Newton: City Councilman Ed Reyes is a man on a mission

I’ve occasionally given City Councilman Ed Reyes a hard time. A few weeks ago, when he introduced a motion to let his colleagues violate the city’s Arizona boycott policy, established in response to that state’s repugnant immigration law, it seemed emblematic of a council that sticks to principles only when it feels like it. But hand it to Reyes: On the matters closest to his district, he’s a hard worker and an earnest representative.

Los Angeles: In a Nov. 14 Op-Ed column about Councilman Ed Reyes and his work reviving the Los Angeles River, Jim Newton wrote that the project had profound implications for the nation’s largest city. Los Angeles is not the largest city in the U.S.; New York exceeds Los Angeles in population.

That’s most obvious in his dogged campaign to reconstruct the Los Angeles River. Even before he was elected to the council, Reyes pushed for a new river, and he’s been battling his way through the bevy of local, state and federal agencies that have a piece of the project.


Reyes can be a bit of a wonk — he talks of “swales” and “impact zones” and “intercept areas” with an ease that assumes others have some idea what he’s talking about — but he also has imagination. Where others long ago got used to seeing the Los Angeles River as a cement ditch, he sees wetlands of willows and waterfowl and children skipping stones by bubbling water.

“We’re trying to change not just the way it looks but the way the water flows,” Reyes said as he recently piloted me around the neighborhoods across the river from Chinatown. The potential rewards are manifold. The revitalization master plan that Reyes helped create notes that returning the river to a more natural state would help reduce greenhouse gases, cool the city, strengthen community ties and even reduce crime. Reyes also cites the potential for improved housing stock and for job creation, as new communities replace dilapidated warehouses or abandoned rail yards and manufacturing plants.

Take Albion Riverside Park. A grubby, six-acre scrap of land where the Swiss Dairy once stood, Albion now is an encouraging hub of activity. Bulldozers have scraped the site clean of its former buildings and are tearing out the remaining concrete from former foundations. The city paid for that part of the work using money from a water bond passed in 2004, and Reyes is exploring ways to complete the site’s transformation — a state water bond already is slated to supply some funds, and businesses or utilities that need carbon credits might be tapped as well.

Ultimately, Albion offers the promise of a neighborhood park, with a baseball field and basketball courts, a small amphitheater and a skate park, lined with trees and sitting atop storage and filtration systems for river water. Reyes sees the park’s potential to transform the neighborhood and thus to act as a magnet for jobs and housing.


“When you look at the unused space,” he said, gesturing to the abandoned buildings that surround the nascent park, “you see we can now stimulate job-creating possibilities. Now an employee would want to be around here. Now someone would want to live here.”

As we toured his district, Reyes waxed on about the riverfront. Some of it’s cliche — “we’re transforming our backyard into our frontyard,” he said a couple times — but he also demonstrated detailed knowledge of this enormous project with implications from the grand to the minute. Reyes can expound on the ironwork of railings on bridges and also reflect on the need for stability in zoning, can recall the history of a child-care center or market and can cite specific actions required at the highest levels of government.

That last issue is particularly on his mind. One source of frustration is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for flood control and thus protective of the concrete channel that Reyes wants to dig up. That channel, while unsightly and destructive of the natural ecosystem that once replenished the Los Angeles aquifer and gave home to wildlife, also keeps the city from flooding, as it once did with devastating frequency.

The Corps is supposed to be completing a study of the river that analyzes the effects of ripping out large chunks of the concrete, but that work is years behind schedule. Until it’s finished, Reyes’ river project can’t be completed, and he’s now trying to force that work forward. His latest thought: President Obama, as commander in chief, could order the Corps to accelerate the study.

Will the president issue an order to help a Los Angeles city councilman complete a local riverfront project? Reyes thinks he might. This is a plan, after all, with profound implications for the nation’s largest city, not just a determined councilman. “This is not,” Reyes emphasized, “just a pet project.”