What’s Going on at the LA River?

Los Angeles River

The news that Frank Gehry has taken on a master planning role at the LA River has prompted a mix of joy, despair — and puzzlement.

Why he’s involved, what is his mandate, who brought him on board, what it means for projects and plans already made, and whether the man who made an aesthetic out of chain-link and plywood is the right guy to be in charge of reviving a (once) natural habitat are just some of the questions ricocheting around the river-watching community.

DnA attempted to provide some answers on this show and in the following summary — based on conversations with the architect, LA River Corps’ Omar Brownson, landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FoLAR’s Lewis MacAdams and Alex Ward, Christopher Hawthorne, resiliency expert Henk Ovink, and Mayor Garcetti’s public statements.

Who brought Frank Gehry on board?

The LA River Corp, or Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, a nonprofit established as part of the city’s Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, approved by the council in 2007 (Garcetti was a councilmember). According to the LA River Corp exec director Omar Brownson, some of its boardmembers reached out to Gehry.

Frank Gehry

Why was he selected?

The LA River Corp’s Omar Brownson says it wanted a team that could:

-look at the river in its entirety, all 51 miles from Canoga Park to Long Beach, “from a systems perspective,” taking “a more integrated view of the river — hydrologic, ecological, community, recreation, water uses — and bring those together. They also wanted a team that could work at a scale that “cuts across 15 different cities, counties state and federal jurisdictions.”

– approach the technological challenges of the river from a strong design perspective, counter to past river plans that have been engineering-lead.

– generate income: Brownson points out that the plans for the river have no direct revenue stream and Gehry’s name has the clout to get city, state, Feds and business to take the river seriously, and unite around a vision.

What’s Mayor Garcetti’s role?

The LA River Corps chose Gehry, with the backing of Mayor Garcetti who, says Brownson, has worked closely with the Corp since it was created when Garcetti was president of the council. He “has long seen the river as a regional opportunity.” Successful revitalization of the LA river would obviously be a huge political accomplishment for the mayor.

What do they mean by “hydrological?”

Gehry says this project for him starts with “water reclamation” and saving millions of gallons of precious water that flow down the concrete flood channel into the ocean any time there’s rainfall. The need to conserve water while keeping the basin safe from floods is a primary element of resilient planning for a future that’s expected to see more extreme rain events and droughts courtesy of global warming.

Read more on that in this interview with Henk Ovink, the Dutch water infrastructure guru who is advising Gehry and the LA River Corp.

Who’s paying?

Gehry’s office as well as his team of partners and consultants — Tensho Takemori and Anand Devarajan of Gehry Partners, landscape experts Olin Partners and water experts Geosyntec — are currently working pro bono. Unclear when or how that will change.

Have they designed anything?

So far, no. The last nine or so months of work have gone into mapping and analysis of the entire river, using the digital technology developed by Gehry’s firm. They are looking at the river from the perspectives of water reclamation, economy and health of nearby residents, and many other factors.

Where does this leave all the groups that have fought long and hard to revive the river, particularly Friends of the LA River (FoLAR)?

Unclear. Both Brownson and Gehry have said that everyone – from volunteer groups to state senators — needs to come together if the river is to fully realize its potential. But so far not all river activists have bought in; the news of Gehry’s involvement went public when FoLAR founder Lewis MacAdams showed the Los Angeles Times a letter to the LA River Corp declining to participate in an upcoming press conference that was intended to present a united front in support of the LA River Corp/Gehry plan.

Is Gehry the Olmsted of our time?

Mayor Garcetti brought on the wrath of LA’s landscape design community at a press conference last week – when he referred to Gehry as the (Frederick Law) Olmsted of our time. Subsequently the mayor toned down the comparison and meanwhile Gehry himself has not made such a claim about himself. But he has said he’s interested in an Olmstedian scale of vision for the LA river that reconnects the network of river and tributaries severed by freeways.

What does this all mean for Alternative 20, a proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers, supported by FoLAR and Mayor Garcetti, to strip away the concrete from an 11-mile stretch of the LA river?

How the estimated $ 1.35 billion cost will be split between Feds and City is currently in contention, and FoLAR is concerned that competing plans will, according to board member Alex Ward, “muddy the waters” as the city fights for a 50/50 split of costs.

Brownson says that “far from complicating any other efforts, (Gehry’s) work will complement those efforts, including the Army Corps “Alternative 20” plan, by contextualizing them in a larger framework, showing how the entire river can work as one ecosystem and that Frank’s work will only serve to make Alternative 20 even more attractive to policymakers.

Marsh park, LA river

What about the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan?

Noting that the master plan was for 32 miles in the City of LA while the Gehry team is looking at all 51 miles, Brownson says that the LA master plan from 2007 provides a “framework” that will complement new planning. Unclear what this means for the previous plan and the previous design team, helmed by Mia Lehrer.

Does this mean the concrete stays?

Gehry told the LA Times’ Christopher Hawthorne that he doesn’t see “tearing out the concrete” along the river, as hoped for by many river activists and designers. This fed into a long-held perception held by some in the landscape design community that Gehry does not like trees and flowers. I’ve asked Gehry about this in the past and have got the sense that he likes plants well enough, but he’s picky about which ones and which landscape designers. But any planning is not far enough along to know what’s really in the pipeline.

What does Gehry’s mandate as master planner really mean? Does he have the authority to pick and choose projects and designers along the river? Does he have the authority to stop projects along the river that are already in the pipeline?

Unclear. The mayor stated at his press conference that Gehry will “look at design standards” for the length of the river and Gehry has inferred the same.

So will Gehry design any buildings along the river?

Unclear. He says that’s not his role currently. But it’s hard to imagine having Gehry involved in a project where he doesn’t build anything. On DnA he mused about visions like a Millennium Park-style public space where river and rail yards meet in downtown.

What does all this mean for communities along the river subject to gentrification?

Gehry and Brownson say the goal is to plan the river in such a way that prevents runaway development before it happens and have suggested affordable housing be part of any future mix.