In Los Angeles, resistance to change at the neighborhood level has never been at more of a fever pitch than it is today. We have the massive effort behind the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, which seeks to curb large-scale development; we have the grassroots resistance to gentrification in Boyle Heights; and we have the curious case of the Silver Lake Reservoir. Presently a gaping muddy hole, the 96-acre reservoir can no longer be used for drinking water — but that hasn't stopped some residents from demanding it be refilled, despite the severe drought.
The two-part reservoir was built in the early 1900s as an emergency water supply and was designed to be useful, not pretty. Yet the reservoir later became a sort of focal point of the upwardly mobile community.
"Many longtime residents think this is their lake," the reservoir keeper, Manuel Trujillo, once said, according to the application to make the reservoir a Historic-Cultural Monument. "The lake adds to the property values of the nearby homes. When the lake was drained in 1975 for some reconstruction, the
property values dipped."
In the wake of 9/11, the federal government mandated that all water supplies be kept underground. So in 2013, the the reservoir was taken offline. In the summer of 2015, it was drained so that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which owns the reservoir and surrounding land, could rebuild some pipes, sending drinking water to a new subterranean reservoir underneath Griffith Park.
The reservoir was supposed to be refilled by the end of this year, but things are running a little behind.
Oh yeah, we're also in the middle of a really bad drought, which has led some to wonder aloud, why are we filling this thing up with water again? Water that no one will use, except to look at?
Surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, the reservoir is essentially a jail for water. Now that it won't be functioning as an actual reservoir, maybe it could put to an actual use? Like maybe a park?
Once ideas such as these started percolating, Silver Lake residents started getting agitated. Not all of them, of course. Silver Lake Forward is pro-park; it has Moby on its side! Catherine Geanuracos, a co-founder of the group who lives in Silver Lake, says the group is calling for a new planning process to come up with the best use for the land.
"It’s a public asset that’s changing, and it seems like we could create something really amazing for the community," Geanuracos says.
But a far more vocal group, active in the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, has formed, calling itself Refill Silver Lake Now. From its website:
Refill Silver Lake Now is a dedicated group of people advocating for the prompt refilling of the Silver Lake Reservoir (Historic-Cultural Monument 422), home to many species of wildlife, and critical nesting grounds for the legally protected blue heron. The reservoir is not only a crucial spot on the Pacific Flyway for migrating waterfowl but an essential body of water for the L.A. County Firefighters in battling blazes in the area, including Griffith Park. In short, it is the heart and soul of the 43,000 people and countless wildlife that call Silver Lake their home.
Members of Refill Silver Lake Now turned out in force at a recent public meeting to discuss the future of the reservoir. They cheered when City Councilman David Ryu promised it would be at least partially filled next spring. And they lost their collective shit when Councilman Mitch O'Farrell suggested that maybe, just maybe, we should think about putting the land to better use than a dreary water jail. According to Curbed L.A.:
One thing’s for sure: Most of the residents who attended the meeting are not interested in a damn park! The loudest cheers of the evening came when a woman informed the officials at the meeting that Silver Lake did not want to hear about alternative uses for the reservoir — just a quick refill.
There was also nearly a riot when City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell raised the prospect of landscaping the path around the lake, making the mistake of comparing the project to Echo Park Lake and saying future public meetings would be a "marketplace of ideas." From the back of the room, one woman shouted, "It’s not a marketplace. It’s a community!"
"The people who were at that meeting were incredibly opinionated," Geanuracos says. "And they're entitled to their opinions. But that room wasn’t representative of the current population of Silver Lake, let alone the whole city."
It's not as if the reservoir doesn't already have some parklike elements. There's a much-loved jogging track, a basketball court, a dog park and, of course, the Silver Lake Meadow, which opened in 2011. There was a bit of resistance to the meadow, too – it only got the green light after officials agreed to make it a "passive space," meaning no dogs and no sports.
"We would be open to any discussions about beautification once the water’s in," says Jill Cordes, one of the co-founders of Refill Silver Lake Now. She says she's worried about a giant, gaping muddy hole siting around for years while landscape architects fiddle around with various plans.
One issue yet to be addressed: What kind of water will the DWP use to fill the hole with? The original plan called for drinking water, even though no one can drink from it. But drinking water is in demand right now. It's expensive.
The DWP could fill the reservoir with recycled water, but that would take a lot longer; it's unclear how long.
"We’re willing, as a group, to potentially wait a month or two if it means we can be a shining example for using reclaimed water in Los Angeles," Cordes says. But she doesn't think the DWP can get it done that fast. In that case – well, the group is called Refill Silver Lake Now.
Cordes also worries that any major enhancements to the reservoir would attract crowds. And traffic.
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"Where would people park?" Cordes asks. "How would they get here? I don’t understand. Unless you made half the reservoir a parking lot. And who wants that?"
She adds: "This is a respite in the middle of a giant city. I don’t see why there's anything wrong with keeping it a nice tranquil spot."
Of course, the Silver Lake Reservoir is not owned by Silver Lake. It's owned by the DWP. It's public land.
"This whole part of our city, not just the few surrounding blocks, use the meadow and use the walking track," Geanuracos says. "It’s an incredible resource for us already. And so it’s a really interesting question. Those people [who live here] are impacted more. But there’s also a potential huge benefit for the whole area."