L.A. River: Keep Up the Push for ‘Alternative 20’

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Looking at the Los Angeles River is all about perspective. If you have paid little attention to the 51-mile waterway, then it’s likely something between a nonentity and an embarrassment. If, however, you have watched the evolution of the river, and more importantly followed the evolution in Angelenos’ attitudes toward it, then you may see it through shades of something different: potential.

We subscribe to the latter view, though with a healthy dose of the former: The Los Angeles River is frequently an embarrassment, its concrete casing off-putting and its polluted waters distressing. At the same time, thanks to the work of some dedicated activists, a growing number of Angelenos have come to realize that the past does not have to dictate the future, and that the possibility of a more usable waterway, one that is vibrant and welcoming to community uses, is out there.

This is important because, right now, local leaders and stakeholders have the opportunity to get involved and advocate for the most significant change to the river in decades. Accomplishing the goal will be difficult, but it is not impossible.

The opportunity comes via the Army Corps of Engineers, the same entity that decades ago poured concrete over much of the river’s banks. Back then it was a flood-control action, and the immediate aim of ensuring public safety was taken with little to no regard for the river’s long-term look or functionality. For many, the graffiti-scarred concrete has come to be the defining feature of the waterway. Just think of the portions that were the setting for the car race scene in the movie Grease. That is just one of its many appearances in film and TV.

Now, the Army Corps is considering options to improve an 11-mile stretch of the river from Griffith Park to Downtown Los Angeles. Through its Los Angeles River Ecosystem Feasibility Study, the Corps weighed four visions and is recommending what is labeled Alternative 13: The $454 million effort would restore 588 acres.

That sounds good, but it’s not the best option — it’s not even close. A number of area organizations and elected leaders, from the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) to the L.A. River Revitalization Corporation to Mayor Eric Garcetti, are pushing hard for another option, Alternative 20. It would restore 719 acres at a cost of $1.08 billion.

Much of the public push came to a head on Oct. 17, when several hundred people showed up for a meeting at the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens. The turnout and passion was impressive and proved beyond a doubt that many people do care. However, that show of force should not be considered a victory or the end of the effort: The public comment period lasts through Nov. 18.

FoLAR has reached out in Downtown, working to convince area residents and business interests that they should speak up in support of Alternative 20. The nonprofit, which started pushing river restoration long before environmentalism became a buzzword, is right in doing so: A key to Alternative 20 is that it would enhance the ties between the river and Los Angeles State Historic Park by creating wetlands and a marsh. It is the only one of the options being considered by the Army Corps that connects the river to the park. 

The possibilities for a community dominated by concrete — much of it vertical — are wonderful. Alternative 20, once realized, would allow the Downtowners to come to the park not just for exercise or a picnic, but also to stroll along the banks and watch the wildlife. It would provide a sense of nature in an area that sorely lacks it. 

The coming weeks are critical. Alternative 13 is the Corps’ “preferred option,” so Los Angeles needs local figures to lead the charge in advocating for a different selection. Garcetti should continue his outreach to his contacts in Washington, D.C., and other council members and elected officials who have taken public stances should also keep up a forceful push.

It is not only up to elected leaders. Area residents and workers can get involved in a number of ways, including signing a petition supporting Alternative 20 on Garcetti’s lamayor.org website. Other petitions are out there as well.

Another important step is reaching out directly to the Army Corps, and fortunately, this is simple. Anyone can email a statement in support of Alternative 20 to comments.lariverstudy@usace.army.mil

It is uncertain at this point if the Corps can be persuaded to toss aside its preferred option. However, it is worth a serious try. Push for Alternative 20. Los Angeles and Downtown deserve it.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013