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CBS Project Shows L.A. River Needs an Overseer : Proposal to pave over Tujunga Wash delta is a glaring example of the fragmented and directionless authority along the river system.

<i> Lewis MacAdams is a member of the board of Friends of the Los Angeles River. This is the second of two articles</i>

The state Coastal Conservancy has just released the “Los Angeles River Park and Recreation Area Study,” the first-ever assessment of the potential for public access, recreation and wildlife enhancement along L.A.'s best-kept secret--the river in our own back yard.

The document profiles the park and recreation needs of all 12 riverfront cities, from Glendale to Long Beach, inventories parklands near the river and sets priorities for parkland acquisition. It concludes that the Los Angeles River has the potential to become one of our park-poor area’s greatest recreational resources, a 50-mile greenway from the San Gabriel Mountains to the sea.

Unfortunately, as I noted here previously, the study’s weakness is its political dimension. To achieve its goal of a basin-wide integration of flood control, ground-water recharge, habitat and open space uses, the conservancy can only recommend a vague “mechanism for coordination” among the riverfront cities and the myriad of city, county, state and federal agencies that currently exercise fragmented and often directionless authority along the river system.

Nowhere is this problem more glaring than in Studio City, where CBS Studio Center proposes to build seven sound stages and a six-story parking garage and intends to pave over the delta of the Los Angeles River and the Tujunga Wash for parking lots. As proposed, the 245,000-square-foot project, which fronts on the Los Angeles River and its major tributary, the Tujunga Wash, for nearly half a mile, is a missed opportunity to revitalize the river. It could also have a major negative impact on flood control.

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CBS has worked closely with its Studio Center neighbors and City Councilman Joel Wachs’ office to mitigate the neighborhood impacts. It has agreed to screen off the entire project with a 6-foot-high, 10-foot-wide berm planted with trees and shrubbery the length of its property along the Tujunga Wash. To keep trucks off neighborhood streets, it has promised to route deliveries to the sound stages through the existing studio lot. CBS is even working out a deal with the county Department of Public Works to build a high enough bridge across the river to ensure room for an extension of the Los Angeles River Bikeway.

But more needs to be done.

Planting native, drought-resistant trees and shrubbery for the Tujunga Wash vegetation screen is a relatively simple refinement that costs little, as two recent riverfront plantings--one by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the Taylor Railroad Yard, another by Northeast Trees at the confluence of the Los Angeles and the Arroyo Seco--have shown. Our organization, Friends of the Los Angeles River, can provide lists of plants. Fresh thinking could even turn CBS’ proposed parking structure into an attractive riverfront lunch place for its employees. Friends of Los Angeles River hopes to work with CBS and neighbors to accomplish this.

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We are even more concerned about the effects the Studio Center expansion will have on flood control. The neighbors around the river’s Tujunga Wash confluence already face inundation from a 100-year flood, as defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Yet the hydraulic effects of building a 6-foot-high berm almost half a mile long on one side of the wash are dismissed as a “detail” by William Lillenberg, the city Planning Department’s zoning administrator.

Because the delta of the Los Angeles River and the Tujunga Wash is already so flood-prone, much of the land within CBS’ proposed expansion has remained unpaved, which allows some potential floodwaters to be absorbed into the earth. Unfortunately, the city Building and Safety Department won’t yet allow permeable pavements to be used in parking lots, so increased runoff from the proposed expansion will drain into the river. What effect will that and other similar projects have on the river’s flood-control capacity? Nobody is even trying to guess.

A county public works representative says the flood-control issue is a “city matter,” a strange attitude at a time when the department is scrambling to come up with L.A. County’s half of a more than $300-million flood-control project on the lower Los Angeles River system scheduled to begin next March. The Los Angeles County Drainage Area project to build new berms and concrete walls as much as eight feet higher for 21 miles from Pico Rivera to Long Beach is designed to mitigate the flood effects of exactly the kinds of developments the CBS Studio Center expansion represents.

This lack of coordination among CBS, the city, the county and the Corps of Engineers is exactly the kind of problem a countywide Los Angeles River Conservancy could solve. But until that day comes, the agencies involved must “ad hoc” a way to work together. The CBS Studio Center expansion has implications for the entire Los Angeles River corridor. It is too important a project at too important a location for it to be so oblivious to the issue of flood control.

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