Fred Eaton certainly knew his business when he went poking around the Owens Valley in the early part of the last century, quietly purchasing farms and ranches for the water rights that went with them. Had the self-taught engineer and former Los Angeles mayor made it clear to the landowners that he was planning an aqueduct to a distant city, they might have refused to sell — or at least would have jacked up their prices to reflect the value to L.A. of their water.
By contrast, as the city’s attention now returns to local water supplies and natural resources — and to the restoration of the L.A. River — landowners are not making the same mistake. Those with property on the riverbanks are setting prices that reflect the city’s desire to acquire industrial land and turn it into parkland. The chance to quietly snatch riverfront land at bargain prices has passed.
Among the costliest parcels is Union Pacific’s so-called Piggyback Yard, more than 100 acres in Lincoln Heights that would include the largest portion of restored ecosystem and link it with adjacent neighborhoods and the Los Angeles State Historic Park.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year agreed to include this property in the larger-scale plan known as Alternative 20. But it is now estimated that the restoration will cost about $1.3 billion, and the Army Corps wants assurance that the city is good for most of it.
L.A. does not have an extra $1.3 billion in cash sitting in a bank account, and if it did, there would be many competing demands for it. River revitalization would not necessarily be at the top of everyone’s list.
But there are two things to keep in mind. First, the city’s share would be spent over several decades and would be raised using a variety of tools, including a possible special financing district that directs a portion of river-adjacent property taxes to pay off land acquisition bonds. L.A. is also in the running for a portion of last year’s Proposition 1 bonds.
And second, the city is not expected to pay the full $1.3 billion. The Army Corps signed on to the project in the first place because it so perfectly fits the Obama administration’s direction to all federal agencies to prioritize ecosystem restoration in urban areas and connect urban youths with the outdoors. The federal government should put more of its money where its marching orders are and pick up half the tab for the L.A. Los Angeles River project.