These trains should run under water

Poet Lewis MacAdams is the author of "Birth of the Cool: Beat, Be-Bop and the American Avant-Garde." He is chairman of the board of Friends of the Los Angeles River.

Don’t expect to be fishing off the 1st Street bridge in downtown Los Angeles any time soon. But don’t throw away your fly rod either, because last month the city finally moved closer to revitalizing its real and symbolic core: its river. Almost two years ago, the city engineer’s office presented a conceptual study on how a seasonal waterway in the channel through downtown, created by computer-operated inflatable dams, could create “El Pueblo Lake.” Now Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council’s River Committee have announced that a team headed by a Pasadena engineering firm will draw up plans for making 32 miles of the Los Angeles River a more beautiful and interesting part of the city. Tetra Tech and its partners have 18 months also to come up with at least five major park projects between Tujunga Wash and Vernon’s city limits.

The projects will be financed by public money, including Proposition O, the $500-million storm water cleanup measure that passed last November.

Before Angelenos and tourists spread picnic blankets across verdant riverside terraces, swim or fly-fish for trout in natural-looking pools, or gallop on a horse along tree-lined trails, engineers will have to satisfy city officials’ challenges to restore wetlands, hold back floodwaters and improve water quality. But the most formidable barrier is the railroad tracks that line the entire 4 1/2 miles of the river between the Arroyo Seco and the city limits, isolating the central city from its river.


On the east bank, just across the river from the Metropolitan Transit Authority building and near the revitalized Pico-Aliso public housing, are the little-used tracks of the Union Pacific railroad. These service the last active rail yard in the city, the “piggy-back” facility known as the Los Angeles Transportation Center, which covers nearly two miles of riverfront.

On the west bank are the tracks -- largely owned by the public -- used by Amtrak and Metrolink as well as the wide swath of rails between the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the river channel. It is here where the MTA maintains its Red Line yard and shops. Beyond the tracks on both banks are hundreds of old warehouses, a mountain of rubble and a wasteland of used auto parts yards and windshield replacement facilities -- most within the jurisdiction of a pair of Community Redevelopment Agency zones.

Ending the river’s industrial-era isolation and extending the L.A. River greenway through the heart of the city will require a generational effort led by what one downtown activist calls the “radical pragmatists.” Planners will have to consolidate the tracks on the much more active west side of the river, then run them underground into Union Station. And the CRA needs to begin buying up the land beside the tracks while it’s still relatively cheap.

Once the tracks are buried, the city can create riverfront parks on both the east and west banks, and the redevelopment agency can sell the land alongside for a wide mix of urban housing. As improvements push up land values, “the project will ultimately pay for itself,” says one urban developer.

It is not as if L.A. is the first city to grapple with the need to bury railroad lines to build a better city. New York built Park Avenue on top of the New York Central tracks, leading to the development of what is now midtown Manhattan. A private-public partnership constructed Millennium Park, Chicago’s 25-acre fountain-and-garden-dotted lakefront urban oasis, on top of the Illinois Central railroad tracks. The park, with its Frank Gehry-designed pavilion, is already fueling urban redevelopment, including a forest of high-rises dubbed Lakeshore East.

In Denver, the landscape architectural firm Civitas, one of Tetra Tech’s partners, led a plan to eliminate miles of freight train tracks and abandoned railroad sidings to create South Platte Riverfront trails and parks.

Putting transportation underground is a major step in the maturation of a major city. In L.A., we have the opportunity to use it as a redevelopment springboard.

Daniel Burnham, the visionary 19th century Chicago architect who laid out the city after its great fire, is famous for saying: “Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Money is now flowing toward the Los Angeles River for the first time since 17,000 people paved it by hand. Putting the rail lines underground is a minor task in comparison -- but a big step toward a bold goal.