On an 11-0 vote, the council moved ahead with the purchase of the 41-acre site, formally known as G2, from railroad company Union Pacific.
Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who heads the committee overseeing the river restoration effort, said the property is by far the largest along the concrete waterway to have a willing seller. That makes the purchase a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" for City Hall, he said.
"It's unheard of to have a parcel of this size that we can acquire next to the river for habitat restoration, for public use, for revitalization efforts — you name it," O'Farrell said. "In order to do anything along the river, we must control the property."
Because the site is heavily contaminated, the city's strategy for buying the land, cleaning the soil, restoring habitat and adding public improvements is expected to reach $252 million. The work would transform the mostly empty site into a place for residents to hike, bicycle and view wildlife.
The project is expected to take several years and is still short tens of millions of dollars. Nevertheless, Garcetti said at least a segment of the site could become "an initial park" within three years.
That would represent a big change for the G2 site, which has long been a barrier between the river's edge and the nearby neighborhoods of Cypress Park and Glassell Park. The G2 parcel, said Garcetti, will open up more than a mile of direct riverfront access.
"For decades, we've looked at this piece of land, which has split the community away from the river," Garcetti said in an interview. "We finally have the ability to bring people down to the banks of the river, through nature and parks, in a working-class part of Los Angeles."
City officials have been working for years on a strategy to restore a stretch of the river between Griffith Park and downtown. That initiative would include efforts to widen the river in some locations and free sections of the channel from what Garcetti called its "concrete straitjacket."
A recent analysis warned that unless additional funds are identified, the city could shoulder as much as 76% of the financial burden for the restoration and recreation initiative.
State Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) identified $25 million in funds for the G2 site two years ago. City officials also expect the federal government to provide at least $25.4 million for the property.
Still, prospects for securing federal funds are unclear, in part because of the election of President Trump, who has threatened to withhold federal funds from cities with lenient policies toward illegal immigration.
G2 was once part of the 247-acre Taylor Yard railroad complex, which hosted train maintenance and fueling operations. Sections of the yard have been sold off over several decades.
Friday's vote was welcomed by several environmental organizations, including the Friends of the Los Angeles River. Lewis MacAdams, that group's co-founder and former president, said he has been pushing for the purchase for more than 30 years.
Escrow on the G2 site is expected to close by March 1.