THE RIVER'S DOWNTOWN STRETCH HAS SEEN THE FEWEST changes so far -- and has inspired the biggest projects and greatest hopes. To restore the river through the city center has enormous practical and symbolic implications.
Downtown is just one of many cultural and commercial centers in this postmodern, ganglionic basin, but it is L.A.'s rough geographic center -- and its birthplace. Downtown also showcases L.A.'s worst habits: It's exceptionally poor in public and green space, and its neighborhoods, largely lower-income and nonwhite, are fragmented by freeways, railroad tracks, walls of industry and the river at its ugliest. More than anywhere else, river restoration here sets out to design public and private space differently -- to set community, history and nature aright.
It takes creative vision -- special glasses, even -- to see what the Riveristas see here. But imagine a lot of parks, and a greenbelt to connect them, and a center-city riverwalk. (Think, say, both the San Antonio Riverwalk and the Chicago lakefront.) Now add a bikeway, the central hub for paths that head in all directions. And, eventually, transfer all the rail traffic to one side, or, to green both banks, put the tracks underground, as other cities have done.
Fantasy? Not possible? That was exactly the response to Friends of the L.A. River founder Lewis MacAdams' first calls to restore any part of the river. With his windmill-tilting vision that has consistently turned out to be superb practicality and common sense before its time, MacAdams plans to seek funds for an international design competition in 2002 for the downtown stretch.
That's the long-term future. In the short to medium term, three big new park projects should create more than 100 acres of greenway on longtime industrial sites on the north end, and the city has definitely committed to the bikeway. Right now, four ambitious public art projects point the way, by imaginatively reconnecting the river to the civic heart of L.A. Down to the confluence
, up to 103 acres of state park, will be the north anchor for the downtown L.A. River Greenway, and a major connector through the Glendale Narrows up toward Griffith Park. (See Glendale Narrows.)
Confluence Park: It all comes together here. The river flows in from the Valley and the Northeast, heading downtown toward South L.A., and the Arroyo Seco joins it from Pasadena. It's the logical spot for a big city park, and it's the future nexus of the L.A. River Greenway and Bikeway.
"This is where L.A. was founded, and you can't even find it," as River Project director Melanie Winter says. At the moment, the birthplace of L.A. looks like a Blade Runner junkyard that got cut up and put back together wrong. But the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is funding North East Trees to start this major history-themed park on city-owned lots (now sanitation, maintenance and truck-parking yards), and will expand it as adjacent land becomes available. (ETA start 2003)
Take the planned loop path from the park to . . .
The new Los Angeles River Center and Gardens. L.A. has one. Ergo, it's official: We have a river. The well-known former Lawry's headquarters -- a gorgeous hacienda-style complex -- now houses river and art exhibits, meeting spaces, and offices for environmental and community groups (SMMC, FoLAR and NET included). It has a maze of shady courtyards, and check out the lovely new River Garden Park (once a paint factory), a stylized re-creation of the river that features works by the community arts group ArtShare Los Angeles. Soon to come: a docent, and a restaurant with a job-training program.
SMMC -- with foresight and political muscle from Mike Hernandez, Richard Polanco, Gloria Molina and Antonio Villaraigosa -- bought back half of the Lawry's site last year, after it was purchased by Home Depot. Right at the nexus of the greenway, and a hop from both Taylor Yard and Confluence Park, it will be the central way station and education/ community center on the L.A. River Greenway.
You'll be able to take the Blue Line, now under construction, from downtown and Pasadena right to this nexus. And artist Cheri Gaulke's design for the Avenue 26 Station, "Water Street: River of Dreams," inscribes the confluence's history into this future public portal. It'll include a sculpture of a Tongva woman gathering water, a dry riverbed, river boulders, native sycamores, historic photographs and two "story fences" with quotations, poems and tales from sources that range from Tongva myths to current Tongva leader Vera Rocha to FoLAR founder Lewis MacAdams. (ETA 2003)
The Cornfield, a 47-acre abandoned Union Pacific rail yard where dust lords over the weeds (once farmland, hence its name), has gone from being the most fiercely fought-over land on the river to the most remarkable victory to date. The Chinatown Yard Alliance, which wants State Parks to buy the site for parks and community uses, has at long last persuaded Majestic Realty (that's L.A. über-developer Ed Roski's company) to abandon the Mayor Riordan°©backed plan to build close to a million square feet of industrial warehouses. In March, Majestic, faced with a lawsuit for failing to do a full environmental-impact report and the subsequent suspension of key HUD subsidies, agreed to sell. The new state budget earmarks $36 million for the site; the Trust for Public Land has to finish up ongoing negotiations for the sale by Majestic's November 30 deadline. The sale would mark a dramatic turning point for downtown land use.