Monday, May 05, 2008

Can The CRA Save The LA River? Can A Pig Fly?

My article this week in CityWatch on the CRA and the LA River:

Last week in CityWatch I exposed how the CRA, no longer satisfied with stopping the regreening of LA River Downtown with its neo-Stalinesque industrial policies, is now planning to aggressively line the river within the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council’s boundaries with block after block of wall-to-wall new factories.

At a time when leaders in other major cities are removing the artificial barriers placed between their rivers and the hearts of their cities to create great civic places, our city’s leaders are insisting on erecting – in the heart of our city – a contemporary version of the Berlin Wall that will permanently seal off the Los Angeles River from the people of Los Angeles.

Welcome to Downtown Los Angeles – the most anti-green city center in the world.

The CRA’s increasingly bizarre anachronistic policies will also destroy - forever - our city’s ability to use property tax increment funds to someday regreen the river in Downtown. Their plan will also make it impossible to ever build desperately needed parks, develop equally needed housing where trains now run and underground the ugly high tension electric lines along the river, (and, for the slow witted at City Hall, here is a sarcasm warning) which is just an extra added bonus to them.

Plus, as if all of this was not enough, the CRA also wants to use our tax money to pay the developers to do all of this.

And, no, you are not accidentally reading ‘The Onion” – or ‘Mad Magazine’; this really is CityWatch and this actually is the deadly bullet the CRA wants to fire into the heart of our city.

Of the almost 300,000 acres in this city to choose from – this narrow strip of land – located directly next to the most per capita park deprived part of the city - is the spot where the CRA has decided not to save existing manufacturing facilities – since almost none exist along the banks of the river – but to build entirely new heavy industry facilities where any civilized city would build public amenities and 24/7 communities.

In contrast to Downtown, though, every other community along the LA River is being gifted with parks, housing and community-building projects which makes us wonder why Downtown alone has been selected for this chilling Industrial Anschluss.

But, in fairness, this is not entirely a policy that was initiated by the present CRA leadership – or by this current administration.

The first proposal to try and reindustrialize the Los Angeles River corridor – and other former manufacturing areas of Downtown – began during the James Hahn administration. It was then picked up by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the City of Los Angeles Planning Department under Gail Goldberg and the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency under Cecilia Estolano.

From day one, however, we were promised that this would not be a blanket policy, but that the stakeholders of Downtown would be consulted with and that we would be made a part of the process of how this policy would be implemented.

But ever since this industrial zoning program (a policy implemented solely by fiat by non-elected officials with no approval of the city council) was first announced, we have been lied to – time and time again – and there is no other more polite word to describe how we have been treated – about our having a voice in this process.

We have also been given fraudulent statistics that were deliberately manipulated to deceive us and after four years, both the local neighborhood councils and all other major stakeholders’ groups are still excluded from every aspect of the planning process.

Then, in the middle of that lack of process, came the LA River scoping meetings. And almost every community in Central Los Angeles adjoining the river – including South Los Angeles which is many miles from the LA River – had public meetings. But despite our constant objections, to our amazement, the River Committee refused to hold even a single public meeting within downtown until we embarrassed them into giving us even a single token meeting.

And that turned out to be for naught.

Because even though many of us attended a half-dozen of these public meetings in the Central Area to give our input – every single suggestion or request made by those of us Downtown regarding the river within Downtown LA Neighborhood Council’s boundaries was 100% ignored.

No wonder they never wanted to meet with us.

And, again, as I have said before, when I asked why Downtown was denied even a single park or community serving amenity, I was told by two separate staff members, that due to the unofficial, never passed by the city council industrial policy – they were instructed not to allow a single park, a single housing unit or anything resembling a community building amenity anywhere on the river within DLANC’s boundaries.

Except for a few street trees.

And, oh yes – if there were any palm trees discovered in the area – they would have to be removed and destroyed since palm trees were not considered sufficiently politically correct to be allowed in our neighborhood

Again, behind closed doors, every decision regarding our community, every detail of our future down to what trees we would be allowed to have in our neighborhood, had already been made long before the first 'public' meetings were held.

Entrenched special interests within City Hall had already determined – that no matter what our community wanted – all we deserved along our river was factory buildings. No parks or anything serving the various communities that actually live in the area would ever be allowed since the goal was to have the area 'cleansed' of all residential uses.

Clearly, we Downtowners can no longer practice the politics of appeasement.

So, with all this past history of treachery and betrayal, and with the entire resources of the City of Los Angeles seemingly being marshaled against the citizens of Downtown - how could anyone possibly think the CRA could ever – even momentarily - throw off the self-imposed shackles of the special interest groups – and fly off to freedom?

Well, let’s just say that I believe in miracles.

Plus I also believe in omens.

And two weekends ago at the Coachella Music Festival such an omen appeared in the skies of California.

As Roger Waters crooned a version of Pink Floyd’s “Pigs” – his giant pig balloon filled with helium broke free of its moorings – and flew away. Yes, a giant pig broke free of its handlers and soared up into the sky.

Granted it crashed to earth in a heap a few hours later, but for a brief time a pig did fly.

So since we now know it’s possible for pigs to fly – at least in California - let’s now take that as our omen – our own special sign from the heavens – so to speak – and pray that our local Evil Empire might actually break loose from special interest groups and political consultants - and momentarily consider serving the public good.

Let’s imagine – even if for just a moment – what life in our city could be like if we were ruled by wise rulers; rulers who listened to and consulted with and worked with those they governed rather than ones who only periodically emerge from their Death Star with imperial edicts.

First, though, before our daydreams, a little practical background on the LA River Project.

There is obviously a growing consensus that the Los Angeles River needs to be re-greened for both ecological and flood planning reasons and, even more importantly - to create a better urban environment for the people of Los Angeles.

And the political will for that is rapidly growing.

But what is still lacking right now are any real world financial and structural means of achieving this overall vision. And in Downtown there is, of course, not even a hint of a plan, much less anything resembling a means of executing a plan that doesn’t even exist (other than the installing highly politically correct street trees, of course).

And this is where the CRA – or at least a CRA that might exist in a parallel universe to the one we unfortunately live in – could develop the necessary public/private partnerships to regreen the LA River.

This new CRA would become the lead agency in the most far-reaching – and historic - urban planning project since the days of Barron Haussmann and Robert Moses, but, this time, a project developed with the sensitivity of a Jane Jacobs and the palette of the Olmsteads.

And since each area of the river has very different challenges and very different constraints; ergo, each area also has its own very different possibilities and it will also need its very different solutions.

So while there have been countless imaginative and creative ideas such as envisioning massive dams with huge lakes behind them, inflatable rubber dams that store up the run-off water in temporary holding basins and large green parks that can act as spreading grounds for the water – all these plans have one thing in common.

Few – if any of them - are going to happen.

Or at least, nothing remotely like any of them is going to happen in more than a very few places along the river; places like the Glendale Narrows where a soft, green river bottom already exists or Sepulveda Basin where many acres of open space are already owned by a government agency.

But even then, there are still countless obstacles and no inherent existing way for any of these projects to be self-funded.

That then leaves us with the 95% of the rest of the river that is even harder to deal with than the 5% of the river that has at least physically feasible regreening options.

Just to ‘fix’ the river in its existing channel anywhere is going to take massive amounts of money – and even more so in Downtown. Plus in Downtown we are dealing with the rail lines and the high tension towers that will also require massive amounts of money to fix. Plus the huge social disruption required to greatly expand the river is still another reason why any plan that requires large parts of the city to be condemned for non-revenue producing land is doomed to failure.

Finally – as an additional dream killer - the engineers on the project have already informed us that due to the velocity of the flood waters in the heart of Downtown – and the narrowness and the lack of depth in the channel, it is IMPOSSIBLE to remove the concrete from the floor of the river – much less along the sides of the river - due to flood control considerations.

And they are right.

Therefore, the only possible permanent ‘solutions’ for Downtown proposed right now is to have a few narrow benches of green cut into the sides of the walls.

Unless, of course… we let our imaginations fly… and let them fly as high as that pig in Coachella soared above the desert floor for its few brief hours of freedom.

So, as someone in this city (whose name I seem to have momentarily forgotten) once said a few years ago while many of us sat before him on the lawn in front of City Hall…

… Come dream with me….

But first there is a catch…

The bitter truth that in Downtown, the LA River does not exist.

At least as a real… in any way connected to nature… river, it no longer exists.

What we have, instead, is a concrete-lined, open-air storm drain. Then, below that, the ‘real’ LA River runs through the aquifer underneath all the concrete.

There is nothing- at all - natural left about our existing 'river' through Downtown. Even much of the water in it is street and sidewalk run-off from well washed cars and overly energetic sprinklers; water that now goes straight from the Colorado River or the Owens Valley to the Pacific Ocean via the gutters of Los Angeles without ever even for one moment touching the soil of Los Angeles.

Everything about the Downtown section of the river is completely an artificial construct, literally and figuratively, as any suitably unreliable post-modernist can tell you.

There is very simply no there, there, if one accepts the standard misinterpretation of Gertrude Stein’s assessment of her hometown of Oakland.

Now several other parts of the current concrete lined river do periodically reconnect with the river’s natural roots through a dirt bottom and that allows that part of the river to temporarily rejoin the natural aquifer. But that is a physical impossibility anywhere in Downtown.

So, with that sad truth being the case – and since we cannot remove any of the concrete in any meaningful way as we might in other parts of the river – we need to find a way of to take this open air storm drain and create the maximum amount of green space. We need to create our own year around simulacrum of a real river filled with clean, moving water. And it also needs to have no danger from winter flooding – and it needs to have walking and biking paths along it and it needs to have residential communities lined with shops and restaurants along the banks of the River and its concurrent riverside park.

And then, even if we can somehow find a way to accomplish this miracle, we still need to find a way to pay for all this.

Fortunately, other cities have already shown us how to do this.

The first – and best - model is the city of San Antonio which has created the best case scenario of what the LA River – in not just the heart of Downtown, but all of Downtown – can become.

Along any part of the river such as Downtown, where the river cannot be meaningfully regreened within its existing banks without destroying its flood control ability, we need to instead focus on creating a smaller channel of water – 20 or 30 feet wide - at the edge of the river.

A river channel similar to what they have achieved in cities like San Antonio. That would then allow for the property adjacent to river bed to be redeveloped with both the park space and – also – with housing and mixed use spaces to help fund the project.

Just imagine being able to walk along this new river channel for miles - from the edge of Elysian Park to the city of Vernon - surrounded by LA’s version of the San Antonio Riverwalk. This would not only instantly become a major tourist attraction whose size could outdraw Disneyland (as the Grove already does now), but it could also bring in the desperately needed sales tax revenues of a dozen Groves.

And the water for this new channel would be pumped straight from the aquifer of the real LA River (which would later be returned to that aquifer), making this version of the river – if anything – far more authentic then the existing storm drain, concrete version of the river.

And in the middle of this new river is… Union Station – where every rail line in LA County ends up. So the now the existing redundant rail lines along the river both north and south of Union Station can be used to provide hard rail mass transit the entire length of the project – eventually taking tens of thousands of cars off the highway and making the entire project transit accessible to everyone in LA County.

But that is only phase one.

The second phase is even more exciting.

The reuse of all the rail lines and vast rail yards that still exist along the river.

But only way we can do this is to build housing and commercial uses on a platform OVER the tracks. But that is just the start.

We can also extend that platform over the existing flood control channel since we now have a new, more natural river channel for recreational uses.

This would then create a whole new set of uses for this reclaimed land/air space. That platform would cover the existing concrete flood control channel, making it easier to develop a new, much smaller river to run through a new channel built into the banks of the existing concrete channel. It would also allow the present concrete channel to remain a conduit for storm waters – which too often become contaminated by water from storm drains.

This platform over the river could then be 100% dedicated to parks and other recreational uses giving us multiple Central Parks in the heart of our city.

And with the water in the new channel being pumped straight from the aquifer, there is only one place that needs to be checked to ensure the quality of the water flowing through this new park. And thus only one place where the water would need to be filtered if that was necessary.

And the water flow into this channel can be controlled by pumps during the rainy season keeping the water at the same level so that it would never be in danger of overflowing. This bridging over the existing channel would also make it possible to slightly raise the sides of the storm drain section of the river – if necessary – to save Los Angeles from the disastrous eventual floods that will someday in the future now spill over the existing banks, devastating large parts of Los Angeles.

Plus this can be largely funded by the literally billions of dollars in development that can take place on these platforms that would both front a greened river, be within walking distance of the older parts of downtown and their amenities and would also be served by the now underground rail lines that now connect to Union Station.

Now, granted, the market does not yet exist to make all aspects of this plan financially feasible, but it is crucial that we preserve this option for the future.

But the best part of this plan is that one or both parts of it can be done – piecemeal – one block at a time without having to make any changes to any other parts of the river. It can be done with existing technology and it can be done without massive amounts of land condemnation.

Either building new river channel or the partial bridging of either the train tracks – or the storm drain part of the river – can be done in small – or large - pieces without having any impact on the hydrology or the water levels or the water safety of the rest of the storm drain section of the river.

And it can be done – today.

Now single biggest obstacle remaining to reclaiming the river and generating enough revenue to pay for it is the need to acquire – or in some way control - enough land adjacent to the river.

Luckily, the CRA – and only the CRA (unless an entirely new agency is formed which may have to be the long term solution) - with its ability to handle 30-year projects and its ability to tap future tax revenues to finance the project can acquire that much land under broad enough guidelines within the necessary time frame.

And with the tight budgets forecast for the next few years on the federal, state and local levels – there is simply not going to be sufficient revenue streams for the billions – yes – billions of dollars - it will take to both regreen the actual river bed and acquire park land alongside the river; not unless we can utilize the future tax revenue generated from both the regreening of the river and the concurrent redevelopment of the adjacent land.

Right now, most of the land along the river is still reasonably priced, particularly with the current market slump. But as the greening along the sides of the river starts and the real estate market returns, land values will eventually sky rocket making it impossible to acquire sufficient park land and also raise the revenue necessary to restore the river.

The paradox is that the more successful we are in greening what lies along the river today, the harder it will be to acquire the necessary land to actually regreen the river itself or acquire more park space tomorrow.

As for taking into consideration the uses the land is being used for (many of which are essential to the community in the short term, and some of which may – or may not – be compatible with future uses), the CRA should first buy whatever land is feasible to buy the land at today’s very temporarily depressed prices – as quickly as it becomes financially feasible.

And if any of the existing property owners – particularly the larger holdings such as large redevelopment sites and rail yards – wish to take part in his project, there would then be no need to even acquire their land. We would just need to find ways of incorporating whatever new development they will be proposing into the master plan, once that new plan is developed. And, luckily, most of the projects in the Arts District already perfectly fit into this new vision.

In the mean time, any of the land that is purchased should be immediately leased back to the previous owners or users – uses such as factories and rail lines and warehouses - for fixed periods of time (both short and long term) to avoid unnecessary social and economic disruptions.

This will create both a revenue stream for the CRA (allowing it to sell bonds against both that fixed lease revenue and future sales of some of that land PLUS the future tax revenues) and it will also allow for sufficient time for to relocate those uses, while allowing the public to acquire the land at the lowest possible cost. Options to eventually purchase are another tool that might be considered.

The key is that, unlike previous CRA projects, NOTHING will be demolished until it is about to be converted to its new use.

‘Just in time’ land use.

Now there will be some complications in that several parts of the river are already included within CRA projects. But even if those areas cannot be separated and combined into a new project – which I suspect may be the case – portions of the revenues from the affected parcels can be directed towards river-oriented projects.

But there is also a unique kicker in this equation, one that will create a far more than normal tax revenue increase.

One of the biggest – and most wasteful uses – of the immediate river area is the storage and maintenance of government vehicles – with the immense Piper Center being only one of many offenders.

Now the concept behind Piper is excellent – a one stop maintenance yard and utility spot for many of the more industrial government services. Unfortunately, it is also in a location that no longer works. It also has acres and acres of land between it and the edge of the river – perfect for conversion to the new river bed and park space.

The same type of conversion can be done with the huge DWP maintenance yard on Alameda, the many MTA bus and rail yards and the many, many other such now incompatible uses currently along or near the river such as the city’s current personnel building which would make a great loft conversion.

Ironically, all these last uses are also largely concentrated within walking distance of Union Station – the one place we need to concentrate housing and 24/7 uses to help amortize the billions spent in making Union Station the hub of ALL transit systems in Southern California.

The solution to these problems, while not be simple, is at least clear.

First, there needs to be a series of bond issues floated to acquire non-strategic land away from the river (and away from mass transit stations) so we can build new maintenance and storage yards for all seemingly endless levels of government agencies. Multi-agency consolidation of these uses might also allow for considerable savings.

Second, the existing sites then need to be sold to developers who will convert these tax exempt uses with few people currently using them into 24/7 housing and other uses that will create off hours demand for the transit system that terminates at Union Station – plus also create the tax revenues needed to fix the river.

As for specifics on what can be done with these properties, the massive concrete and brick Piper Center can be converted into Los Angeles’ version of San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square overlooking the LA River with dozens of uses being imaginatively carved out of its now bunker like bulk.

And the sleek architecture of the DWP yard on Alameda can easily be converted into mixed uses of retail and housing, with room for a couple of apartment towers to make it a mini-city within the city.

And platforms for housing can be built over the MTA transit yards, as has been one so successfully in New York, London and Paris – and as is being suggested in the Arts District today. And while the economics may not fully be place yet for that aspect of the project, again – the key is to develop today a master plan that will allow this to happen in the future.

But when it happens, it will create additional transit riders that will help amortize the costs of the transit system. And existing government uses can be converted to true public uses and create a much larger tax base from not just the land and the existing improvements being returned to the tax rolls, but also from the new improvements - a double and triple boost to the tax revenues to pay off the bonds.

Another inappropriate use in the area are the various jail facilities that encroach upon the river area. Luckily, though, it has been recently suggested that some of these facilities need to be replaced. So the planning needs to begin now, too, for that section of the river. And a large massive mixed use complex within walking distance of Union Station might produce enough revenue to help fund the replacement of the now outdated justice facilities.

Now besides all these reasons, there is yet another major reason for the CRA to redevelop the LA River corridor – and that is to preserve our critically threatened low and moderate income housing stock in urban Los Angeles.

The CRA redevelopment of the Los Angeles River area could create some affordable housing; but it cannot come close to replacing the tens of thousands of existing low and moderate-income housing units currently being lost yearly to redevelopment in many job rich urban Los Angeles neighborhoods. In fact, one recent study claimed that LA needs 50,000 units of new housing of all kinds, each year.

But there is no way enough new affordable housing units can be built -- even with massive, politically impossible subsidies --- to replace even a fraction of those units.

So if we can’t adequately replace them, and if we can’t legally confiscate (without compensation) a property owner’s right to remodel and improve his units if the demand is there, what can be done to keep what is left of our lower-priced rental housing?

Another simple answer.

Create massive amounts of new workforce, middle-income and upper-income housing along the LA River to slow the conversion of lower- income/workforce housing throughout urban Los Angeles into middle and upper income housing.

This way we can help solve the overall urban housing crisis by providing enough urban housing designed for higher income tenants and buyers in sufficient numbers to stop or at least slow the conversion of existing lower income housing. No other solution will be able to even begin to preserve our existing lower income housing stock unless someone brighter than I can figure out to repeal the laws of supply and demand.

And this is where the LA RIVER CRA redevelopment project can have a major impact on all of the central city.

Along one – and sometimes both – sides of the river, build relatively dense urban market rate housing of all types.

And these new neighborhoods would have the added attraction of the river and its attendant park. And with the river running from Vernon to Elysian Park, there is an almost endless amount of building sites.

So for much of this century, the LA River corridor can provide a release valve for the ever-increasing need for middle and upper middle class housing in urban Los Angeles, leading to the preservation of low and lower middle-income housing in other parts of the city; low income housing that can NOT be feasibly replaced once lost.

And by providing pre-entitled, infrastructure-provided, ready to develop land sold at reasonable (but never subsidized) prices, the CRA will allow developers to create as much competitively priced market rate housing as the market will bear. And the fact that the amount of land released can be increased as the need grows, it can provide a lid on rents and prices both along the corridor and in other others of the city.

And there is yet another social benefit.

The reduction of urban sprawl.

Here we have the ability to create rail service either at grade or under the new platforms that might hook up at one end with the Red Line at Universal City and in the middle with Union Station, along with walking and biking paths for low tech commuting.

And since we will be concentrating upon middle and upper middle-income inhabitants – the ones who are most resistant to mass transit, this will be an opportunity to get far more cars off of the roads and highways, as opposed to merely switching riders from buses to fixed rail with no net reduction in automobile traffic.

Now as for providing the also necessary subsidized housing component, land can be sold at a discount under one of two conditions. First, the developer agrees to provide a certain amount of lower cost units in exchange for the discount in the price of the land. Or, second, non-profit housing developers can buy a certain number of lots on which they can build projects with a mix of market rate and subsidized housing to subsidize the overall project making each project financially self-sustainable and thus allowing them to create even more projects.

Another reason for the acquisition of some of the land in the present time (even if it is then rented back long term to the users), is that it allows the city to control – without any current social disruption – large quantities of land for future needs of the city over the next fifty years. As one example – with both UCLA and USC coming close to being built out physically – and becoming too large socially – where can we place a third (or fourth) great university - private or public - in our city?

And in a city with no MIT with its Route 128 spin-offs and no equivalent of Yale or Harvard with their social science and business schools - and no equivalent of Stanford with its Silicon Valley prodigy – and in a city with a pressing need for additional class rooms - we need new universities that can compete with the finest elsewhere in the country. And it’s not just universities to educate our own – but universities that will also attract the finest talents into the heart of our city from around the world as universities are now major forces in economic development – and are needed to bring us the future filmmakers, bio-tech gurus, business leaders and technology innovators.

Another lack LA has suffered from is that we – alone among major American cities - have never had a world’s fair or exposition; something that San Francisco has had twice – and even San Diego has had once. And beside the short-term benefits of an exposition – largely paid for by corporations and foreign governments – even more important is the physical infrastructure that is left behind – a nucleus for say…. a new university - or new museum complexes.

And where else in LA can we build the housing and facilities for hosting the Olympics plus creating a present day world-class sports park for Angelinos? Or build future biotech research parks and skunk works for whatever new technologies are going to develop over the next thirty years, all of which can be developed behind the housing that will line the banks of the river.

It’s hard to say what the future needs of our city may be, but this land will give us an ongoing supply of new, centrally located land for the next few decades to meet them, along with a stretch of greenery right though the heart of LA country unlike any park anywhere in the world.

And it can be done in such a way that the project is largely self-financed.

But there is, of course, one major obstacle.

The CRA and its leadership.

For unless Cecilia Estolano and her other Rajas of Downtown – the CRA board members – are willing to climb down off of their elephants and at least acknowledge the existence of us natives – nothing in this city will ever change.

But after three years of top down, public-be-damned thoughts and actions – I think, or at least I hope – that maybe, just maybe… they are finally ready to talk with us and work with us and… possibly even… dream with us…..

And, with this hope in mind, in this Friday’s issue of CityWatch, I will examine how the CRA-owned Crown Coach site might become the very first place where all of our collective dreams can finally start to come true. (Brady Westwater is a writer, a long-time downtown and neighborhood council activist and Chair of the LA NC Congress Economic Development Committee. Westwater is a regular contributor to CityWatch. He can be reached at:

No comments: