The office of Mia Lehrer & Associates Studios (“MLA Studios”) is an unassuming black cube in an industrial area of Downtown Los Angeles. It houses the landscape architecture firm that helped create the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan in 2007.
Just beyond the tiny parking lot ringed in the usual city foliage and black iron gates is an outcrop of land that slopes down towards a concrete drainage line. This bleak dribble of water running through was formally called the Los Angeles River and is the reason COO of the Friends of the Los Angeles River, Andrea White-Kjoss, met with Mia Lehrer in her studio this summer.
For those who don’t know what a Chief Operations Officer of a non-profit like the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR) does, Andrea White-Kjoss ensures the ideals of FOLAR’s mission statement work with the logistics of planning and fundraising in the business world. This businesswoman merges private financing with public needs. In White-Kjoss’ words, “the tail shouldn’t wag the dog.” She believes corporations should have social and environmental output and non-profits should be smartly run, but the two should not be confused.
During her meeting at MLA Studios, White-Kjoss and a small task force went to work on plans for artistic projects along the Los Angeles River. The architectural landscaper, Mia Lehrer, is widely known for her involvement in green urban development, but her leadership in the LA River Revitalization Master Plan in 2007 is also noteworthy. The studio’s website, mlagreen.com summarizes the main goal of the plan by saying it “aims to transform 32 miles of the concrete-lined river into public green space in the heart of one America’s most populated cities.”
By removing the concrete that currently lines most of the River’s 51 miles spanning between the Simi Hills and Long Beach, FOLAR and MLA Studios hope to bring the significance of the river into the public consciousness.
Why bother with the effort? As far as many people living in L.A. know, the L.A. River is a sewage line, paved with concrete and filled with trash after every storm. The LA Department of Water and Power website says the river also had a history of devastating floods. According to the LADWP website, in 1914 Angelenos began putting pressure on the government to channel the River. “Channelization began in 1938, and by 1960, the project was completed to form a fifty-one mile engineered waterway.” Channeling the river curbed the damage from flooding, but the effect on future use for recreation and as a drinking water supply would be greatly diminished.
The Los Angeles River was largely forgotten until 1986 when Lewis MacAdams launched Friends of the Los Angeles River. Documented in a 2014 interview with KCET MacAdams, “sculptor Pat Patterson, gallery owner Roger Wong, and architect Fred Fischer used wire cutters to open a hole on the fence along the River.”
It was this act of civil disobedience that catapulted the L.A. River to the forefront of our minds. Thirty years later, FOLAR has gone from making people aware of the river’s presence to restoring the river to its former glory.
One of FOLAR’s goals is to revitalize the river through public interest and support. This is where Andrea White-Kjoss comes in. According to White-Kjoss, community effort should provide the bulk of support in revitalizing the river, followed by government policies as well as public and private funding. “The community should spearhead the efforts.” This means that, ideally, communities living along the river should be able to identify their desires in utilizing the river before local, state, and federal government agencies get involved and private investors. However, getting involved in the process has been increasingly difficult for some impacted communities.
Some of those struggles lie in gentrification and displacement. The University of Southern California published a study this year outlining the potential benefits and costs of revitalizing the Los Angeles River. The study touted benefits like increased access to public green spaces, but also said, “Gentrification and displacement are potentially the most serious political issues associated with the river revitalization and USACE plans.”
The USC study also cited one example of a house in the Elysian Valley which had an increase in rent of 21 percent from 2015. As Los Angeles plans to re-green its river, rising rents is a sensitivity asorbed by the residents impacted by the changes.
Despite the potential risks, FOLAR believes transforming the world’s largest drain pipe into L.A.’s most valuable natural resource is important work. White-Kjoss concedes there is certainly the danger of gentrification looming behind potential revitalization projects, but she believes, “we have to keep the good and the bad in mind when we work.”
By this, she means making green spaces more accessible to L.A’s poorest citizens and educating children about the importance of taking care of our natural resources are important to mitigating costs. According to FOLAR, we need more natural resources to flow into poor areas and equal access to “wild spaces” in the city.
These goals are certainly attainable. In fact, the USC study claims the benefits in reinvigorating the river include “joint use of parks, schools, and pools along the river..” The study also says, “Local green jobs and affordable housing will be at the forefront of the city’s river plans.” With job creation and equal access to housing along the river, there is potential for poorer communities to see an economic boost in their neighborhoods.
Economy aside, FOLAR’s Chief Operations Officer believes the language we use when addressing the issue is telling. When talking about the name of the organization, she stresses Lewis MacAdams’ understanding of the power of words. “[The word] ‘friends’ connotes community and passion,” she says, “and the word ‘L.A. River’ labels what we had turned our backs on years ago.”
Now with efforts from non-profits, community organizations and government officials, the Los Angeles River could potentially assume its former glory.
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