Los Angeles wants to reclaim its river, but an ambitious vision for a restored, revitalized waterway authored by the US Army Corps of Engineers puts two groups at odds: supporters of an enhanced riverfront public space and the rail companies whose economically critical lines currently operate adjacent to the river. Despite some initial engagement, these two crucial groups of stakeholders weren’t working together.
“We saw ULI’s traditional role as a convener as something we could leverage to bring these groups together and create the atmosphere and foundation for the kind of cooperation and coordination that will be needed in the future to realize these big, bold visions,” said ULI Los Angeles Director Jonathan Nettler. In early 2015, ULI Los Angeles released a report on the prospects for river revitalization and later convened stakeholders to both discuss its findings and open a dialogue between the rail and river constituencies. Attendees have already agreed to both continue meeting and work together on a small, mutually beneficial project.
History of the LA River
The Los Angeles River runs through the heart of downtown L.A., but you’d hardly know it. Once a centerpiece of the burgeoning city, in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers turned the natural waterway into a culvert for wastewater and flood control. The project was finished in the 1960s, but just 20 years later, some Angelenos already had buyer’s remorse and wanted to reclaim the river for parkland and recreational space. Today, the L.A. River is still a key part of the city’s water management infrastructure, but it’s also a critical rail corridor for both freight and passenger trains. Public access is being improved via piecemeal projects, but it’s not – yet – the inviting public amenity envisioned by river revitalization enthusiasts.
In May 2014, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would recommend a $1+ billion ecological restoration plan, dubbed the ARBOR Study, focused on rehabilitating 11 miles of the L.A. River that run through downtown. The plan includes restoring both natural functions of the river, and providing pedestrian and bike access to riverside trails to make it an inviting community asset. This vision has the potential to conflict with vital rail operations, yet representatives from the rail and the river revitalization camps weren’t collaborating to find solutions that met both their needs.
ULI Los Angeles Steps In
Using an Urban Innovation Grant, ULI Los Angeles created a report looking at the intersection of rail and river revitalization and opportunities for collaboration. With generous help from HR&A organized by ULI member Paul Silvern, the report highlighted the benefits each side provides to the Greater Los Angeles community. River revitalization can improve quality of life, health and the environment. Rail contributes mightily to the economy through moving people and goods, particularly from the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. The report suggested an objective third party could help breach the communication impasse.
Published in early 2015, the report served as the foundation for a stakeholder convening among nearly all the key players in the downtown river revitalization project. Rather than take sides on the issues or discuss sticking points in particular projects, ULI focused on improving the process. “It was a really basic goal: get these people talking to each other,” Nettler said. “That either hadn’t happened in the past or had broken down. Whatever the cause, there wasn’t effective communication.”
More than 20 people attended an invite-only lunch where they were able to establish face to face contact with people on the other side of the table, share business cards, and foster connections that will be crucial to making the L.A. River Revitalization a win-win for all parties. Beyond opening lines of communication, the attendees agreed to find a small project to work on collaboratively. “We wanted to start small with something manageable so we can get the right people sharing their technical expertise and starting building up that relationship in a functional way,” Nettler said.
Thanks to ULI Los Angeles stepping in as a facilitator, rail and revitalization interests can continue to develop a productive, collaborative relationship to ensure the future of the Los Angeles River works for all members of the downtown LA community.
Stakeholders are currently choosing among two potential projects on which to collaborate. All the attendees committed to a second meeting to continue the dialogue and evaluate project ideas. “During the process of drafting the Army Corps report, there was an attempt to get these groups together,” Nettler said. “It was a start, but there wasn’t a framework for that to continue.” Participants thanked ULI Los Angeles for bringing the sides together and helping people better understand each other’s needs and values.
Read more from ULI Los Angeles about the report at their website.