L.A. River revitalization ideas once included a freeway

Assemblyman Richard Katz wanted to turn the L.A. River into a freeway to ease traffic between the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach.
(David Bohrer / For The Times)

With architect Frank Gehry now involved in remaking the Los Angeles River, it’s hard to imagine that there once was a push to place a freeway along the waterway’s path. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the battle over the freeway idea gave voice to a movement to restore the concrete-lined river to its natural glory — a process that is now underway in some pockets.

What did roadway advocates have in mind?

The Times outlined the plan in 1988: The freeway would consist of two segments: a stretch running from the west San Fernando Valley to downtown Los Angeles reserved for buses, vans and car-poolers; and a stretch extending south from downtown to Long Beach for trucks. The freeway would not take up the entire river, and parts still could be used for flood control.


A preliminary report concluded that much of the river could support the traffic lanes, and the proposal would relieve traffic congestion on several area freeways. It did not, however, address environmental concerns.

The cost to build: an estimated $30 million per mile.

What about when it rains?

Backers said the freeway would be closed during heavy rains, but didn’t expect that to happen too often. The report estimated the roadway could operate 90% of the time.

Who pushed the idea?

It was Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar). During the heat of the battle, Katz actually tried to drive the river in his Chevy Blazer. Times feature writer Bella Stumbo was there for a profile of the man and his dream:

Katz has been brooding over the wasted potential of the L.A. River for years. Every time he drove by it he was struck with admiration. What gorgeous concrete it had, how wonderfully strategic its winding course. This river, he figured, could ease commuter misery on the Ventura and Long Beach freeways by as much as 25%.


But it was not until last year that Katz, as chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, finally worked up the nerve to go public with his thinking. He knew they would laugh and complain. And they did.

Since then, Katz has been called everything from a flake to a madman, a hater of frogs, red-winged blackbirds and marsh weeds, whose harebrained scheme might even get you washed to sea in your car seat someday.

A group called Friends of the L.A. River has vowed, in the rousing words of leader Lewis MacAdams, “He’ll build it over our dead bodies! The L.A. River is not a freeway!”

So what happened?

The idea was never taken very seriously in some circles. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley opposed it, saying he wanted the long-neglected river restored as parkland and open space, with hiking trails and bikeways. That process is slowly beginning.

Source: Times reports