The sun beats down on the Los Angeles River one morning as George Wolfe unloads kayaks from a truck parked on a worn street, 10 feet from the water. He's been up since dawn, when he led his first kayak tour, three hours downstream, to get residents invested in L.A.'s strange, urban waterway.
"It's a real thrill to have the general public be able to boat on this part of the river," he says, "and expose people to what's here."
Wolfe runs L.A. River Expeditions. Roll that idea around in your mind for a while. He started his nonprofit in 2011. He and his wife, documentary filmmaker Thea Mercouffer (her movies include Rock the Boat, about the struggle to win back the waterway), are among a growing crowd of serious people who see the concrete-lined river as crucial to citywide urban revitalization.
"Between our group and other groups ... we've gotten thousands of people on the river," he says. "That's thousands of people that we don't have to convince that there's valuable resources here."
Transforming the L.A. River will provide the city with open space, link communities and create a place for children to experience the outdoors. On about Sept. 6, L.A. will find out how far the Obama administration is willing to allow that dream to unfurl, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chooses one of three alternatives that varies dramatically in scope and cost.
Jenny Price, an environmental activist and writer, calls the Army Corps "one of the sludgiest, slowest, least responsive public agencies working on the river. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most important."
Lewis MacAdams, president of Friends of the Los Angeles River, says, "This is by far the largest amount of money and expertise focused on the river since it was in the 1930s channelized" to end disastrous, seasonal flooding. "It's the most important moment in the 27 years I've been doing this."
Rumors are flying that the Corps has chosen the cheapie alternative — doing the least for the river and the city, because the Army Corps' office in far-off D.C. disagrees with its people on the ground here. After all, if L.A. were to receive big bucks, other cities would demand similar help.
L.A.'s urban river flows 51 miles from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach Harbor. In 1996, Los Angeles County officials created a plan to revitalize the river — which had lain relatively untouched since being channelized.
Inspired by Friends of the L.A. River, avid bicyclist Mayor Richard Riordan brought new prominence to the idea by earnestly plugging away for a bicycle path along the river. By 2005, city officials began to develop a river master plan.
The following year, Congress authorized the Army Corps in conjunction with the city to study ways to rejuvenate the ecosystem, and the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan was completed in 2007.
Now, the Corps will choose one of three ideas that focuses on an 11-mile stretch from Riverside Drive/134 freeway in Studio City to First Street in downtown L.A.
At $444 million, Alternative 13 restores three key open spaces, including Taylor Yard in Glassell Park, the Arroyo Seco confluence in Lincoln Heights and the 125-acre Piggyback Yard downtown.
Alternative 16, costing $744 million, does all that and also widens the river, expanding Piggyback Yard.
Alternative 20, which would cost about $1 billion, additionally restores long-mourned Verdugo Wash and creates better river connections downtown and in Chinatown.
Alternative 13 would require city taxpayers to foot about 70 percent of the bill; for Alternatives 16 and 20, about half. The rest would come from the federal budget.
Omar Brownson, executive director of the L.A. River Revitalization Corporation, a powerful voice for re-greening the river, says the announcement in early September will redefine L.A.'s future.
"We have a chance to say what kind of Los Angeles we want to live in for tomorrow," he says. "If you're gonna make this substantial an investment, you should go all the way."
Wolfe adds, "It's reaching this critical mass now. Is the Army Corps gonna choose some lame, cheap version, where nothing changes, even after spending millions and millions of dollars, or are they going to get with the program?"
Carol Armstrong, director of the Los Angeles River Project Office at the city's Bureau of Engineering, says the chances are slim that the feds will shell out 50 percent of the $1 billion required for Alternative 20.
"If they authorize a billion-dollar project in Los Angeles, then they are opening the door and setting a trend for that in every major city," she says. "Other cities will say, 'Hey, you did it in L.A., do it here,' and that probably makes them nervous."
Many urban Congress members are chasing after the same pot of federal funds. Armstrong says, "Investing a whole lot of money in urban Los Angeles really doesn't sit well with [the Army Corps] headquarters."
Mayor Eric Garcetti supports Alternative 20, but Councilman Tom LaBonge is a bit more guarded. "I support it," he says. "I am just cautious because of the intense cost."
Jay Field, spokesman for the local branch of the Corps, won't comment. But those involved locally say that the Corps' headquarters in Washington, D.C., has shifted the focus from Alternative 20 — which the local office championed — to a cheaper version.
Brownson says, "The task that we have in front of us is to help the people inside the Beltway appreciate how important revitalizing the L.A. River is to our region."
Price, like Wolfe and Brownson, says that emails sent to D.C. often went unanswered, communication about the state of the river study was scant, and D.C. officials were next to impossible to reach.
The D.C. headquarters referred the Weekly back to the local office for comment.
"This could be the center of an urban parkway that blazes through the center of the city, which is just an amazing opportunity," says Steve Appleton, president of the Elysian Valley Neighborhood Council. [Editor's note: This paragraph was corrected Sept. 5. See note below.]
"You could be getting on a bike in Atwater and riding into downtown quicker than you could in your car. It's tremendous."
Wolfe, gazing over the river, says, "The trajectory would be to allow people to apply their creativity to whatever project they want to take on. The river will kind of exponentially take off. You may see restaurants dotting the riverside, maybe a brewery by the river. ... People could sit out at night, possibly, and just kind of listen to the water."
At dusk one day, Irina Alfonso-Hidalgo, who works in Children's Hospital's cardiovascular unit, strolls along a tree-lined stretch of the river in Los Feliz with her daughters, Sasha Marina and Isabella. Moving here from Tampa, they were shocked to discover a tranquil slice of nature in the middle of L.A.
It provides a space for her family to connect and take a break. They come every weekend, and some weeknights. "It's important," she says. "The more safe we feel, the more people will come here."
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Because of stories like that, Armstrong is optimistic about the future of the river, regardless of which plan the Corps chooses.
"In Army-speak," she says, "this is the battle. Not the war."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story mispelled the name of the president of the Elysian Valley Neighborhood Council. He is Steve Appleton. We regret the error.