenway isn't a new idea, but it's tantalizing comparison to New York City's vaunted High Line surely gave this dormant idea new urgency. The launch of the Greenway 2020 campaign sparked the local imagination. The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, and Curbed LA, soon picked up the story. Now, LADOT's strategic plan includes a goal to complete the bike path within the city of Los Angeles by 2020.

For now, there are 11 miles complete out of the 32 within the city's jurisdiction. More are on their way, including a bike path set right on the Los Angeles Riverbed. As opposed to other bike path segments, this particular project was birthed in a relatively shorter period of time because real estate developer and downtown resident Yuval Bar-Zemer put up his own funds to study the plan's feasibility. "He paid for the initial concept renderings, engineering studies to see how this could be made possible. At Councilman Huizar's office then did a motion asking the city to work with Metro and other entities on the feasibility of pursuing it," recalls Blackman.

Even though City Council did approve the in-channel bike path in theory and despite the personal funds that already went into the concept, realizing this complex pathway still requires identifying funding to actually build it, even more detailed engineering and feasibility studies, not to mention environmental studies.

"We beg for a simpler, more straightforward process in the future," adds Lehrer. If such a process were to materialize, it would need to balance the need for public participation and efficiency, so that every project is able to get the input of the community and those agencies involved yet also move ahead in a timely manner.

Verdugo Wash east of Griffith Park and rendering of proposed project.
Verdugo Wash east of Griffith Park and rendering of proposed project.

One tantalizing prospect is that of a Joint Powers Authority (JPA), which does have the authority to approve projects in one venue. Though we have a Los Angeles River Cooperation Committee, where representatives from the Los Angeles County Flood Control District and the city, and Army Corps have a seat, they only act in an advisory capacity. Any approvals will still have to go through each separate agency.

To realize a project like Greenway 2020, for example, individual agreements will have to be ironed out for each segment of the greenway with the agencies involved. One long greenway project can end up being broken down to as many as 80 different projects, each requiring their own separate public participation and approval process. By adopting a Joint Powers Authority structure, one could possibly streamline this lumbering process. Instead of going through approvals with each individual agency, it could potentially be dealt with through one body. Realizing this body is difficult, however, because it entails answering difficult questions on the exact powers a JPA has and how much leeway they are given for approvals.

Though it continues to be a long uphill battle to revitalize the river and no clear plan to streamline the process, it is still heartening to see just how much passion has been invested in piecemeal projects along the river. Mowery asks the public "to be patient. It takes all of us moving forward in the same direction," to make an ambitious plan like the river revitalization a reality. What the Los Angeles River needs are constant, vigilant supporters that are willing to make their voices heard consistently.
Yes, it could be just a quarter-mile segment or a half-mile, but it's all contributing to the bigger piece of the Los Angeles River puzzle.

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