I love the Olympics. I moved to Los Angeles just before the last Games were held here, in 1984. I adored the city’s empty streets, the preternatural calm, the obscure sports like badminton (the only one I could afford a ticket to at the time). Friends of the Los Angeles River, the organization I would go on to co-found two years later, was barely a mote in a flood control engineer’s eye.
Scroll forward 30 years and FoLAR is alive and well, dedicated to bringing the L.A. River back to life.
For more than a decade, FoLAR and others in a loose-knit coven of engineers, landscape architects, planners and architects calling themselves the Piggyback Yard Collaborative have labored pro bono to create an exquisite and practical vision for the Union Pacific Railroad’s 125-acre riverfront Piggyback Yard, the last active rail yard in Los Angeles. That vision weaves together the fundamental fabric of the central city with the goal of creating a combination of parkland, restored wetlands and expanded flood protection.
The Piggyback team’s work has been crucial to Alternative 20, the $1.35-billion river restoration plan that Los Angeles and the Army Corps of Engineers have been working on for years.
So you can imagine my consternation when I opened the Los Angeles Times one late August morning to discover that the proposed 2024 Olympic Village — the temporary home for 17,000 athletes and the only major construction project proposed in Los Angeles’ revived bid for the Games — would take over the Piggyback Yard on the east bank of the Los Angeles River.
What the Olympic Bid Committee seemed to be suggesting, based on admittedly preliminary architectural renderings, was perfunctory high-rises with little sensitivity to the bends in the river and no evidence of ecological thinking. FoLAR, the Piggyback Yard Collaborative and several other allies in the river community were never asked for our input into these proposed changes.
Overnight, decades of consensus-building on the river’s future seemed to have disappeared; the invisible landscape we had worked so hard to make visible may be about to become invisible again.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Hosting the 2024 Olympics is a chance for Los Angeles to build something that embraces its river. The Olympic bid can and should be part of the vision of a restored Los Angeles River that countless Angelenos have demanded.
Though the Army Corps’ Civil Works Review Board recently recommended moving forward with Alternative 20, there still isn’t a clear vision for how to fund and finalize this once-in-a-generation program.
The Olympics can be part of the solution to that quandary, but the city’s Olympic planners must join forces with the river movement. River restoration should be included in the city’s Piggyback Yard plans, and proceeds from the eventual sale of the Olympic Village could help fund Alternative 20. There are untold other possibilities for collaboration.
But we can only explore these possibilities if the river has a seat at the table. We’re still waiting for the call.
This piece is part of a new series, Livable City, devoted to exploring L.A.'s push toward 21st century sustainability.