Whose River Is It — Frank Gehry's or L.A.'s?

The Los Angeles River
The Los Angeles River
Photo by Danny Liao

Lewis MacAdams is 70, though he looks a bit older. He dresses like a pauper. His right hand trembles, and he walks in sort of a tentative shuffle, head down — rather dour body language for someone known to all as a dreamer.

People used to tell him that the Los Angeles River, that concrete-encased estuary that MacAdams has been trying to get Angelenos to care about for nearly 30 years, needed only one thing: a celebrity. Now, it seems, it's him.

A woman biking by sees him and stops. She smiles, but he doesn't seem to recognize her.

"I'm Marianne," she says.

"I know," he replies, unconvincingly.

"Congratulations on the, um..." she says, "getting the money for the uh..." she trails off.

"Wellllll ..." he says, "we don't exactly have the money. We have the direction. But it's still $1.35 billion."

Lots of people have been congratulating MacAdams lately, mostly about the Army Corps of Engineers' approval in July of a $1.35 billion plan to restore habitat along an 11-mile stretch of the river, between downtown and Griffith Park. He seems almost embarrassed by the accolades.

"We don't have as much success as it looks like," he says. "But that's part of the job, to let people imagine what things could be. People are always saying, 'The river's looking so great lately.' But the river hasn't really changed much. It's people's attitudes about the river that have changed."

MacAdams has worn many hats throughout his life — poet, filmmaker, journalist, performance artist, teacher, elected official and, now, L.A. River evangelist. He founded Friends of the L.A. River in 1986, long before most Angelenos even realized there was a river. To call his three-decade ambition wishful thinking would be generous. It was a mad, quixotic fever dream.

But, improbably, MacAdams stuck to his task, and his vision of a naturalized river is spreading. Even the Army Corps of Engineers, which saw to it that the river was paved over half a century ago, has come around.

And then, of course, there's celebrity architect Frank Gehry, who announced last month that he'll be doing ... well, something along the river — much to MacAdams' chagrin.

Lewis MacAdams at the entrance to the Frog Spot, with a sculpture of a steel-headed trout
Lewis MacAdams at the entrance to the Frog Spot, with a sculpture of a steel-headed trout
Photo by Danny Liao

These days, the river is bursting with possibility. More and more people are looking at the 51-mile concrete trench and seeing instead a 51-mile blank canvas, cutting a swath through the heart of Los Angeles, a chance to provide everything from park space to connectivity to affordable housing to water reclamation. Even the dreamy renderings released by the committee bidding for L.A. to host the Summer Olympics in 2024 included a deep blue river snaking its way through downtown L.A., as if its fate were already assured.

Although the actual work put into revitalization has been nominal — a handful of pocket parks, an intermittent bike path and various other nips and tucks — there is a growing sense that the river is destined to become something truly wonderful.

Standing on a picturesque stretch of riverbank occupied by the Frog Spot — which opened last year as the first commercial establishment to face the river — MacAdams marvels at the throngs of people who've come here to kayak, to entertain their kids, to listen to bands, to drink beer and play bocce ball. "This used to be a flower bed," he says, "but we realized it was a bocce court."

But as river renewal becomes less of a fever dream and more of a reality, tensions are beginning to emerge. Not only is there MacAdams vs. Gehry, there's also the naturalists vs. the urbanists, the kayakers vs. the water conservationists and the smart growthers vs. the anti-gentrifiers.

They can agree on at least one thing: Change along the river is inevitable.

"The rush to the river, on the part of both idealistic builders of public open space and the development community, represents a historic fact," says writer and historian D.J. Waldie. "The entire Los Angeles Basin, from sea to mountains, is built out. There's simply nowhere else to go."

It seems as if everyone has a plan for the river. There's the 1996 L.A. County master plan, the 2007 L.A. City plan and the Army Corps of Engineers plan — sometimes called Alternative 20 — which is waiting on the $1.35 billion of funding it needs, some of which will come from the federal government and some from the city.

Long Beach has a plan, Metro has a plan, the Bureau of Sanitation has a plan, the L.A. Department of Water and Power has a plan.

So when the rumor began to circulate, in the spring, that Frank Gehry would be working on still another plan, longtime river activists were flabbergasted.

"The river is where it is today because of community people on the ground putting their time into it," says Julia Meltzer, the founder and director of Clockshop, an arts organization off the river. "That's why anyone knows there's a river. It doesn't help to have a conversation and for people to feel like they're being left out of it."

There were other worries: If Gehry was indeed working on another master plan, wouldn't that send a signal to Congress to hold off on any funding for Alternative 20? Also, what the hell was Gehry, known for his curvy, metallic buildings and form-before-function design, doing anywhere near a project involving habitat restoration?

Gehry was recruited by Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, a nonprofit created by the city's master plan to help implement it. When its executive director, Omar Brownson, told MacAdams — in confidence — that Gehry had been working for nearly nine months on ... something, MacAdams was disturbed. He quickly dashed off a letter to the River Corporation expressing his concerns, which someone (perhaps MacAdams himself) sent to a reporter at the Los Angeles Times.

"I'm not acknowledging that I actually did that," he says with a wry grin. "But it had to be done. I mean, it's one of those things where people don't think you're serious, and you have to do something serious."

The Times reporters ran with the story, scooping both the River Corporation, which was planning an all-star press conference, and the Times' own architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, who was sitting on an exclusive, embargoed interview with Gehry.

Its carefully plotted media strategy dashed to bits, the River Corporation was forced to scramble, denying that Gehry was working on a new master plan, or anything at all — that he was merely studying the river and looking at it not as a parks project but as a water project.

"You don't get to play with the L.A. River unless you address flood control," Brownson says. "It's the barrier to entry."

Since October, Gehry and his handpicked team, which includes two of his partners, Tensho Takemori and Anand Devarajan, as well as Dutch infrastructure guru Henk Ovink and water engineer Mark Hanna, have indeed been studying the river, looking at what its needs and possibilities for water reclamation are.

If MacAdams is the dreamer, Brownson, Gehry and his team are the technocrats. They are designers, of course, but their approach is data-based. You won't find them looking at a flowerbed and realizing it's a bocce ball court. They've sent a car with a Lidar unit (a laser beam that measures distance) down 70 percent of the river in order to make a 3-D cloud map of the entire terrain.

The team — sans Gehry, who said he was recovering from elective back surgery (he's 86) — gathered recently for a press briefing at a design studio near the Arts District. Digital renderings were pasted on foamcore displays as Brownson, Hanna, Takemori and Devarajan explained their methods to reporters. They, too, were quick to downplay any suggestion of formal plans. Their study is still a few million dollars short of completion.

Later, reporters were taken by shuttle (the day was blisteringly hot) through a tunnel underneath the Sixth Street Bridge leading into the channel itself. With its long, slanted walls and trains crawling slowly overhead, the spot is one of the river's most awe-inspiring sites. Famous car chases, like the ones in Grease, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Repo Man were filmed near here.

As the team posed for photographers, one couldn't help but imagine what the surroundings might be like in 10, 20, 30 years.

When asked what he himself was dreaming about, Takemori replied: "What I'm dreaming about is to know what the functional requirements are."

Before it was shackled, the river didn't cut a particularly defined course. This was partly due to geology and partly due to our Mediterranean climate, which sees little to no rainfall nine months out of the year. More often than not, the river was, in the immortal words of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, "dry as a bone."

It would flow in the winter, fed by rain and snow from the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges. The mercurial stream would shift around and even sometimes change direction completely. Hundreds of years ago it flowed west, through Santa Monica, on its way to the Pacific Ocean along the course that is today Ballona Creek. In 1825, after years of heavy rains and a series of earthquakes, the river pivoted a full 90 degrees toward the harbor in Long Beach.

During especially bad storms, the river would swell and flood over, often with disastrous results. A particularly bad flood in 1938 left 87 people dead and caused more than $78 million in damages in L.A. County.

By then, the Army Corps of Engineers was already working to tame the river, encasing it in cement; most of it was funded by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program whose primary goal was employment. When the massive project was finished in 1959, a proud official proclaimed it a "water freeway," an apt metaphor, since the purpose was to keep water moving along as fast as possible.

"It's an engineering masterpiece — really!" says Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Lab. "It's brilliant, even though everyone thinks it's ugly."

"L.A. wouldn't have been the metropolitan area that it is today if the river hadn't been controlled," historian Blake Gumprecht says. "Particularly south of downtown, you really wouldn't have been able to build in those areas without exposing it to regular flood hazards."

The river became, in essence, a giant gutter, an ugly, forgotten yet highly functional ditch, another in a long line of sacrifices the city made to ensure its growth. Says Patzert: "In Los Angeles, there's only one thing that's more important than water: real estate."

The city literally turned its back on its river. Nearly every single house, apartment, business, factory and warehouse built along the 51-mile river faces away from it.

Now, for the first time since it was encased in concrete, two houses that face the river are being built in Atwater Village.

"Just the fact that people are looking toward the river rather than away from it is a fundamental change," Gumprecht says.

It is, in part, a reflection of the changing attitudes toward nature in major urban areas. For much of the industrial era, rivers were literally treated as sewers.

MacAdams wasn't the first to sound the call for river revitalization; the executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Joe Edmiston, has long sought to bring the river into his dominion of public space. But as a spokesman for the river, MacAdams has been without equal.

The poet moved to L.A. in 1980 to try his hand at screenwriting — "like every schmo," he would later say. When that didn't take, he got a job as a laborer, turning an industrial space east of downtown into a loft. It was then that he first laid eyes on the river. He was transfixed.

In 1985, he and three friends cut a hole in the chain-link fence, near the First Street Bridge, and ambled down the concrete slope to the hard, flat riverbed.

"We felt like we were exploring the moon," MacAdams would write 10 years later in Whole Earth Review. "The air around us was an unholy din. ... The odor was industrial. The scene was a latter-day urban hell. We asked the river if we could speak for it in the human realm. We didn't hear it say no, and that was how Friends of the Los Angeles River began."

His next move was a piece of performance art at the Wallenboyd Theater, an experimental playhouse in the heart of Skid Row. MacAdams called it "the first act of a 40-year artwork to bring the Los Angeles River back to life through a combination of art, politics and magic."

It was not well received. As longtime theater critic Don Shirley wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

"MacAdams, wearing a white suit and green-and-blue makeup (river colors, I suppose), performed a rambling monologue in the guise of water engineer William Mulholland and then offered a series of animal impressions (animals who live in the river's watershed?). The evening concluded with an inept question-and-answer session, which never came close to spelling out how the river is to be revived. Was it all a put-on, in the style of Andy Kaufman? Then why weren't we laughing?"

If MacAdams was an unfunny joke, so was the river. According to Gumprecht, a politician once proposed painting it blue "to make it look more like a river." Another, Richard Katz, proposed turning it into an actual freeway. For cars.

But MacAdams kept at it. Friends of the L.A. River became a nonprofit, sponsoring river cleanups and walking tours. Eventually, MacAdams convinced the Army Corps of Engineers to stop bulldozing trees and wild shrubs growing in the Glendale Narrows. Then he got the Corps to start calling it a river instead of a flood-control channel. In 2011, sections of the river were opened for kayaking and fishing. (Yes, there are fish in the river: carp, tilapia, catfish, even bass.)

Politicians began lining up to declare their support for river revitalization. A photo of Eric Garcetti (who took a creative writing class from MacAdams at Harvard-Westlake) in a kayak now greets visitors at LAX.

Kayaking the L.A. River
Kayaking the L.A. River
Photo by Danny Liao

Pocket parks and walking paths have been sprouting up all along the river, but little connects them. Miles of the river, at least in the city of L.A., remain gated off and legally inaccessible.

"It's all been done in an ad hoc approach — hoping to get this grant, fundraising for this project," says City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who chairs the council's Arts, Parks, Health, Aging and Los Angeles River Committee. "It's been a wing-and-a-prayer approach."

O'Farrell wants to create an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District along the river, a system that would effectively capture tax revenue from land that's risen in value and use the money on local infrastructure (a bit like the Community Redevelopment Agency, only without the power of eminent domain). This, he says, would create a permanent revenue stream for river revitalization.

But all the money in the world won't change the fact that no single governing body is in charge of the river, which is why it's beginning to look like a free-for-all.

"Nobody knows who runs the river," MacAdams says. "So anything goes, essentially."

Most images you've seen of what a revitalized river might look like come from Mia Lehrer, a landscape urbanist who worked on the city's 2007 master plan. They show well-manicured parks, idyllic walkways and steps leading down to the river's calm and bountiful waters.

The ambitious plan, which covers only the 31 miles of the river in the city, from the West Valley to downtown, includes park space, athletic fields, more water than the river generally sees most of the year and a continuous bike path. In some images, a train rushes through. Not a single car is visible in any of them.

"The river has an opportunity of really becoming this place where Los Angeles gets densified," Lehrer says. "Where it becomes this incredible space, where it brings people together, where it really shines as a new place for communing."

Landscape urbanist Mia Lehrer worked on the city's 2007 master plan for the L.A. River.
Landscape urbanist Mia Lehrer worked on the city's 2007 master plan for the L.A. River.
Photo by Danny Liao

Some think the master plan is geared too much toward humans and not enough toward nature.

"There's a strange propensity in L.A. for people to embrace architects and designers to lead perceived improvements of nature," says Marcia Hanscom, executive director of the Ballona Institute. "The question for me is, what does the river want? What does nature want?"

Of course, what nature wanted was a dry riverbed that flooded every few years and destroyed property. Which is why no one uses the word "restoration" when talking about the river's future. It can't be restored. We're beyond that. A new river must be invented.

Much of its water comes from reclamation plants — facilities that filter sewage water so that it's clean enough to dump into the ocean. If the river received only water that flowed from streams and tributaries, it would be little more than a trickle most of the year. That would mean no fishing, no kayaking and a vastly different habitat from the one being proposed.

The master plan was completed before the full force of California's drought was felt. Water conservation is the new watchword. That would mean sending less reclaimed water through the L.A. River and back into the ocean.

"There's a tension between water supply and the beneficiary uses of aquatic life and recreation on the river," says Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor of environment and sustainability at UCLA. "And everyone has frankly punted this issue for years and years."

That's not to say there are no solutions. Gold says that reclaimed water could be pumped through the river and then recaptured downstream, south of a recreation area, and sent back into the aquifer or used for irrigation. But again, there's no one in charge of the water, no authority to decide how much water should go into the river.

Which is why Gehry and his team's technocratic, water-first approach may actually be what the river needs — or, rather, what the drier-than-ever region needs.

There are other fears. During the recent boat race sponsored by L.A. River Expeditions — one of four kayak outfitters now operating along the river — protesters from a group calling itself FROG (Frogtown Residents Opposing Gentrification) showed up with signs reading, "Herons hate boat races" and "Revitalization = Commercialization of Public Assets = Gentrification!!"

When it comes to housing, the river presents a particularly tricky problem. If you build something really nice, won't a bunch of people want to move there? And won't that lead the land to skyrocket in value, forcing low-income renters out of their homes? Councilman O'Farrell wants to use zoning and other incentives to encourage the building of affordable housing near the river.

But the entry onto the scene of Gehry and the River Corporation — whose board includes quite a few developers — has stoked fears that river revitalization is, first and foremost, about development. Jenny Price, who used to lead walking tours of the L.A. River, has similar concerns: "For years, I was telling thousands of people on my tours, 'It's not a gentrification project.' Now I'm not so sure."

She adds: "For me, the most important questions are: Who is the L.A. River for? Whose river is it?"

At the entrance to the Frog Spot stands a giant sculpture of a fish skeleton, embedded with what appears to be garbage.

"This, depending on your orientation, is either Stanley or Stella, the steel-headed trout," MacAdams says.

The fish has a special significance for MacAdams and his allies. Whenever anyone asks how he'll know when his work is finished, he answers, "When the steelhead trout return to the river."

"You could not come up with a more grandiose vision than that," says UCLA's Gold. "What you would have to do to not just the river but the whole watershed would be unbelievable."

"Good luck," scoffs Patzert of JPL. "Let's get realistic, all right? There's some things we can do. But it's not gonna be a kayaking paradise, and we're not going to try to re-establish a salmon fishery. It's a flood control channel. It's an irrevocable decision that was made."

Yet MacAdams, who still has 10 years to go on his 40-year artwork, says he's "serenely confident" that the trout will be back: "Whether it happens in my lifetime or yours, it doesn't matter."

Gone is the era of large public works projects. Nearly every city in America has a crumbling infrastructure, and the river will have to stand in line for funding along with everything else. According to even the most optimistic of predictions, the Army Corps of Engineers project will cost the city nearly $700 million, which would almost certainly need a new tax in order to happen. River revitalization, then, will continue in dribs and drabs.

"The L.A. River isn't binary," says Omar Brownson. "It's not built or unbuilt. It's something that's continuing to evolve and progress."

It's one of the few things Brownson and MacAdams agree on, though the former puts it a bit differently.

"It's gonna continue for God knows how many years to be a battleground," Brownson says. "I mean, nobody's gonna wave a magic wand and it's gonna look like Disney World."

Not even Frank Gehry.

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that Mia Lehrer is a landscape urbanist, not a landscape architect.

Upcoming Events


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >