Eighty years ago this month, on Sunday night, Feb. 27, 1938, a light rain began to fall in Los Angeles, a welcome shower in a long dry stretch. But relief turned to shock over the next few days, as two monster storms hit the area, causing the Los Angeles River to overflow its banks in every direction. By Friday, Mar. 4, the Flood of 1938 had inundated one-third of L.A., claimed an estimated 100 lives and destroyed 5,600 homes. Damage was estimated at $70 million, or $1.2 billion in today’s dollars. The public, having also experienced major floods in 1914 and 1934, demanded better flood control, leading to the decision to encase virtually all of the 52-mile L.A. river in concrete. The project, which took 20 years to complete, has protected lives and property by turning the open, untamed river into an off-limits, man-made channel for water to flow directly to the ocean.
Fast forward to today. On Jan. 20, the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering (BOE) held a “community site tour” of riverfront land in the G2 parcel in Cypress Park, also known as Taylor Yard. The parcel, a 42-acre former train yard purchased by the City in 2017, is the linchpin in a long-term effort to revitalize the river. If all goes according to plan, G2 will become a park along an 11-mile continuous ribbon of riverside public space stretching from Griffith Park to downtown L.A.
On the tour, people were allowed to stroll along a gritty, yet stunningly scenic and peaceful path between the train tracks and the river’s edge. At checkpoints along the way, engineers, urban planners and environmentalists explained the river restoration plans, which – it should be noted – do not presume pulling out all the concrete.
Safety is still paramount, said Mary Nemick, spokesperson for the BOE, adding that a guiding principle in the river plans is that changes must provide at least as much flood control as is currently the case. Ways to do that with less concrete may include widening and deepening the river, terracing its banks and restoring wetlands and other natural features. It is also possible to beautify the riverside without removing concrete. The point is that drastic, thorough concrete channeling of the river is no longer the only way to protect against flooding. Other techniques can help do the job, and in the process, give the river back to people and nature.
Ground zero in that effort will be Northeast L.A., at the G2 parcel. The tour on Jan. 20 was a prelude to a public meeting on Jan. 24 at the Sotomayor
Learning Academies in Glassell Park, hosted by BOE and other community partners. The meeting was the first in what is to be a series of meetings to explain the City’s plans and solicit public feedback. The meeting was basically a design workshop to explore ideas for a G2 River Park site. Among the options considered: Will the park be a preserve for natural habitats and wetlands, with a focus on landscape and strolling, or a vibrant river walkway with recreational and performance spaces? Or both? What kind of public art and educational facilities, if any, will be included?
The Elephant in the Room
Those and other questions will be raised and answered over time.
Meanwhile, property values in Cypress Park, Elysian Valley (the community across the river from G2) and Glassell Park are soaring, partly in anticipation of the river re-development. This raises a different set of questions: In the end, will the generally lower income and Latino residents of those communities benefit from a repurposed river? Or will they mainly suffer the downsides: gentrification and displacement, even fewer affordable housing options and loss of jobs that could come with the loss of industrial land?
A major report that allowed the City’s river plan to move ahead, published in 2015 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, downplayed those questions, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to address them. But social problems are like floods. If they’re not addressed in advance, they only get worse.