By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Any way you do it, Frankel says, “We’re facing the biggest public-works project in the history of the city. You’re basically retrofitting a city that was developed in the wrong way. Los Angeles was not planned by visionaries. Back East, people knew they could neither pave over the streambeds, nor channelize streams; there was just too much water. Here, because the creeks were either dry or flooded so much of the year, we just said, ‘Screw it. Let’s get rid of them.’ ”
Frankel knows he’s proposing a radical solution. “It’s about changing the way we develop in a way that creates more parks and cleans up pollution,” he says. “It’s retrofitting the city in an environmentally sound way, as opposed to engineering in the old way. I would love to see the politically courageous elected officials in Los Angeles advocate for the third way. They need to see it’s been as beneficial economically as I say it is.”
A few years ago, City Councilman Tom LaBonge wanted to fill in Hall’s beloved North Atwater Creek and build a soccer field on top of it. Fortunately for her, other people imagined that the pool of stagnating runoff might be turned into a healthy little wetland with a little modern engineering. In August 2004, after Santa Monica Baykeeper filed a 1998 lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Justice, the EPA, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and several L.A. community groups, along with Baykeeper, reached a $2 billion settlement with the city of Los Angeles over years of sewage spills. Not only does the settlement require the city to rebuild at least 488 miles of sewer lines, it must also spend $8.5 million in environmental projects, according to the settlement announcement, “to restore streams and wetlands and to capture and treat polluted storm drain flows throughout the city.” Among the projects named in the settlement is the restoration of Hall’s North Atwater Creek.
LaBonge still believes “we need more sports fields in Griffith Park for the young men and women who play sports.” But he also understands that a process has been set in motion to restore the area as a wetland. “If we failed to get that grant, we’d continue that discussion,” he says. “I’m a great proponent of active recreation.”
And even with the current concrete-channeled water, he does worry about floods: LaBonge remembers watching a rush of water carry a cement mixer down the Los Angeles River on Martin Luther King Jr. Day a few years ago. “It went from Sixth to Seventh Street in nothing flat,” he recalls. But even LaBonge acknowledges that restoring rivers could transform Los Angles. “In Europe, they’re doing it all over the place,” he says. “I just returned from Berlin, our sister city, and I understood from them that when the wall was there, the river was not loved. And now it is.
“You see,” he says, “cities can change.”
Not far from Atwater Creek, next to the University of Southern California Health Sciences complex in Lincoln Heights, plans have already been laid to restore Hazard Creek, a startling 24-acre cut of greenery in an otherwise blighted and institutionalized urban landscape, alongside Hazard Park. Mayor Villaraigosa has told of getting beat up on these grounds as a kid; some people in the neighborhood have dubbed it the “shooting gallery” for all the trouble that gets hidden behind its overgrown brush and fencing. But this small remnant of Hazard Creek also supports native vegetation that’s hard to find in urban Los Angeles, as well as red-legged frogs and black-headed towhees. The natural perennial stream known as Hazard Creek was filled in for a railroad spur at the turn of the last century; it once served as Macy’s Department Store’s loading dock. But in 1966, after the rail line had fallen into disrepair, a conservationist named Alex Man found springs bubbling up in the creek, proving it wasn’t just fed by storm water and runoff. Man launched a campaign to save the creek, but it took 20 years for the county to document the creek as a wetland. To this day, a municipal storm drain dumps dirty water into the creek in violation of federal law.
Recently, with funding from the Berkeley-based Earth Island Institute, the environmental nonprofit organization North East Trees began studying how to restore the creek, working with engineers and landscape architects to devise a plan that would both create habitat and serve the community. The design, which includes a system that will treat water before discharging it into the creek, will be ready in December. So far, however, there’s no funding to actually do the work. None even seems likely.
“We’ve been unsuccessful from a number of angles,” says Carrie Sutkin, a project manager at North East Trees. “We were turned down by the state for parks-and-recreation money and water-quality-control funding,” bond money from Propositions 40 and 50 that mostly went to coastal-wetland restoration and large-scale habitat projects. Right now, Sutkin is hoping to secure city-bond money from Measure O, which dedicated $500 million in 2004 to fund water-quality improvement projects and open space. But she admits it’s a hard sell: Hazard Creek will never be what a lot of funders would like it to be — unsullied open space, a protected wetland.