By T.A. Hendrickson
At their board meeting on Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Supervisors approved the final Los Angeles River Master Plan, a document to guide the development of 51 miles of continuous open space along the river from Canoga Park to Long Beach, including key sites in Northeast Los Angeles.
The five-member Board of Supervisors approved the Master Plan unanimously despite the objections of several local environmental groups.
Stated goals of the Master Plan are to improve water quality and supply; restore natural habitats for plants and wildlife; protect riverside communities; provide equal access for all Angelenos to parks, trails, recreational facilities and cultural activities along the river route; and manage flood risk.
The opponents of the Master Plan say that the document is mainly about flood management and redesign through the use of more concrete, not restoration of the river ecosystem and protection of riverside communities.
Opposition to the Master Plan was on full display on Tuesday morning, when eight environmental organizations held a press conference to announce their dissent. These groups, most of which served on the 41-member Steering Committee for the Master Plan, demanded that the County remove their names and logos from the Plan’s community engagement and Steering Committee section. They said that the Plan falsely claims to have engaged them in robust community consultation and to reflect their feedback.
The dissenting groups include East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), Heal the Bay, L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust, L.A. Waterkeeper, Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, The Nature Conservancy of California, and Trust for Public Land.
The opponents of the Master Plan also sent a letter detailing their opposition to the County Department of Public Works and private entities involved in the L.A River restoration.
County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents Northeast Los Angeles, did not respond as of press time to a request from the Boulevard Sentinel for comment on the opposition to the Master Plan.
At the board meeting, Supervisor Hahn asked Mark Pestrella, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Works, about the opposition from environmental groups. Pestrella said that the opponents saw some aspects of the Master Plan as “emblematic of more concrete and less natural solutions.” He defended the choices made in the Master Plan and said they had considerable support on the community level. He also said that environmental groups would continue to have opportunities to raise their voices and be heard as the Master Plan advances.
Marissa Christiansen, CEO of FoLAR, a leading river advocacy group headquartered in Cypress Park, wrote in response to questions from the Boulevard Sentinel that FoLAR is “disappointed and downright alarmed by the County’s LA River Master Plan.”
She said the Master Plan is “greenwashed,” referring to the disingenuous tactic of claiming to be environmentally conscious but actually making no notable headway on sustainability issues. In the case of the Master Plan, Christiansen said it “ignores the realities of climate change, holistic watershed function and community needs.”
She also said that the Master Plan did not undertake the necessary analysis to understand the feasibility of restoring the river in a more natural way without reliance on concrete, an approach she said is supported by experts, engineers and environmental advocates.
Tim Brick, managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, echoed Christiansen’s concern. Brick told the Boulevard Sentinel that the Master Plan takes a narrow view of the river as a flood channel rather than a complete ecosystem encompassing storms, water, fish, wildlife, sediment and the communities located along the river.
Brick is particularly concerned that the plan does not include restoration of the Arroyo Seco and Tujunga Wash tributaries of the L.A. River. A plan for restoring the river that ignores the tributaries is akin to a plan for restoring health to a human body but ignoring circulation and other functions in the arms and legs, he said.
A central issue in the redevelopment of the L.A. River is “green gentrification,” a dynamic in which public environmental investment in low-income communities raises property values, leading to the displacement of current residents.
The opponents to the Master Plan say a holistic approach to river redevelopment would bolster community resilience.
The county supervisors, for their part, want to try to establish a public land bank that would be able to purchase land in the affected communities on which to build affordable housing. On Tuesday, in addition to approving the Master Plan, the county supervisors also approved a motion calling on relevant agencies to report back in the months to come on how to establish a land bank pilot project with an initial $50 million.
The land bank idea was explained in a recent opinion essay in the L.A. Times by Jon Christensen and Sissy Trinh. Christensen, an adjunct assistant professor at UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, has been involved in L.A. River redevelopment issues. Trinh is executive director of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance.
A new land bank along the lines outlined by Christensen and Trinh would create only 800 units of affordable housing out of an estimated 5,200 units that the Master Plan estimates will be needed to avoid displacement of residents in low-income riverside communities.
Christensen and Trinh argue that the county could try to tap federal COVID recovery aid and the state budget surplus to find additional funds for the land bank to keep fighting green gentrification beyond the initial effort.
The final L.A. Master Plan has been some six years in the making. At this point, there is agreement that the river is an environmental disaster and that displacement of residents of L.A. riverside communities would also be a disaster. But there is disagreement on how to address those disasters.