Eco-friendly projects designed to improve water quality and increase access to parks while addressing social issues in surrounding communities are among the goals of an updated master plan to revitalize the Los Angeles River.
The revised draft of the river master plan — the first update in 25 years and the only plan encompassing all 51 miles of the L.A. River — doesn’t propose specific projects, but uses research and data to signify community needs, such as improved water quality, housing, improved ecosystems, access to parks, flood risk management, and needed funding opportunities for river-adjacent projects.
Bruce Reznik, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper — one of the environmental groups that played an advisory role in the development of the plan — said the ecological health of the river in light of climate change must be balanced with the needs of adjacent communities in terms of providing open space as well as protections against displacement and gentrification.
“We want to see a plan that really takes a holistic approach to the entire river,” Reznik said. “This is the one opportunity we have to set a clear vision with clear priorities.”
The L.A. River begins in Canoga Park where Bell Creek and Arroyo Calabasas converge, and runs through the city of Los Angeles and over a dozen other cities, before it flows into the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach.
The original master plan was drafted in 1996 with the goals of flood abatement and beautification. The 2021 update, overseen by L.A. County Public Works, intends to ensure there is improved river access, ecosystem support, cultural and educational opportunities, and affordable housing.
“Communities along the Los Angeles River, especially those near the lower Los Angeles River, are in desperate need of investment,” said county Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda L. Solis. “These park-poor neighborhoods have always had the Los Angeles River in their backyard, but up until now, they have had their backs turned to it. The Los Angeles River master plan will encourage residents to turn around and embrace the river as part of their homes.”
Solis said access to parks “is critical to the health and well-being of every resident,” and the updated plan ensures all households near the river “benefit from our open space investments.”
Among those involved with the planning process is renowned architect Frank Gehry and landscape architect Laurie Olin, who worked to develop a vision for the river that reflects the diversity of the area’s communities, from Canoga Park to Long Beach.
Gehry said the plan builds upon decades of work by those “committed to a holistic view of all 51 miles of the river. The river has long created a dividing line down the county, acting as a barrier to equity and opportunity for those who live along it.”
One of the 2021 plan’s biggest goals, Gehry said, is “to reconnect, revitalize, and strengthen these communities using the river as the conduit.”
A revitalized L.A. River could constitute a “unifying artery running right through the county,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said.
“It would demonstrate our commitment to public health, open space, and sustainability for all our communities, and stand as a new example of the creative re-imagining that has been a hallmark of Los Angeles and its residents for more than 100 years,” she said.
“When we began the L.A. River master plan process several years ago, we promised that this would be a significant and innovative re-imagining … After thorough and thoughtful input from community leaders and county residents, I think we’ve kept our promise.”
Almost two decades after the adoption of the original master plan, Solis and Kuehl spearheaded a joint motion to update the plan and address the region’s evolving societal needs through a long series of lively public meetings and study.
Public Works Director Mark Pestrella said that for too long, “Los Angeles has been plagued by a legacy of disparity and inequity in the design of its public infrastructure. The master plan update represents years of intense community engagement … and will serve as a guide in our future design — respecting all cultures of Los Angeles, past and present.”
Reznik said the updated plan “still seems to be treating the river as a flood channel — which makes me skeptical. I fear it could become a lost opportunity to really reshape the river. It seems to be trying to be everything to everybody.”
The draft plan is available and will be open for public comment until March 14 at LARiverMasterPlan.org.