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Re-imagining the landmark Silver Lake Reservoir

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In one of his earliest boyhood memories, Dion Neutra walked out the front door of his family's Silver Lake home and down to the water's edge. It was the early 1930s, and the wall around Silver Lake Reservoir was so low that he could fling a fishing line above it and into the water.

But over the next eight decades, the architect — who trained under his father, Richard Neutra, a master of Modernism who lived and worked out of Silver Lake — watched as the water he loved began to change. It was drained several times and its shoreline pushed back. At one point a barbed wire-topped fence went up, and it seemed more off-limits than ever.

This fortress-like treatment was a necessity. It protected the drinking water stored in Silver Lake — and in the smaller, adjacent Ivanhoe Reservoir — from contamination. But an upcoming Los Angeles Department of Water and Power project will disconnect the reservoirs from the city's drinking water system as part of a federal mandate to phase out open-air reservoirs. It opens up the possibility of transforming the space near the water into something more recreational.

PHOTOS: Silver Lake Reservoir

And the prospect of re-imagining an L.A. landmark has sparked a rush of ideas and enthusiasm — from neighborhood newcomers to lifelong residents like Neutra.

Now, people are pitching and debating ideas of how to get the area freed up and transformed into something more park-like. There's the Silver Lake Plunge plan, which would transform the smaller reservoir into a swimming area. An early rendering of the beach-meets-pool mash-up shows a sandy shore dotted with sunbathers and umbrellas and a lake partly delineated with lanes for swimming laps.

Another plan conceived by the Silver Lake Reservoirs Conservancy would transform the dam between Ivanhoe and Silver Lake into an esplanade. The design for the project — which conservancy president Craig Collins described as visionary but very preliminary — shows kids playing on a bench and a man jogging along a walkway with views of the water to both sides. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council wrote his own manifesto, in which he imagines an opened-up area where people can get into the water and asks people with other ideas to email him with "Dreaming about a new park" in the subject line.

Even Neutra, 87, has launched a petition on Neutra.org, where he asks people to help spread the word about his plan to build a boardwalk and truck in dirt to make the amount of water the reservoirs hold more sustainable.

"I have a lot of hope that this will all work out well," he said. "I hope I live to see it."

All these ideas have generated a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Some longtime residents are wary of the fenced-in lake turning into a full-fledged recreation area, with traffic, noise and crowds.

At a Neighborhood Council meeting in Silver Lake on Monday evening, presenters from Silver Lake Plunge and the conservancy shared their plans to a combination of applause and frustrated sighs. As Catherine Geanuracos presented her idea, which some people have nicknamed "The Hipster Beach," a woman in the third row mumbled about how young people probably love the idea. A few minutes later, when a board member from the conservancy shared community-suggested ideas for the reservoirs' future — adding a boardwalk or an amphitheater for events — the same woman let out a series of loud scoffs and muttered: "Oh, come on!"

During a question-and-answer session at the end of the meeting, Lyle Henry — who has lived in a home near the reservoir for 25 years — raised his hand and said he's concerned about any changes that could cause more congestion. Several people clapped, a woman shouted "That's right!," and a couple of others chimed in with "amens."

Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who represents some of the area around the reservoirs, said that although he understands the concerns, he thinks locals need to open up to the idea of them becoming more of a regional destination.

"When you create a beautiful area, you can't seal it off," he said. "That's something people psychologically need to get used to."

Once its 18-month, $27-million project is complete, the DWP will have drained Silver Lake and replaced a bypass pipe underneath it. The work, slated to begin early next year, includes draining Ivanhoe and removing the black rubber balls put in place a few years ago to prevent a sunlight-triggered reaction that created a carcinogen in the water. The lost storage space will be replaced by a new underground reservoir near Griffith Park called the Headworks Reservoir.

Susan Rowghani, the Department of Water and Power's director of engineering for water systems, said that although the agency is committed to refilling both reservoirs, it is meeting with different groups about the area's future. She said it's possible that it could eventually lease the land around the reservoirs to the Department of Recreation and Parks. But the DWP will retain jurisdiction of the reservoirs, she said, because there will still be functioning dams on site.

Though O'Farrell said he thinks it's unlikely that any other projects will be piggybacked onto the DWP project, he's in discussions with the agency to open up part of the reservoir during construction so people can get a peek at what's happening. He hopes that by watching the changes, people will get excited — and creative — about the future of the already popular area.

Every evening people drive in from nearby neighborhoods to use the 2.2-mile jogging path around the reservoir. On weekends, people from all over L.A. swarm to the meadow, the grassy area east of the water. Last year, when a national magazine called Silver Lake the country's second-best big-city neighborhood, it listed the reservoir as one of the area's main perks.

The infatuation isn't new. In 1907, shortly before Silver Lake got its first fill-up, The Times, in a story headlined "STUPENDOUS," predicted it would become the city's finest body of water and "a favorite resort for pleasure seekers."

Since then, the area has undergone a steady stream of changes. In the 1950s, Silver Lake's earthen banks got a concrete cover, and an eastern sliver that jutted up against Silver Lake Boulevard was filled in because it didn't get enough circulation and often stagnated. A couple of decades later, it was shut down again for a multimillion-dollar makeover after an inspection in the wake of the 1971 Sylmar earthquake found it didn't meet safety standards.

Then, in 2008, both reservoirs were drained because of bromate contamination and hundreds of thousands of black balls were poured into Ivanhoe to prevent the carcinogen from forming again. So when news of the upcoming drain-and-refill surfaced, neighbors let out a collective grumble. But then ideas started to percolate, and now they're starting to spread.

PHOTOS: Silver Lake Reservoir

When Geanuracos showed up at the meadow on a recent Saturday — only a few weeks after she announced her project at her birthday party — she wore a white T-shirt that read "Silver Lake Plunge." A couple of her friends came too, and they set up easels and two poster boards. One showed the conservancy's design and the other her "Swim Silver Lake" concept.

Passersby riding bikes and pushing strollers paused to check out the designs. About 75 people stopped by, and nearly all of them said they liked the idea of making the area more recreational. One man called the swimming plan "rad," and another told Geanuracos she was doing the Lord's work. When Herman-Wurmfeld dropped by to say hello, he knelt in front of the poster boards and put his palms on the dirt, praying for transformation in the area.

Geanuracos laughed. Then she shrugged and joined him.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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