Players in Search of a Game: The River Through Downtown Conference, by Jack Burnett-Stuart – Late Spring 1998
           
           
   
 
 
 
 
       
         
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The River Through Downtown Conference, which took place on Saturday, February 28 in the Central Library, was organized by the Friends of the Los Angeles River to discuss visionary proposals for the revitalization of the Los Angeles River at four sites: Taylor Yard, the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and the River, the Chinatown Yards and the Downtown/Pico Aliso section of the river. These proposals were the results of a series of community meetings and a design workshop for invited architects, landscape architects and planners. FoLAR believes that there is a pressing need for a master plan for the river in Downtown in view of the once in a hundred years opportunity presented by immanent redevelopment of the railway yards there.

It is clear that the redevelopment of the railway yards is an important opportunity for the city and ought to be carefully planned. It is unfortunately equally clear that the opportunity is likely to be squandered by established commercial and political interests. Taylor is at this moment being sold off piecemeal by Union Pacific with the backing of the Major’s office. Federal Express already has a big box covering ten acres of the site. It is therefore much to its credit that FoLAR is attempting to make this an issue of public concern.

But what role can FoLAR play in these decisions? There was a lot of talk about players at the conference and many people who wanted to play (not least the architects), but is there actually a game to be played? If the politics urban planning in Los Angeles qualifies as a game, which can be doubted, does FoLAR want or need to be part of  it?

In the ten years since it was founded, FoLAR has managed to put the river on the map. The key to this success is the clarity of its mission. The revitalization of the river means both the restoration of the river as a natural, living watercourse and the bringing of people to the river. The two are of course inseparable: people will only go to the river if it is more than a concrete channel, but it will only be changed if people care enough about the river to demand changes. This is why the unpaved Elysian Valley stretch of the river is so important. At this narrowing of the San Fernando Valley, pressure from the water table did not allow the river bottom to be lined with concrete. As a consequence this seven mile stretch, in complete contrast to the other forty-five miles of the river, has retained something of the quality of a natural watercourse: reeds, willows and cottonwoods growing in the bottom offer a year round habitat for numerous bird species. The banks are now being transformed by trees planted by North East Trees and access from the adjacent streets is good. Things are changing here; more people do go to this part the river. It is possible at this one place to envision how the whole river could one day come back to life.

But to go there now is also to be confronted by the problem: compared to the thick vegetation of last summer, the river bottom is now almost bare. Most of the trees in the river were cut down to stumps by the County in order to clear the channel for El Nino. Whether or not this apparent act of vandalism was necessary, it is clear that a strategy for the restoration of the river goes hand in hand with new strategy for flood control. It is increasingly clear that the present strategy cannot succeed even on its own terms. In order to allow the natural flood plain of the river to be developed, the river was engineered into a channel which would collect storm water run-off and move it to the ocean as quickly as possible. But as more and more of the watershed has been paved, the run-off has accordingly grown in volume. However much more concrete is poured to reinforce the channel, the system is now inherently unstable, likely to fail with disastrous consequences in the event of a hundred year flood.

The only way to deal with this danger is to reduce the run-off flowing down the river. This can be done in two ways: by replicating, in the form of new artificial flood basins, the original sponge function of the flood plain and by unpaving a significant proportion of the watershed to allow more rain water to percolate into the ground rather than flow straight into the river. As the run-off is reduced, the river channel is put under less pressure and the scope for renaturalizing it increases. FoLAR’s focused aim, the revitalization of the river, thus contains the seed of a radically new landscape strategy for the entire Los Angeles River watershed. This ties in with the innovative work of groups such as Tree People, who have been experimenting with ways of retaining rainwater on individual lots.

The problem with the conference was that it lacked this clear focus. Without this very specific understanding of the purpose of revitalizing the river, each party was free to adapt the exercise to suit their own interests. This was most obvious in the proposal for the Chinatown Yards, in which it was proposed to divert part of the flow of the river to form a water feature (how this flow would be sufficient in summer was not explained) that would become the center piece of a new mixed development. This was a clear case of architects playing  their favorite game of let’s plan a city, but here using one of the crudest principles of contemporary developments, the requirement to theme – even to the point of faking history with reference to the historical Zanja irrigation system. In proposing a new artificial channel rather than facing the problems of the real one, this plan should surely be anathema to FoLAR.

The only proposal that remained focused on the problem at hand was the one for the Taylor Yard. This was essentially a refinement of a flood basin and park plan put forward by FoLAR several years ago for the whole yard. The integration in this new version of commercial development along San Fernando Road and new bridges across the river are realistic changes that strengthen the plan considerably at little cost to the original strategy. Parking lots would be set at an intermediate level between the basin and the commercial space so that they too could be flooded if necessary – a good example of how watershed thinking can be integrated into the use of land in the city.

The problem is that the players in this particular game – Union Pacific, the Mayor’s office and potential developers – were not at the conference. FoLAR is now demanding a two year moratorium on the development at Taylor Yard to give time for alternatives to be proposed. There is now real potential for state funding of a flood basin and park. Senators Tom Hayden and Richard Polanco are behind the proposal. The real pressure, however, must come from the people of Los Angeles. FoLAR must do everything possible to make it an issue of public debate. Most importantly, as many people as possible should be persuaded to go down to the river in Elysian Valley. The reality there is more persuasive than any vision.

Jack Burnett-Stuart

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