Who will win the battle over the L.A. river

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Who will win the battle over the L.A. river
© Danny Liao

These days, the river is bursting with possibility. More and more people are looking at the 51-mile concrete trench and seeing instead a 51-mile blank canvas, cutting a swath through the heart of Los Angeles, a chance to provide everything from park space to connectivity to affordable housing to water reclamation. Even the dreamy renderings released by the committee bidding for L.A. to host the Summer Olympics in 2024 included a deep blue river snaking its way through downtown L.A., as if its fate were already assured.

Although the actual work put into revitalization has been nominal — a handful of pocket parks, an intermittent bike path and various other nips and tucks — there is a growing sense that the river is destined to become something truly wonderful.

Standing on a picturesque stretch of riverbank occupied by the Frog Spot — which opened last year as the first commercial establishment to face the river — MacAdams marvels at the throngs of people who’ve come here to kayak, to entertain their kids, to listen to bands, to drink beer and play bocce ball. “This used to be a flower bed,” he says, “but we realized it was a bocce court.”

But as river renewal becomes less of a fever dream and more of a reality, tensions are beginning to emerge. Not only is there MacAdams vs. Gehry, there’s also the naturalists vs. the urbanists, the kayakers vs. the water conservationists and the smart growthers vs. the anti-gentrifiers.

They can agree on at least one thing: Change along the river is inevitable.

“The rush to the river, on the part of both idealistic builders of public open space and the development community, represents a historic fact,” says writer and historian D.J. Waldie. “The entire Los Angeles Basin, from sea to mountains, is built out. There’s simply nowhere else to go.” []