Planning for Equitable Development Along the LA River

I was in New York City a couple weeks ago and walked along the High Line, the hugely popular 1.5-mile elevated greenway in Chelsea that transformed a long-forgotten stretch of rail line into a bustling public green space.

Multi-family homes along the Los Angeles River

Photo courtesy of independentman (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

I was in New York City a couple weeks ago and walked along the High Line, the hugely popular 1.5-mile elevated greenway in Chelsea that transformed a long-forgotten stretch of rail line into a bustling public green space.

It was thrilling to see throngs of tourists and locals basking in this oasis of nature, surrounded by colorful gardens and curated art installations. At the same time, I felt a sense of foreboding, as giant signs advertised “luxury living” right “on” or “along” the High Line, while every nearby building seemed to be undergoing remodeling, perhaps to cash in on their proximity to this “innovative public space."

Back home, I feel that same sense of anxiety around longstanding efforts to revitalize the Los Angeles River. For groups like Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR)Clockshop, and NRDC, which have been pushing for decades to restore the river to a more natural state and provide riverfront green space for all, it’s exciting to see the movement finally gaining some serious traction. Elected officials, agency leadership, and philanthropists are committing serious resources to the effort, edging us closer than ever to realizing the lifelong dream of FoLAR’s visionary founder, Lewis MacAdams: a more natural river shining proudly as a community gathering place in the heart of the city.

However, the closer we get to the possibility of a restored LA River, the more we’re seeing the start of a serious problem: rising housing costs and rampant land speculation. These have led to real concerns about new river-adjacent developments displacing people who live in nearby communities like Frogtown and Elysian Valley, and even Chinatown and Boyle Heights—manifesting fears of “green gentrification” here at home.

New residential developments in these neighborhoods with a substantial number of deeply affordable units could help alleviate the severe housing crisis across Los Angeles County. However, any development along or near the LA River needs to be equitable and sustainable, and must meet the following three criteria at a minimum:

  1. Include and facilitate significant green space along, and safe and meaningful access to, the river, which has long been the community’s vision;
  2. Establish structures and policies to protect existing low-income communities from displacement and gentrification; and
  3. Protect critical river and watershed functions.

Two large residential development projects currently proposed along the section of the river north of downtown LA are bellwethers of potential displacement and gentrification of the area, and do not meet the criteria outlined above.

  • Casitas Lofts. The first of these developments is the 419-unit Casitas Lofts project near the border of Glassell Park and Atwater Village, which has the potential to disrupt longstanding river restoration efforts and negatively impact nearby communities. The project is located within the river’s historic floodplain and would restrict access to almost 100 acres of public parkland at the former railyard known as Taylor Yard, including Rio de Los Angeles State Park, the City of Los Angeles-owned Parcel G2, and the State Parks Bowtie Parcel.
  • Elysian Lofts. The second project is the six-building, 14-story Elysian Lofts proposal where Chinatown and Solano Canyon meet, which would tower over and choke off community access to Los Angeles State Historic Park. This project has raised significant concerns of further exacerbating displacement, as community partners including the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA) have reported an increase in landlord harassment and evictions of long-term residents as development activity has increased in the area.

As river restoration efforts continue to gain momentum, we need to be especially vigilant now as these first few large projects have the potential to establish precedent for future development—sustainable or not—in the river corridor. Fortunately, there are several approaches that can help achieve equitable and sustainable development along the river:

  • Anti-Displacement Policies: Planning documents should include policies to disincentivize the displacement of residents. A good example is the set of anti-displacement policies that the County Board of Supervisors adopted as part of the Measure A implementation guidelines.
  • Innovative Multi-Sector Collaborations: A promising conversation has begun within the Los Angeles Regional Open Space and Affordable Housing (LA ROSAH) collaborative, of which NRDC is a member. LA ROSAH has emerged as a new collaborative space to think broadly about the impact of urban parks in low-income neighborhoods and the broader issue of green gentrification, and is developing and advancing strategies that counter displacement and promote access to both affordable housing and open space.
  • Robust Community Planning: Extensive community engagement and creative thinking are what led to the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan, which covers parts of Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and Chinatown, and which the LA Times has called “a model for L.A. planning.” Because the Elysian Lofts site was carved out of that plan, however, community members will need to engage actively in the larger DTLA 2040 community plan update process, the outreach for which will be ramping up this fall.
  • Community Benefits: If development does happen along the river and in these communities, the projects should make residents’ lives demonstrably better. Significant new affordable housing in the community and access to well-paying jobs would be a good start.
  • Value Capture Policy:  In November 2016, voters in the City of LA passed Measure JJJ, which requires affordable housing to be included in projects seeking significant (and valuable) discretionary approvals from the City; and provides projects near major transit with greater density if they include affordable housing. Thousands of new affordable housing units have been produced as a result of this policy in just over two years. Recognizing the land value created through public investment in open space, a similar policy could be applied to LA River-adjacent properties.

Projects in river-adjacent communities present a timely opportunity to practice more equitable housing and land-use practices that prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable. The only way this works, though, is if community members are proactively brought in as partners in the process, and a significant portion of the value these projects create is invested back in the community. If that happens, then we just might end up with equitable development along the LA River that is built to serve communities rather than displace them.

Thanks to our colleagues at SEACA, FoLAR, and Clockshop for their collaboration and contributions to this article.