Joe Edmiston: Gehry a Welcome Addition to River Revitalization

Joe Edmiston

VX News: For years, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) has been deeply involved in the LA River vision and strategic resource planning. Today’s headlines focus on publicized frustrations with the relatively secret selection of Frank Gehry to lead new master planning efforts on behalf of the LA River Revitalization Corporation. Share your views on what the river needs to meet evolving public expectations.

Joe Edmiston: There are portions of the Los Angeles River that can only be adequately planned, or even more importantly, envisioned, by one of the most creative architects in the world today.

What we have from Downtown LA to the mouth of the river in San Pedro Bay is a concrete monstrosity. If there’s anybody in the country who knows about concrete, architecture, and how to blend those two together in a positive way, it’s Frank Gehry. He views the physical embodiment of the river as an opportunity.

Generations have looked at it and said: Oh my God, we’ve got all this concrete! He’s saying: Oh my God, we have all this space, and reorganizing the space creates opportunity.

The genius of his idea—and he wasn’t the first to figure it out—is that the LA River needs to look the way it does only five days of the year. Maybe with global warming, it’ll go up to 10. The river has all this ability to carry water, which is only needed a small fraction of the time. How do we better utilize that space, especially where the river goes through the most disadvantaged communities? I want the best minds to think about that problem. If Frank Gehry has ideas here, we should embrace that. Welcome, Frank.

What does that mean for people who say: We have been toiling in protection of the river and have presented it to the public as this wonderful opportunity—but now somebody is coming in to cherry-pick and say he’s here to save the world?

If you look at it that way, you’re denigrating your own contribution. I’ve told Lewis MacAdams at FoLAR the same thing. Lewis: You, FOLAR, and the people who brought the river to public prominence should be so happy about what you’ve done. Now someone like Frank Gehry is saying he’s going to make coming to the river the crowning achievement of his career. Lewis, you’ve done it! Hot damn!

Unless you take that approach, the response becomes about closing your arms around the river. No, it’s everybody’s issue.

There’s only so much that you can do to green the river before you lose its flood control capacity. Nobody’s going to go back to pre-1938. What do we do? If Frank Gehry can help answer that question, we’d love it.

How does the metropolis’ rich history of efforts to reclaim and revitalize the LA River—by SMMC, TPL, FOLAR, CCS, the County and City of LA, the US Army Corps of Engineers, among others—contribute to, rather than frustrate, Frank Gehry’s planning contributions?

It contributes to the Corps of Engineers, which will ultimately have more say in this than any architect, including Frank Gehry. Our work has focused on re-envisioning at least the portion of the river that can’t take a concrete bottom as a restoration opportunity.

As a result of good politicking on the part of Senator de León in Sacramento and Eric Garcetti in Washington, D.C., we now have the confluence of state funds and federal approval to do something nobody ever envisioned at Taylor Yard. We’re going to take a sledgehammer to a portion of the river where that’s appropriate and restore it. It’s going to be a green oasis in the center of Los Angeles. That’s huge.

You’re speaking of the $25 million allocation by the state?

Right. And it’s not just $25 million from the state—there’s going to be a very significant amount from the City of Los Angeles.

Some chemical gunk left by UP will be cleaned up. It’s not going to happen immediately, but it will be a prototype for what we can do, at least on the 11-mile  segment of the river that can’t keep a concrete bottom.

What, in your mind, is the status of funding for LA River Alternative 20, recommended by the Army Corps’?

It will ultimately be implemented, but maybe not in one fell swoop. It will probably depend a lot on who’s elected president and on how Congress logrolls the next Water Resources Development Act.

But in the course of the next generation, it will happen.

As a result of decades of attention, you’re more aware than most of the drought’s impacts on Southern California livability. What, then, is the potential of the river to help reduce Southern California’s reliance on imported water?

I think you’re getting at our ability to reutilize water.

On all major rivers, like the Sacramento and San Joaquin, we establish minimum flows for environmental purposes. I would urge the State Water Resources Control Board and the local board to establish minimum flows for the LA River. What do you need to keep a healthy fish population? (We have a remarkably healthy fish population.) What do you need to keep the great blue herons happy? Then, what is there as surplus?

 I’m more concerned with the storm water that we waste than about the water coming out of Tillman. All the surplus storm water goes directly to the ocean and pollutes it. We can’t swim in the ocean after a storm. That’s where we’re going to get the additional margin of water that we can use beneficially. We’re going to get it by infiltrating down into the basin. Even if we have to clean up the San Fernando Basin, that will still be cheaper than bringing water down from Northern California.

You have given a great deal of thought to how to finance investment in new water infrastructure and technology. What financing tools are practical and likely to be employed?

I think we realize that we prematurely killed redevelopment without a good alternative.

Now, there are lots of good potential alternatives out there. Cap and trade is one example, which can combine addressing environmental needs and meeting our capital ideas. I like the cap-and-trade program as an embodiment of using our carbon profligacy to transition to a less carbon-profligate and better funded public infrastructure.

While I don’t know that I would ever use the bullet train to get to San Francisco, the governor is right in saying that these large capital projects ought to be funded through mechanisms like cap and trade. I would like to see more large public projects that result in carbon sequestration or more efficient carbon use—though maybe fewer projects that stack more units on top of a transit hub. The private sector can do that pretty well on its own.

That’s the way we ought to use cap and trade. I see it as a huge financing mechanism in the billions of dollars per year.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has done an exceptional amount in the last 40 years to acquire and manage parkland in Southern California. In your view, are we today managing our water and our parks well?

Recently, we had huge signs made in English and Spanish to say that we’re turning off the water for our lawns. Then, nature produced rain a couple of weeks ago. All of our lawns are green, even though we’ve not done anything. People are complaining to me that we’re back to watering our lawn, when we’re not!

No new park should be built without a cistern system, so that we can reuse water that does fall. Mesopotamia—the cradle of civilization—is a barren desert! How’d they do it? Every drop of water that fell in Mesopotamia was used several times, due to cisterns.

We’re in a desert. It’s only because we were able to rape Owens Valley first and the Feather River second that we have profligacy. The water falls here. We just have to effectively use it.

I’m not worried about our parks, since every new park that we’re going to build will have a cistern.

What about existing parks?

We were talking about a program—Green Solutions—for our stormwater problem. I want those solutions to start in our parks and public facilities, including schools. Where you already have investment in the land, put investment in green water infrastructure.

If the first thing we do with green infrastructure is to put it under every single lawn and every single park in the City of Los Angeles, then we will have made a huge dent in our water use problem, and will still have verdant green lawns.

You’ve been a mentor to many involved with the river over the decades. One of them is Esther Feldman, who is leading Community Conservation Solutions. CCS recently dedicated the Zev Yaroslavsky LA River Greenway Trail. Comment, please, on the value of that and other like revitalization efforts.

I’m so happy that Esther named it in honor of Zev. It’s much more than just the name.

Of all the elected officials I’ve known, Zev first understood the importance of integrating the river, public use, and green spaces. His legacy is huge. There are not enough naming opportunities for parks to do justice to what Zev built. I’m happy that at least that one got named after him, and we’ve named a couple of others, as well.

There’s going to be a continuous bike path along the river. I hope that we can keep that golf course green instead of turning it into condos, which is what the developers want. We can make it a Green Solution storm-water project and park, keep the driving range and tennis courts, then turn the rest of that nine-hole course into a beautiful restored wetland. We’ll clean the water around it.

Zev pioneered these visions—the Tujunga Wash Greenway. When a supervisor sets his or her mind to something, it happens with a snap of the fingers.

Lastly, reflect on the significance of the Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Plan’s adoption, one of Yaroslavsky’s final successes as a county supervisor.

Everybody says, flippantly, that it’s huge.

It’s beyond huge. The way it was constructed means it can’t easily be disassembled—not that any supervisor would want to. Often, a plan comes in but then successors remove parts of it. The plan is so integrally interconnected that you can’t do that. That’s the genius of the people who work for Zev, of Zev himself, and of the Coastal Commission. Charles Lester, successor executive director of the Coastal Commission, met with Zev and said: “We’re going to allow the county do this, but make sure it’s not a piece of junk.” Zev responded: “We’ll give you a Cadillac if you give us the ability to do it our way.” The Coastal Commission agreed.

My God, everybody on the environmental side thinks it’s a great idea!

Parenthetically, we could probably use a few vineyards—but that’s my own personal opinion and nobody agrees with me.

"There are portions of the Los Angeles River that can only be adequately planned, or even more importantly, envisioned, by one of the most creative architects in the world today... Welcome, Frank." -Joe Edmiston