After seven years of study, federal officials have recommended a $453-million plan that would restore an 11-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River but leave much of its banks steep and hard to reach, disappointing advocates who hoped for a more ambitious alternative that would allow more public access.
The tentative plan selected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, known as Alternative 13, is the second-cheapest of four options detailed in a much-anticipated feasibility study released Friday.
The project would restore 588 acres of habitat along several key points of the river from Griffith Park to downtown. It would remove concrete from the river bottom at its confluence with the Arroyo Seco, a major tributary; restore a historic wash at Piggyback Yard near Union Station; and widen the river by 300 feet to form a freshwater marsh in an area known as Taylor Yard, near Glassell Park.
The alternatives outlined in the report would cost between $375 million and $1.08 billion and restore the river's natural ecosystems without weakening its ability to control floods. The 51-mile waterway has been maligned since the federal government lined much of it with concrete to serve as a flood-control channel starting in the 1930s.
The federal agency used computer models to narrow a list of 152 plans to 21 alternatives.
Alternative 13 stood out because "it had the most restoration for the least cost," said Josephine Axt, chief of planning for the Army Corps' Los Angeles District.
Advocacy groups say the plan falls short and will push the Army Corps to choose a broader, more costly alternative when it makes its final recommendation in the spring.
"We don't want to make all these investments in the river and still have incredible barriers to accessing it," said Omar Brownson, executive director of the L.A. River Revitalization Corp., a nonprofit created by the city of Los Angeles.
Alternative 10, which the Army Corps identified as the bare minimum, would restore 528 acres of habitat along the 11-mile stretch of river, including streams and side channels, at a cost of $375 million.
Alternative 16, at a cost of $757 million, would restore 659 acres, add terracing with planted vegetation, include substantial river widening and concrete removal, and redevelop Piggyback Yard, a site owned by Union Pacific Railroad.
Advocacy groups and politicians have endorsed the more comprehensive Alternative 20, which at $1.08 billion would restore 719 acres and widen the river to provide terracing along its eastern banks. That plan would also connect the river to Los Angeles State Historic Park near Chinatown and restore its confluence with the Verdugo Wash, where L.A. borders Glendale.
The Los Angeles City Council last month adopted a resolution endorsing that alternative as the one "that results in the most expansive ecosystem restoration."
"We're looking for a greater revitalization that really takes into account how people use the river," said state Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes much of the project area.
Brownson said the lack of extensive terracing in the plan selected by the Army Corps is a major flaw.
"When we look back a generation from now, that's going to be one of the ways we reimagine the river and recognize that this isn't just a flood-control channel, it's a vital part of our city," he said. "Now, people are carrying kayaks down these sheer slopes."
Under Alternative 13 endorsed by the Army Corps, the federal government would foot just over 30% of the bill, with the city of Los Angeles funding the rest, including the acquisition of valuable land. Some of the other alternatives would require the federal government to provide a greater share of the money.
Advocacy groups have scheduled a rally at Los Angeles State Historic Park later this month to support the more sweeping alternative, which they say would provide more opportunities for public access.
The plan preferred by the Army Corps, said Alejandro Ortiz, chairman of the board of the nonprofit Friends of the Los Angeles River, "does not address the desperate need for open space in the city as it continues to grow."
The Army Corps said it first evaluates ecological benefits because restoring natural systems is its primary mission. The cost estimates do not include additional spending for recreation, which is evaluated later and could add $6 million to the cost of the agency's preferred plan.
The Los Angeles River was naturally an ephemeral, braided stream that would remain dry for months, only to rush with water during storms.
Catastrophic floods in the late 19th and early 20th century led the federal government to encase much of the waterway in concrete and straighten its course from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, a project that was completed in the late 1950s. Decades later, there were calls to restore the river as much-needed habitat and open space.
Los Angeles County completed a master restoration plan in 1996, calling for bikeways and parks. In 2007 Los Angeles produced its own blueprint for revitalizing the river ecosystem and providing green space in the heart of the city.
In 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the L.A. River a "navigable" waterway under the federal Clean Water Act; it is now legal to kayak down a stretch of it.
After a 45-day public comment period, the Army Corps will make its final recommendation. The project then has to be authorized and funded by Congress, another lengthy process that puts construction years into the future.
"I don't think we'd be out there turning dirt for at least five years," Axt said.