The LA River: A Cautionary Tale for Gentrification?

HERE’S WHAT I KNOW-The Los Angeles River runs from the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains through the San Fernando Valley, meandering nearly 48 miles to its mouth in Long Beach. The River also runs through the history of our city, as a source of food and water for the native Tongva before the arrival of the Spanish, eventually serving as the primary fresh water source for Angelenos until the opening of the LA Aqueduct, as well as a popular film location for dozens of movies, from Grease and LA Story to Transformers and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The usually dry concrete-covered river bed is used for cinematic car chases, gang rumbles, and to represent a post-Apocolyptic Los Angeles in not only films but numerous video games and music videos. 


The River has now become a point of contention among environmental and social activists, politicians, an internationally famed architect, and developers in a story that could certainly provide fodder for a 21st generation Chinatown

The Army Corps of Engineers is planning to pump more than a billion dollars into a revitalization project that has shifted from the river’s 2007 master plan, which was developed with input from locals, river enthusiasts, and local landscape designer Mia Lehrer, to an ambitious project involving starchitect Frank Gehry. Mayor Garcetti, who may see the glittery new LA River 2.0 as a capstone of his mayoral legacy, proudly states that Gehry’s sign-on would “elevate this so the civic elite of LA realize this is not a hobby of the activists but one of the grand projects of our time.” Gehry has compared the possibilities of the revitalization to something that would make New York’s High Line look “pishy.” 

The revitalizition efforts have pushed a drive towards gentrification in surrounding communities such as Frogtown, which winds between Atwater Village and downtown, launching a land grab in neighborhoods surrounding the river. 

In an article published in The Nation (March 10, 2016), Richard Kreitner says, “more than half of riverfront properties have changed hands in the last three years, sale prices have more than doubled, and rents have increased dramatically in Frogtown.” Executive Director Omar Brownson of the LA River Corporation, a non-profit charged with decision making, says the efforts represent “the leading edge of what the LA River can mean for a lot of other communities.” 

However,the Disneyland Main Street of gentrification is typically marked by clouds. Unfettered development sweeps away affordable housing and small local businesses. Residents of Frogtown have mobilized to work with the city to pass some development restrictions. Kreitner has some doubt that the residents have much clout. “Several people I met with spoke about the striking alignments of interest among the mayor, the River Corp., and the city’s powerful elite with regard to the project.” Of note, the board of the non-profit includes high powered attorneys, Warner Bros. executives, real estate developers, former Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, and Harry S. Chandler, great-grandson of the former LA Times publisher. 

Los Angeles history is infused with neighborhoods and projects where gentrification and development have pushed residents from their homesteads, from Dodger Stadium to Disney Hall. Certainly, economic resurgence can provide benefits such as filling the tax coffers and increasing employment -- but at a hefty price. 

Activist and SEACA executive director Sissy Trinh wants public officials to explore creative ways to avoid the widespread displacement that can come with the river’s revitalization, aware that the redevelopment may bring in over $5 billion in investment and create 18,000 jobs. Trinh hopes the city will prioritize funds for affordable housing, labor development, and shielding residents and small businesses from displacement. 

She adds that creating an “Enhancement Infrastructure Financing District” would funnel some increased tax revenue into infrastructure upgrades and projects to keep residents in their homes. 

A clean up of the LA River and the addition of open space would provide benefits for all Angelenos. But, as with any redevelopment project, parties must work together to ensure a balance between social and enviromental concerns and financial interests or, to borrow from an old adage, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”


(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles-based writer and writes for CityWatch.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.