Opinion Livable City

What do we do with the Silver Lake reservoirs?

The Silver Lake reservoir is empty. For months now, day after day, construction trucks drive up and down temporary ramps onto the floor of the lake. Neighbors are weary of construction on the surrounding streets, and of looking out at blank concrete walls surrounding a huge, dry pit. Walkers and runners peer through the rusty chain link fences and wonder what’s happening next.

Designed by William Mulholland at the dawn of the 20th century, the Silver Lake and neighboring Ivanhoe reservoirs were built to store water in case our aqueduct system failed. In 2006, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules about water quality, which required that the reservoirs be covered. In response, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power decided to decommission Silver Lake and Ivanhoe and build a new water treatment and storage facility near Griffith Park. This required bypassing the existing reservoirs with new pipes installed in the floor of the lakes.

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Since announcing the closures, the reservoirs and surrounding neighborhoods have been one large construction zone — and yet there’s been no real public conversation about what to do with these voluminous and beautiful spaces once the bypass construction is complete.

How quickly can we refill the basins given the ongoing drought conditions? Where will the water come from? Can we remove the fences and concrete and create a dynamic riparian habitat on the banks?

In total, the reservoirs cover 97 acres, with an additional 31 acres of adjacent open space. In a city that is notoriously park-poor, this represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create badly needed urban public space — and do so in a way meets the demands of 21st century sustainability and community recreation.

But the civic conversation about what to do with the reservoirs simply isn’t happening. It needs to.

As community stakeholders, we’d like to offer up some ideas to get the ball rolling.

(Silver Lake Forward)

To start, the DWP should do away with the security fences surrounding the reservoirs altogether — with plans for seasonal protection of heron nesting areas when needed. That extra open space will mean more people, so the DWP should add new bathrooms or upgrade existing restrooms on the property to allow public access. Moving the security fence means more space to expand the popular meadow area into the hillside, which should be landscaped to provide more views, seating and shade.

Aside from expanding the meadow, it’s worth considering options for active recreation — new promenades, docks, walking trails, a beach and a nature center for L.A.’s children.  

(Silver Lake Forward)

From an environmental perspective, we should take immediate advantage of the empty reservoirs by removing as much of the concrete lining as is structurally feasible. This will allow for future planting projects on the banks and for the creation of more wildlife habitat. Further, let’s study the area’s capacity for recharging our aquifers with captured storm water.

One approach to maintaining a sustainable water supply for the park could be to connect them to the Los Angeles River using existing pipes. This would provide a capture-and-storage outlet for storm and recycled water that is currently wasted out to sea. Furthermore, a dynamic body of water could potentially help clean the river water through bioremediation (using plants and natural processes to filter out contaminants). That water can then be used to create more wildlife habitat on adjacent lands. 

Obviously, all of these grand plans won’t come cheaply. Creating inventive, revenue-generating concessions and funding mechanisms will be key.   

One idea for a sustainable funding source would be to create a "parks assessment district,” which is common in many other cities. Parks assessment districts are geographically-specific areas that agree (via a vote of those within the area) to support ongoing funding for a specific park, usually in the form of a small supplement to property taxes. Because of the income disparities among Silver Lake residents, developing mechanisms to support those who may not be able to pay this small fee will be key.

(Silver Lake Forward)

It’s true that other neighborhoods across Los Angeles have much bigger deficits of open space than Silver Lake. But we must accept the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity provided by the decommissioning of the reservoirs. We can’t move the reservoirs to other parts of L.A., but certainly we can create a plan that encourages responsible access for all.

We’re not civil engineers or city planners. We need the best minds from the city to think broadly about what is technically feasible.

There are likely many other great ideas out there. It’s time that the city, its relevant agencies and the community got started on hearing them all – so we can start making them a reality.    

The authors are founding members of Silver Lake Forward, a neighborhood organization committed to exploring and implementing sustainable ideas to transform the Silver Lake reservoirs. Jocelyn Hayes Simpson and Catherine Geanuracos also contributed to this article.

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