Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What Is Frank Gehry's Vision For The L.A. River?


Watch this Friends of the Los Angeles River video:

Los Angeles River before the concrete
Hello Everyone:

Today we move from the celebration versus shoe-gazing analysis of Los Angeles to more current events.  Two exciting news items from the City of Angeles: first, Mayor Eric J. Garcetti is campaign to make Los Angeles the American bidder for the 2024 Summer Olympics.  Second and relevant for today, architect Frank Gehry is working with civic officials to draft a new master plan for the Los Angeles River redevelopment.  The good part, is that it is not Peter Zumthor-so no black blobs.  The bad news, according to the comments on the social media reflect concerns about his firm's lack of landscape architecture and planning experience as well as their over-dependence on computational architectural.  Recently Peter Jamison, Martha Groves, and Dan Weikel report in their story for the Los Angeles Times, "Exclusive Architect Frank Gehry is helping L.A. with its Los Angeles River master plan, but secrecy troubles some," what Mr. Gehry's presence will bode for the future.

Bridge overlooking the L.A. River
Frank Gehry is better known for the contemporary icons Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles,  However, since last year, Mr. Gehry has been doing under the radar work on "...what officials describe as the beginning of an overarching plan for the bridges, bike paths, walkways, and other improvements intended to revive public use of the river as it winds from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach."

Much of the specifics of Mr. Gehry's vision still remain under wraps.  Mayor Garcetti and the L.A. River Revitalization Corp, a nonprofit organization established to coordinate a renewal effort, had not intended to announce the Santa Monica-based architect's involvement until later this month.  Nevertheless, the Times beat the Mayor and the L.A. River Revitalization Corp to the punch this past Friday; "...Garcetti said the architect is working on the project pro bono and producing a 'master plan, in the truest sense of the word.'"  Mayor Garcetti went as far as to compare the secretive master plan to the work of famed Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted.  To have the Olmsted of our time focusing on this, is extraordinary, said the Mayor in an unrelated City Hall press conference.

L.A. River 1895-1920
Peter Jamison, Martha Groves, and Dan Weikel observe, "Gehry's involvement marks a potential turning point in a decades-long struggle to reinvent the river and its concrete-lined banks.  But his plan is getting a cold reception from some of the activists who helped draw attention to the cause."  Their concerns include the secrecy surrounding the plan and lack of public input on a potentially broad blueprint for the river's future.  They also have sounded the alarm over the possible direction for river redevelopment could impede "...federal funding for $1.4-billion, 11-mile restoration project in northeast Los Angeles and downtown."

Those concerns came to the forefront last week when the nonprofit group, Friends of the Los Angeles River (https://folar.org) led by Lewis MacAdams, sent a letter to the River Revitalization Corp, categorically refusing to support Mr. Gehry's effort.  The letter also stated that "...the river environmental group would take in a news conference announcing the architect's plan."  A copy of the letter obtained by the Times, in which Mr. MacAdams expressed fear that the new vision and plan for the river led by Frank Gehry would undermine our efforts to receive funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and create confusion among the public and political leadership.

Lost Wetlands of Los Angeles
Photograph from Herald-Examiner Collection
In an interview with the newspaper, Mr. MacAdams clarified his opposition to the project.  He told the reporters that "...his group's decision not to endorse the project stemmed partly from philosophical opposition to the sort of top-down land-use planning that led the federal government in the mid-20th century to turn a meandering river into an unsightly drainage channel."  Lewis MacAdams continued,

Last time there was a  single idea for the L.A. River it involved 3 million barrels of concrete,...To us, it's the epitome of wrong-ended planning.  It's not coming from the bottom up.  It's coming from the top down.

Frank Gehry's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Current view of the L.A. River
   Deputy mayor for city services Barbara Romero told the reporters, "...there would be an extensive outreach process to solicit Los Angeles County residents' thoughts as Gehry's work moves forward.  Ms. Romero also told the reporters that public comment process was to be determined and handles through the River Revitalization Corp.  She also said, "...Gehry had be studying the river in conjunction with the Revitalization Corp. since last November...his work would 'build on' the Army Corps-funded restoration project, not interfere with it."  Blogger can only imagine what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has in mind.  Ms. Romero bubbled, At the end of the day, the L.A. River is an infrastructure...Having someone like Frank Gehry involved elevates it.  Elevates it to what remains to be seen.

Los Angeles River and Downtown
The L.A. River Revitalization Corp issued a statement to the reporters saying Mr. Gehry's efforts will expand upon decades of important work that has come before...Far from complicating any other efforts, his work will complement those efforts.  The statement continues, This project will have tremendous amount of public input from the diverse talent and ideas of people across the region.  This all sounds well and good but blogger thinks it might be helpful for Mr. Gehry and River Revitalization Corp could, at least, publish some sort of teaser drawings.

Some, such as architect Kevin Mulcahy of RAC Design Build, a four year-old firm based in a riverside warehouse in Elysian Valley, were happy over Mr. Gehry's participation.  Mr. Mulcahy told the reporters, "it was an exciting resolution to the question of who would ensure that the restoration project would have a unified design as it winds through a patchwork of cities and unincorporated county land."  Keving Mulcahy said,

It ends a years-long street fight...over who might have the world-class vision and world-class capital to develop a comprehensive plan for transforming the entire river into a 51-mile-long public space.

Urban hike the L.A. River
The mostly arid concrete riverbed is one in a series of urban waterways targeted for redevelopments.  The best-known is the San Antonio River Walk, "which attracted more than 9 million non-resident tourists last year and million more locals."  According to Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute in Washington D.C., Most American cities turned their backs on the water in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.  Today, There's hardly a city in the country that hasn't tried to reconnect with its waterfront...Some have had more success than others.

The Los Angeles River revitalization master plan was adopted by city officials in 2007 after extensive public comment.  Ms. Romero told the reporters, "Gehry's work will flesh out design elements that were left vague."  This may sound all well and fine but "in a region and state known for heavy regulatory review of large developments-especially near environmental resources-question remain about which government agencies will have a say in how Gehry's vision is implemented."  Figuring this out should be fun.

Los Angeles River through downtown in the evening

Los Angeles-based environmental attorney Douglas Carstens told the reporters,

It could be the city of Los Angeles with input from the federal government and local agencies or it might be a federal process with cities as the commenting agencies...They might turn this into something regional.  All of this needs to be coordinated.

Perhaps if civic officials provided more clarity about which agency was taking the lead in this project, it might ease some of the concerns over this project.  Mr. Carstens comment about the need for coordination is more of a statement of the obvious.

According to Mr. Carstens, one of the challenges is, ...to balance competing visions of the river as environmental haven-featuring abundant parkland and public access-and as the spine of major urban redevelopment, surrounded by shops and housing.  If there are differing visions, the conflicts and issues would have to be worked out...Frank Gehry might be able to do that.

Los Angeles is a park-poor city and no doubt the redevelopment of the Los Angeles River has the potential to partially remedy this situation.  Perhaps in the coming months as more information becomes available, the public will have a chance to comment on the project.  Regardless, much remains to be seen of Frank Gehry's vision for the Los Angeles River.

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