Federal officials gave a major boost Wednesday to the city’s plans to turn the Los Angeles River into an urban oasis for recreation and an inviting locale for new commercial and residential development.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it has decided to recommend approval of an ambitious, $1-billion proposal to restore habitat, widen the river, create wetlands and provide access points and bike trails along an 11-mile stretch north of downtown through Elysian Park.
FOR THE RECORD
May 29, 2:29 p.m.: A shareline on an earlier version of this article said the Army Corps plan would revamp all 51 miles of the L.A. River. It affects 11 miles of the river.
The city sees those 11 miles as the starting point for a project that will eventually revitalize all 51 miles of the river, from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach.
The decision, made by Assistant Army Secretary for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy, opens the way for Congress to give its approval and work to begin to transform the unsightly concrete corridor into something resembling the river’s natural state.
The Army Corps initially declined to approve the plan in favor of a less ambitious, $453-million alternative. The city responded with an intense lobbying campaign.
“I was tenacious about this — it’s a big win for the city,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “As I argued in the White House over and over, it’s the right thing for the ecology, it’s the right thing for the economy and for kids growing up being separated from downtown by a concrete flood control channel.”
A few weeks ago, Garcetti said, President Obama told him: “I think we’re on track for the L.A. River.”
Under terms of the proposal, the $1.08-billion cost would be shared equally by the federal government and city and state sources.
The bulk of the federal money would come from the Army Corps, with the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “looking to aggressively bring money to the table as well,” Garcetti said. “The rest of the money will come from local and state sources.”
If all goes according to plan, he said, “we might begin to see some funding allocated for this effort next year, and jackhammers on concrete not long after that.”
City officials estimate that revamping the entire river could create recreational opportunities — kayaking, fishing, bicycling — and attract more than $5 billion in investment over the next 10 to 15 years, generating up to 18,000 jobs. Communities along the river south of Los Angeles to Long Beach have already begun putting in riverside parks and wetlands.
Only a month ago, the corps informed the mayor’s office it intended to recommend a $453-million plan that would restore 588 acres of habitat and widen the river by 300 feet to form marshlands near Glassell Park, but leave much of the river’s banks steep and hard to reach.
Advocacy groups and elected officials led by Garcetti stepped up their campaign for the broader proposal, also known as Alternative 20. It would restore 719 acres, tear out three miles of concrete and widen the river to provide terracing along its eastern banks.
It would also connect the river to Los Angeles State Historic Park near Chinatown and restore its confluence with the Verdugo Wash, near the junction of the 5 and 134 freeways.
On Tuesday, Darcy telephoned Garcetti with the news. “She said, ‘We are supporting Alt. 20 on the merits — you made your case. It’s a once-in-a-generation chance,’ ” Garcetti said. Darcy could not be reached for comment.
The Los Angeles River has changed course many times over the last 150 years. First it was the burgeoning city’s main source of water. In the late 1930s it was transformed into a flood control channel. In 2007, it was named an amenity of the city’s master plan.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the decision is a major step toward bringing “the L.A. River back to life and promises much greater opportunity for economic and recreational development, providing thousands of additional jobs and billions of dollars of increased investment in the local economy.”
L.A. poet Lewis MacAdams, co-founder and president of Friends of the Los Angeles River, praised Garcetti’s work on the river.
“How often do you see a mayor travel to Washington again and again to push for an environment project?” MacAdams said. “He did that, and the result could be Los Angeles becoming a place with parks and river running through it again, at last.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes miles of river channel, said the Army Corps’ recommendation resulted from “hard work that began in 1988, in the conference room of then-Mayor Tom Bradley. The subject was the L.A. River, and faraway dreams of creating a place of green and wildlife and peaceful surroundings.
“Now, the river channel best known as a drainage for urban runoff and a location site for scary science fiction movies has a chance to transform the city for the better,” LaBonge said.
City officials see a 42-acre Union Pacific Railroad property as the starting point. They are in negotiations to buy Taylor Yard north of downtown and transform it into a park and wetlands featuring river tributaries.
However, environmentalists and communities along the river, many of them working-class, have raised concerns that development interests will take over the process. They fear that public access and environmental concerns will be subsumed beneath a desire to give wealthier Angelenos pleasant places to live, work and shop.
Low-income residents of Elysian Park have voiced fears that they will be forced to relocate because they will not be able to afford rising rents and home prices.
The median price of a house in Elysian Valley rose 21% over the last year to $443,400, according to Zillow.com, an online real estate database. Countywide, median house prices rose 16% over the same period.
Garcetti has said the city will strive to balance all interests as the project moves ahead, saying, “everyone wants the good gentrification and not the bad.”