How Los Angeles is reinventing its riverside

Article by Karina Saranovic

Los Angeles is a city familiar with stories of dramatic transformations, from rags to riches tales to the renaissance of previously neglected areas.

Now the east side of Los Angeles is receiving its very own makeover decades after the Army Corps of Engineers first poured concrete on to the banks of the LA River that stretches 51 miles from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean.

Specifically, a regeneration proposal called Alternative 20 will pump $1.3 billion into a handful of projects along the river’s northern 11.5 mile territory known as the ARBOR (Area with Restoration Benefits and Opportunity for Revitalization). Some of the slated plans include the ‘greenification’ of the LA Historic Park and the Taylor Yards in addition to the construction of numerous bridges and bike lanes along the water.

“We would not have a Los Angeles if not for the Los Angeles River,” says Eli Kaufman, communication director of LA River activist group LA River Revitalization Corporation (LARRC). “This is our opportunity to create a truly multifaceted design for the river that makes it integral to the city and our wellbeing.

“It is complex too as there are communities that have been living there for generations so we have to think of a way of reimaging the river that is going to be truly inclusive to the existing communities as well as inviting new people into the community,” he adds.

Today’s progress follows lengthy advocacy after LARRC, LARABA (Los Angeles River Artists and Business Association), and FOLAR (Friends of the LA River) spent years raising awareness around the need for revitalization.

Big names have already surfaced to help the cause. Despite ruffling the feathers of some local groups, Frank Gehry has announced his future involvement in the project.

“The pros of having someone like Frank Gehry decide that the river is important at this stage of his career is huge. He’s an innovator in his field as an architect… and the fact that he recognizes the Los Angeles River as a unique opportunity to give something back to this city is very cool,” Kaufman exclaims.

A new chapter for an underutilized area

Los Angeles is the latest U.S. city to target riverside regeneration in a bid to improve its urban environment, following several examples from around the country.

“Significant in scale, the LA revitalization will be a catalyst for urban renewal along stretches of the river, while simultaneously making it more accessible to the public through more open spaces. Similar efforts have been undertaken in other leading cities with great success,” notes Henry Gjestrum, senior analyst in JLL’s Los Angeles office.

In Portland’s River District, a regeneration scheme launched in 1998 to transform an underused rail yard into a high density residential neighborhood featuring housing, office and retail space and parks.

Elsewhere, San Antonio’s River Walk District was once an industrial flood channel, but a public project sparked the interest of private investors ultimately turning the area into a vibrant retail and residential corridor.

New York’s Meatpacking District has also deserted its industrial past. After many crime ridden years, this location the Hudson River caught the eye of young professionals in the 90s and now famously houses high end boutiques, clubs and restaurants.

Los Angeles is now hoping for similar success. As Kaufman explains, “The river is integral to the health, vibrancy and resilience of the whole region. It is the ultimate resource that should be therefore public benefit and accessible to all.”

Indeed, the regeneration stands to make a huge impact on the Eastside. The City of Los Angeles estimates that river restoration will generate $2.9 to $5.7 billion in new development investment along with the creation of 10,500 new jobs over the next 25 to 50 years.

Meanwhile, the area will continue capturing the attention of many creative industries. Disney, ABC and DreamWorks are just a few of the entertainment companies already asserting their presence nearby. As these businesses migrate over, housing developments are expected to follow.

Adversities still on the horizon

Despite these strides forward, certain challenges remain. Although much of the terrain is already city-owned, Union Pacific must still consent to the sale of Piggyback Yard (an area that has also been identified as the Olympic Village if LA wins the election to host the games in 2024). In addition private landowners may need to grant concessions for increased square footage requirements or resulting easements to accommodate proper access to attractions.

The city will also need to grapple with the issues around separating different areas according to their purpose while minding the ecological and environmental consequences of construction.

Developers, meanwhile, face the challenge of ensuring the areas age gracefully and remain inclusive. All too often as run down areas are regenerated new money appears, and as the effects of gentrification kick in, working middle class families are pushed out of their neighborhoods.

“It’s going to take the entire community to come together…and… it’s going to require that we really think about how we’re aligned as well as how we’re different,” Kaufman observes. With this is mind, he stresses that “building responsibly” will prove key as regeneration brings big change in the short and long run. 

Not only has this plan stimulated the economy, it has increased community involvement and collaboration, which in turn aims to create a ripple effect to spread benefits to Angelenos and visitors for years to come.

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