Future direction of L.A. jewel is open for debate

Times Staff Writer

They’ve talked about -- and fought over -- the six-acre patch at the edge of the Silver Lake Reservoir for nearly a decade.

Should the flat, grassy area created in the early 1950s when a stagnant reservoir cove was filled in with dirt be turned into a park? Or should it remain a fenced-in habitat for wildlife?

Residents of the thousand homes around the 93-acre reservoir 2 1/2 miles north of downtown Los Angeles will learn Saturday how officials plan to cautiously open to the public part of the tiny spot that homeowners call “the Meadow.”


City Councilmen Eric Garcetti and Tom LaBonge, who represent the Silver Lake area, and Department of Water and Power General Manager H. David Nahai, whose agency operates the reservoir, will explain how access to the land will be limited and how migratory birds and other wildlife will be protected.

But the debate over the Meadow presages a much larger question officials are grappling with: What should happen to the 100-year-old Silver Lake Reservoir when it is decommissioned by the DWP seven years from now?

New water quality rules prohibiting the storage of potable water in uncovered tanks and reservoirs will force the city to quit storing drinking water there and in the adjoining 10-acre Ivanhoe Reservoir.

City leaders envision keeping water in Silver Lake Reservoir after the decommissioning for aesthetic purposes and for emergency firefighting.

But some Silver Lake residents and others favor turning the whole 103-acre site into public parkland that could become a jewel of Los Angeles.

The 45-foot-deep reservoir could be reduced in depth, allowing the removal of its artificial asphalt walls, some suggest. Its steep, 45-degree sloping sides could be reshaped to form a gentle, natural-looking shoreline. The newly created open space could then be planted with trees, grass and shrubs and accented by meandering walking and biking paths.


“It’s important for the community to have access to green space,” said Ian Jipp, who lives next to the reservoir. “We should look at it as a resource and an opportunity to have it become an accessible small lake.”

And now is the time to start figuring out how to do it, said Jipp, who is a UCLA fundraiser. “We should take full advantage of that expanded space, both for Silver Lake and for other Los Angeles communities.”

The reservoir was an unfenced, natural-sided body of water that resembled a crystal-clear mountain lake when it was built 100 years ago.

It is not named after its shimmering waters, however. The name honors Herman Silver, an advocate of a publicly owned municipal water system who became one of the city’s first water commissioners in 1902.

Construction of the original dam was hailed as an engineering feat at the time.

Measuring 950 feet long and 300 feet wide at its base, the 90-foot-high earthen barrier had a 3-foot-wide concrete core that surrounded steel plates anchored in bedrock 42 feet below ground.

City water pioneer William Mulholland attracted international attention by using hydraulic pumps to scour out the lake bottom in what was then known as Ivanhoe Canyon. Material washed out from the bottom was used to form the dam.

Engineers for the Panama Canal visited the reservoir site and later adapted that construction technique for the digging of the ocean-linking shipping channel.

The reservoir was a thing of pride for the city when it was being filled for the first time with water from the Los Angeles River in early 1908.

The Times predicted that the lake would turn the isolated canyon into a popular place.

“Its gently sloping banks will be a park of themselves without the magic touch of a landscape gardener’s hands,” the newspaper asserted. “With the planting of trees and flowers, however, it will be a beauty spot that may dim the glories of Westlake and Eastlake and some of the other parks.”

City officials agreed. As homes began popping up on hillsides around the reservoir in the early 1920s, planners took the then-unusual step of beautifying the area by requiring that utilities be placed underground.

For decades, the reservoir retained its open feel.

But it was fenced off and closed to the public in the 1940s. In 1950 it was drained so that its sides could be resloped and paved to prevent vegetation from growing next to the water.

For a time in the early 1970s, officials considered abandoning and filling in the reservoir or replacing it with a series of water tanks. But after much debate, Silver Lake survived.

These days the reservoir is once again being drained. This time the emptying is being done to get rid of water contaminated by bromate, a carcinogen formed by the combination of bright sunlight, chlorine and natural bromides found in groundwater. DWP engineers intend to clean the reservoir and refill it before the hot summer months arrive.

Details of how water officials plan to cover Silver Lake’s smaller Ivanhoe Reservoir to protect its water from future bromate contamination will be outlined during Saturday’s meeting, planned from 2 to 4 p.m. at Micheltorena Street Elementary School.

Devices called “bird balls” -- small, weighted orbs that float on the water to shield it from both the sun and from birds -- are slated to be used at the Ivanhoe site for about four years, DWP officials said. They will be removed when a covered replacement reservoir is constructed near Griffith Park’s Travel Town area.

Although the Ivanhoe Reservoir was covered for a time with a wood roof after it was first built, LaBonge acknowledged the new temporary top will not be popular.

“This will be very difficult news for people in the neighborhood to take,” the councilman said. He said permanent changes to both the Ivanhoe and Silver Lake reservoirs will be carefully thought out.

A lowered water level could change sight lines. And there must be plenty of water for use by helicopters fighting brush fires such as last year’s Griffith Park blaze, LaBonge said.

“Whatever you develop, you’ve got to do it right and not overwhelm the neighborhood,” he said.

Fears of extra traffic and parking problems were cited by opponents of opening the reservoir’s “meadow” to the public. A new Silver Lake Boulevard pedestrian crosswalk linking the nearby neighborhood with the new parkland will be installed, Garcetti said.

“Silver Lake Reservoir is one of the great jewels of Los Angeles. It’s something that has unfortunately been kind of an untouchable jewel -- beautiful to look at but untouchable,” Garcetti said.

“We see a future when it’s not just a place to jog around. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is interested in becoming involved. I’m not sure we can get rid of the fence, but I’d like to get people closer to the water. If one day we can rip up the asphalt, I think we will have accomplished our mission.”

Silver Lake residents such as Glen Dake, a landscape architect, agreed.

“Naturalized edges of the lake would turn me on,” Dake said. “That would excite me.”

Neighbor Ruth Ross, a retired university public policy professor who has lived in Silver Lake for 64 years, said she looks forward to the changes.

“We have to open up the reservoir as a park. We need a recreation area.”