Planning for a Greener L.A. River

Times Staff Writer

Is it the city's most prominent gutter or a river waiting to be reborn?

Residents of Los Angeles will soon have a chance to discuss the future of the city's namesake river.

Today, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilman Ed Reyes plan to announce 18 public meetings that are a prelude to a massive -- and thus far largely unfunded -- public works project to clean up the river, build parks along it and restore some sections to a more natural state.

"What we're doing here is discovering a new resource -- the L.A. River," Reyes said. "How we go about it will establish the new face of the city."

One key item up for discussion: whether it's possible to remove portions of the river's concrete lining, installed beginning in the 1930s to keep low-lying areas from being inundated during winter storms.

As industry has left the core of many cities in the United States, there has been a push to revive urban waterways.

In Reno, for example, it's possible to kayak and fly-fish on the Truckee River as it flows through town. Denver's Cherry Creek has long been a greenbelt downtown, and now the city is sprucing up the nearby South Platte River.

As other cities have made rivers the centerpiece of urban revival, the L.A. River has continued to serve largely as a flood control system.

But increasingly, Los Angeles officials believe that, with some smart engineering, the river can serve as an anchor for parks and wildlife habitat while still protecting the region from floods.

"When we begin to show people drawings and ideas and what other cities have done, I think people will be open for the river to be something other than a drainage channel," said Deborah Weintraub, a deputy engineer in the city's bureau of engineering.

The city has hired a prominent engineering firm as a primary consultant -- Tetra Tech Inc. of Pasadena -- and a few ideas have already trickled out. These include terracing the concrete-lined sides of the river into stairsteps that could be planted with trees and used as picnic spots.

Another idea is to create a "confluence park" where the Arroyo Seco meets the L.A. River near downtown. The park would have spacious lawns, a man-made creek gurgling through it, trees and a central fountain.

The city also faces the challenge of improving the quality of the water. In summer, the river is a steady flow of mostly treated wastewater and runoff from lawn sprinklers.

One method city officials are considering for improving the water is development of wetlands areas along the river to filter the water.

City officials say the purpose of the meetings is to learn what the public wants, and they say nothing is being ruled out. After the meetings are completed in about 18 months, the city will issue a 20-year blueprint to guide the river restoration effort.

Money and political support, of course, remain huge issues.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has provided $3 million to fund the planning effort. But the cost of the final product could be in the tens of millions of dollars and would require a mix of local, state and federal money, with park and water bonds a likely source.

As for politics, the river runs through nine of the city's 15 council districts, and Villaraigosa promised during his mayoral campaign to "create an emerald necklace of parks along the river."

In City Hall, the effort has been led by Reyes. A former urban planner, the 46-year-old won reelection last spring and has said one of the primary goals of his second term will be having a river plan in place by 2009, when he must leave office because of term limits.

Reyes' family moved to Cypress Park when he was young. As he tells it, a gang controlled access to the neighborhood's basketball court, prompting Reyes and his brothers to turn instead to swimming holes in the river, where they were able to hook the occasional catfish.

These days, Reyes rarely misses a chance to tell his City Council colleagues that the city has historically invested little in his 1st District, in northeast L.A. He said the city has, in his view, treated it as a repository for recent immigrants.

"One reason that people in Los Angeles are out of touch with the city is because they don't come to the central part of the city -- downtown," said Reyes. "And the people who have the power and the money don't live near the river. It's undesirable and it's always been considered the backyard of the city."

The first meeting is to be held at 10 a.m. Oct. 15 at the North Weddington Recreation Center, 10844 Acama St., North Hollywood. The second is to be a week later at 10 a.m. at the Goodwill Resource Center at 342 San Fernando Road in Lincoln Heights.

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