A view looking north towards the L.A. River's Florence Avenue bridge. Flickr/Laurie Avocado

Frank Gehry’s involvement in the river’s revitalization could compromise public funding.

In its 51 miles from the Valley to Long Beach, the L.A. River holds a lot of things. Wastewater. Shopping carts. The occasional, implausible fish.

The river holds many ideas about Los Angeles, too—that it is a linear, concrete city, apathetic to nature, disinterested in public space. Famously, the river itself is held by cement trenches, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed in the mid-20th century to protect the city from periodic, ravaging floods.

Now, as plans for the river’s revitalization gain force, it is bursting with controversy.

Last week, the renowned Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry revealed to the L.A. Times that he and his office have been working with the city to develop a new overarching plan to redevelop the long-maligned waterway.

Trouble is, there already is a master revitalization plan, developed over many years by the city, county, a team of local architects and advocates, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose marching orders now are to restore urban ecosystems and increase access to nature. Among many other things, the plan calls for replacing 11 miles of the river’s concrete channel with habitat-friendly soft-bottom riverbed, creating patches of groundwater-recharging marshland, and redeveloping nearby land into public recreation spaces throughout the full course.

Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works Review Board green-lit the city’s $1.3. billion spending framework for that plan, a necessary step before Congress passes its review. Right now, the city is slated to shoulder about 80 percent of the $1.3 billion, which the city doesn’t really have. Local officials and advocates have been lobbying for a more even cost-split with the Corps, based on the existing master plan.

A rendering of a revitalized stretch of the L.A. River. (City of Los Angeles)

However, potential changes to the river’s blueprints by Gehry could stymie efforts to secure more federal funds. As Lewis McAdams, co-founder of the advocacy group Friends of the L.A. River, told KPCC Monday, “We are partners with the Army Corps of Engineers, and we agreed on a particular project. We’re already getting feedback from our lobbyists, asking didn’t we just pass a plan? That’s a legitimate question.”

It’s not clear yet what Gehry’s plans are, exactly. He has insisted that his work will only build on what’s already been done. But other quotes suggest that’s not necessarily true. Gehry thinks the river might be able to store and treat wastewater for reuse—a new (and great) idea for the river’s future. “I said I would only do it on the condition that they approached it as a water-reclamation project, to deal with all the water issues first,” he told the L.A. Times. Gehry may be no hydrologist, but his all-star teams of engineers, architects, and advisors include some.

The starchitect also hinted at his design ideas, saying, "I don't see tearing out the concrete. It's an architectural feature, and I can see ways of incorporating it into what we're doing." Not taking out the concrete certainly diverges from the existing master plan, if Gehry is talking about the entirety of the river (again, the original plan calls for restoring 11 miles to natural riverbed). That could definitely screw with the funding framework.

Of course, Gehry has immense political and fundraising clout. It’s conceivable that his plans for the river could exist outside of the funding framework approved by the Corps last month, and that whatever money was required he would somehow find on his own.

More likely, however, is that the city wants Gehry’s help raising some of the hundreds of the millions it’s soon going to need. At least, that seems to be the best reason for involving him at this stage.

And private fundraising for a public space is a tricky issue, particularly in Los Angeles, famous for its lack of common space. Heavy private investment in the L.A. River could put public-facing plans for a public-facing project behind closed doors. It could ramp up the already zealous speculative development that’s pushing up rents in low-income neighborhoods along the river. Instead of opening up a long-inaccessible common resource, it could close it off in a new way.

But we don’t know what Gehry, or the city that’s involving him, have up their sleeves. Whether the river can hold all of these competing interests and vision, we’ll have to wait and see.

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