Landscape architect Laurie Olin, left, and architect Frank Gehry, in Long Beach, contemplating their new master plan for the Los Angeles River. (Omar Brownson / River LA)
Christopher Hawthorne, Architecture Critic
The design team working with architect Frank Gehry on a controversial new master plan for the Los Angeles River has begun to introduce its work to the public — but in a noticeably cautious and low-key way.
River LA, the nonprofit group that began collaborating with Gehry’s office more than a year ago, isn’t ready to unveil any design proposals by the architect. Or any rough sketches, for that matter.
Instead it has been holding upbeat, informal “listening sessions” in neighborhoods near the river, in an apparent effort to build goodwill. The new website it developed with two of Gehry’s partners, expected to go live Tuesday morning at lariverindex.org, is stuffed with maps and charts but similarly short on architectural detail.
The quiet rollout suggests that River LA is less interested in giving a clear picture of what Gehry’s plan eventually may include than in tamping down charges that it has been born of secrecy — and worries that it may operate as a Trojan horse, a kind of high-design architectural cover, for rampant real-estate speculation in communities along the river.
At the same time, as the river takes on new shades of economic and political meaning — becoming a magnet for attention and investment after decades of near invisibility — the race to reimagine it is growing more crowded. River plans are moving forward at the federal level and in Sacramento, with little clarity about how they ultimately might relate to the Gehry effort.
William Bowling and Deborah Jones, representatives of Friends of the Los Angeles River, walk along the riverbank in Long Beach on Feb. 12, 2015. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Some longtime river advocates, including Friends of the Los Angeles River co-founder Lewis MacAdams, have sharply criticized River LA for keeping its relationship with Gehry under wraps for much of last year. The makeup of River LA’s board of directors, which includes real-estate developers and land-use attorneys, has fueled anxiety among neighborhood activists about what the master plan will produce.
River LA has responded by playing down, at least for now, the possibility of any new construction near the river, which might drive fears of gentrification or displacement, and playing up a wonkish attention to hydrological and ecological detail, which is likely to offend no one.
According to Tensho Takemori and Anand Devarajan, the partners in Gehry’s firm who have been overseeing research on the river — alongside prominent Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin and Mark Hanna, a water resources engineer at Geosyntec Consultants — the website is meant to emphasize that the new master plan remains a work in progress.
It is organized as an index allowing users to sift through data and graphics on nine major topics, including “flood risk management,” “ecology and habitat” and “water quality.”
“This is just meant to be information,” Takemori said. “There’s no designs, no proposals or anything like that.”
Still, the website, funded in part by grants from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, does contain hints about where the Gehry team is focusing its work — and what kinds of designs may emerge in the coming months.
One section, “Water Recharge,” suggests that by redesigning the river to capture more storm water — directing it to aquifers rather than allowing it to flow via the river out to sea — the region could decrease its reliance on water imported from other parts of California and the Western U.S. by as much as 14% per year. Under the “Open Space and Parks” tab is a proposal, short on details, for creating 2,300 acres of new park space within a mile of the river.
A central goal of this master plan, like the ones that have come before, will be to strike an effective balance between maintaining flood-control measures while opening up the river to new kinds of public access. When the river, beginning nearly a century ago, was encased in concrete to protect against flooding, it was largely fenced off. It became, for all practical purposes, a massive piece of private infrastructure designed for one task only: whisking storm water away from the city and toward the ocean.
Architect Frank Gehry is seen in his Playa Vista office in September 2015. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
But on the vast majority of days — perhaps as many as 360 per year — there is so little water in the river’s concrete channel that the public could use most of the space without danger. Reopening the channel to that kind of broad and regular access will be, in part, an effort to make it visible again as a civic amenity.
Gehry said that his work with Takemori and Devarajan — and with Olin, whom he’s known for decades — has included preliminary discussions about building housing along the 51-mile-long river or even atop new bridges crossing it.
“Our goal on the housing is, wherever we end up, our value system says we want to get it so that it’s mixed,” Gehry said. “So it’s not just low-end housing and middle-end and high-end — we want to collide them somehow. And then how do you connect that to open space, if you can create a park?”