A ‘linear Central Park’: Frank Gehry’s plan for L.A. River takes shape

The Los Angeles River as it runs near the city of Vernon.

The Los Angeles River as it runs near the city of Vernon.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Partners in the firm of renowned architect Frank Gehry publicly unveiled on Friday the first steps they have taken toward what appears to be a comprehensive redesign of the Los Angeles River.

They said the project could include a reengineering of the river to improve water reclamation and an overarching scheme for parkland, real estate development and bicycle and pedestrian paths along the waterway’s 52 miles.

In the architects’ briefing with reporters, the contours of Gehry’s so-far mysterious vision of a redeveloped river began to take shape.


Gehry’s partners said the project is in its infancy: To date their team has only surveyed the river and developed most of a detailed, three-dimensional landscape model of the kind Gehry insists on creating before beginning work on buildings and master plans.

But they also made clear the scope of their eventual ambitions for the largely derelict drainage channel that cuts through the Los Angeles Basin.

At this early stage, architect Anand Devarajan said, Gehry’s eventual goal is to create “a continuous experience along the river.” One of the displays shown to the media said that public space along the river “could be reimagined as a linear Central Park.”

“There has to be something that you identify with,” said Tensho Takemori, who conducted the briefing with Devarajan. “What that is -- whether it’s graphics, whether it’s a type of structure, whatever -- there probably is some element that gives you some cohesion.”

Gehry, who is recovering from back surgery, did not attend the briefing.

“The opportunity to work on a complicated piece of infrastructure like the L.A. River is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said in a statement. “Los Angeles is my home and I’ve never seen a greater need than now to explore how our existing infrastructure may be used in more ways than intended.”

What those ways might look like is still unclear. Some of the preliminary maps displayed Friday showed proposed zones of development and parkland at regular junctures of the river as it winds from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean. Some of the potential development zones include the area east of the river’s origin in Canoga Park, in the Elysian Valley and downtown areas of L.A. and in Long Beach.


Takemori emphasized that the maps were still in the abstract phase and said Gehry has not yet sketched out precise locations for projects or created renderings of what the “reimagined” river and its surroundings might look like.

“It’s meant to be a concept,” Takemori said. “I know it’s really hard at this point -- people are struggling because they think of our office as producing images” of projects.

Gehry’s team of architects and engineers has been working for free on the river redesign’s first phase for much of the past year. For much of that time, the renowned architect’s involvement in river plans was a secret. The Times disclosed his role earlier this month.

Omar Brownson of the L.A. River Revitalization Corp. -- the city-affiliated nonprofit group that commissioned Gehry’s firm -- said the next step in the project is figuring out how to resolve the “Gordian knot” of allowing greater public access in and around the L.A. River without jeopardizing Angelenos at times of heavy rain.

The river runs at a trickle for most of the year, especially during California’s present severe drought, but it is periodically engorged with fast-moving storm water. The waterway’s current course was encased in concrete in the mid-20th century to move water quickly to the sea, preventing flooding of the city’s homes, businesses and streets.

Brownson said the L.A. River Revitalization Corp. is trying to arrange public and private funding to pay for the next phase of the study, which he said would take three to six months and cost roughly “a couple million” dollars. He declined to name any potential private donors the group is pursuing.


For more on the L.A. River project, follow @petejamison

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