Since the days of the Spanish missionaries more than 200 years ago, this steep gorge of boulders and jagged oak trees has been called the Arroyo Seco, or the dry river.
Poets have extolled its parched beauty; bandits once loved its secluded stands of willows and oak trees for their hideouts.
But in modern times, a better name would be the zanja pavimentado, or the paved ditch.
Since the 1930s, the Arroyo Seco has been straightened and channeled into a concrete canal that looks like a long, empty freeway dropping down from the San Gabriel Mountains.
A rusting 6-foot chain-link fence guards its banks, beer bottles litter the area and the closest thing to aquatic life is the green algae that grows around drainage holes.
“The channel is no beauty by any stretch of the imagination,” said Don Nichols, chief of the county Department of Public Works’ hydraulic/water conservation division.
But now after six months of work, a group of graduate students from Cal Poly Pomona has unveiled an ambitious plan to restore a part of the lower Arroyo Seco to its original state and transform the area around the river into a lush urban park.
The heart of the plan, which was commissioned by the city Board of Directors, calls for demolishing a 3/4-mile stretch of the channel from the Colorado Street Bridge to just north of the La Loma Road Bridge.
In its place, a meandering river would be carved through the gorge, allowing water to seep into the soil and bring back the once-abundant plant and animal life.
Removing the channel and building a network of trails and natural sanctuaries would cost at least $4.4 million. The cost and the very thought of removing part of a flood-control system that has been in place for 50 years has raised concerns from the county Department of Public Works, which would have to approve the channel’s removal.
But members of the design group say the expense is small compared to the benefits of restoring a once-wild stream.
“People think that once something is built, it can’t be undone,” said Allyson Aultfather, a member of the design team. “But it certainly is possible. People are thinking, rather than just use the area for flood control, what else can we get from it, not just for people, but for plants and animals too.”
The Arroyo Seco stretches from the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, down along the Pasadena Freeway to the Los Angeles River just east of Dodger Stadium.
Home for Grizzly Bears
At one time, the river cut a winding course through foothills serving as a home for grizzly bears, bandits and, around the turn of the century, an artist colony that became known for its romantic portraits of the arroyo.
But in the early part of the century, the budding city of Pasadena began to build around the area. The Colorado Street Bridge was built in 1913, followed by Devils Gate Dam in 1920, the Rose Bowl in 1922 and the Municipal Golf Course in 1928.
In the late 1930s, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District began channeling the river between concrete banks to protect the lowlands from flooding, forever changing the Arroyo Seco from a natural stream to an urban drainage canal.
Instead of grizzly bears and willow trees, the Arroyo Seco is now perhaps better known for the elaborate graffiti that cover parts of the channel.
But in the last five years, the city began to look at restoring the natural beauty of the arroyo.
Ideas have included cutting a small stream next to the concrete river and covering the channel with a cap.
But until this year, no one has taken a detailed look at removing part of the channel.
606 Studio Group
The idea came from a group of third-year graduate students in landscape architecture called the 606 Studio Group.
Each year, the group works on three or four projects. Last year’s projects included landscape-design guidelines commissioned by the city of Coachella and design of hillside subdivisions for Los Angeles.
Aultfather, along with students Patricia Trap and Kevin Trevor Talma, were given $25,000 by the city to design a recreational area in the lower Arroyo Seco.
The group played with various ideas, but settled on removing part of the channel as the key to its plan after a public hearing in May.
“It didn’t come right away, but after seeing so many problems with the other ideas, it seemed like the simplest thing to do,” Aultfather said.
The plan would reroute the river so that it would cut back and forth across the gorge. Without the channel, water would be free to soak into the ground and feed the plants and animals that are normally found around a river.
The new river would be located in a steep section of the Arroyo Seco where no homes would be in danger of flooding. Small dams would be built along the stream to create a series of ponds for river plants and animals.
The river would end at a small dam just north of the La Loma Road Bridge and be funneled back into the concrete channel.
Entrances to the park would be located near the Colorado Street Bridge, an existing archery range about half a mile below the bridge and the horse stables near the South Pasadena border. The park would cover a 1 3/4-mile stretch of the arroyo.
At the central entrance, the plan proposes building a nature center with information on geology, vegetation, stream ecology and the history of the Arroyo Seco.
A network of trails would be built throughout the park for joggers, hikers and horse riders.
The entire area would be replanted with native poppies, black sage, white alder and needlegrass.
“A lot of the arroyo would restore itself,” Trap said. “Given time, nature will take its own course.”
Removing the channel is the key to the plan’s success, but also its biggest problem.
Nichols, of the Department of Public Works, said removing part of the channel could erode the walls of the arroyo, endangering homeowners above the rim of the gorge. It could also impede the flow of water in a major storm.
While the concrete channel is an eyesore, it does work, he said.
“I can’t get used to the idea of tearing out a system that has worked so well for so many years,” he said. “Somehow that sticks in my craw.”
Vice Mayor Jess Hughston said no matter how good the proposal, support from Public Works is essential. “I wholeheartedly support the plan. It can be one of the finest areas in the city and we need to do everything we can to approve it. But if flood control is going to fight it, it is going to be tough to accomplish.”
The Board of Directors will conduct a hearing on the plan next month.
Members of the design group concede that they did only a basic water-flow analysis of the area, but others have reached a similar conclusion that part of the channel can be removed.
According to a 1980 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report: “The walls of the gorge are high along both sides of the lower Arroyo Park, and it does not appear that removal of the channel would create a flood hazard.”
Nichols said that even if engineers could solve the flood-control problems, there was still the problem of cost.
“There are ways to do what they want to do, but my God, who is going to foot the bill? We’ve got the bucks, but I’ve got to stand in front of the taxpayers and justify these things,” he said. “They should fire me if I approved this plan.”
There are state, federal and local funds for building parks and preserving natural lands. However, without approval from the Department of Public Works, the chances of completing the project are slim.
Despite the problems, Trap said she remains optimistic that something will be done with the group’s master plan for the lower Arroyo Seco.
She said even if it is never used, the plan has at least shown the potential of the arroyo and may help mold ideas of future generations grappling with its restoration.
“We’ve at least opened the eyes of the city and shown that people do remember what that place used to be, where they swam, where they fished, where they hiked,” she said. “At least we’ve shown that they can capture again that spirit of wildness, which Pasadena hopefully still has.”