Environmentalists dream of park space along Los Angeles River

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Earlier this month federal regulators named the Los Angeles River a navigable waterway. That's given advocates for its restoration new hope for new projects. Here's more about one group's dream park near downtown Los Angeles.

From the roof of the sheriff's garage near downtown Los Angeles, the twin towers correctional facility is right next door. Dodger Stadium is visible, and as Lewis McAdams points out, "There's USC Medical Center on the east. There's Santa Fe brewery, the Metro maintenance facility. This is the only place people can actually see the Piggyback Yard."

From this roof the Los Angeles River looks like a river. There's green algae along the bottom of it, red where metals are mixing in with it. The river is sort of hemmed in right now not only by the concrete but by rail tracks on either side of it.

A train horn at the Union Pacific Transfer Yard sounds.

I took in the rooftop view with Lewis McAdams of the Friends of the Los Angeles River. He wants to stoke excitement about a new park in central L.A. "What we set out to do was look at this railroad yard, which is over a hundred years old, which is the epitome of the industrial-era use of the river, which is basically a conveyance of goods and products... and imagine what this could become," McAdams says. "Its a chance, in a sense, to sculpt the future with water."

A team of architects working with McAdams dreamed up dramatic changes for the L.A. River near this stretch – either diverting part of it onto spreading wetlands, or removing the east side of the river's concrete channel so that the water can meander. The project's hydraulic technical adviser, Ira Artz, says detaining some water on site would protect homes downriver from a major flood. "It actually reduces the amount of water that would otherwise go downstream in the channel and allows you to do more things with that channel. It shows what you can do by breaking out the channel, and that's very significant to both the Corps of Engineers, the county of Los Angeles and the city of Los Angeles," Artz says.

Artz would know – he worked on the city-funded, $3 million L.A. River Revitalization Master Plan. That plan, says Leigh Christy from the architecture firm Perkins and Will, underpins Piggyback Yard.

Christy says making a park people could get to on foot, on bikes or on rail lines could connect divergent neighborhoods. "Its very near downtown Los Angeles, very near where high speed rail is coming in," she says, "walking distance to Union Station, there are multiple things happening in this corridor right now. So there were a lot of opportunities to connect to transportation, to communities, to things like that."

Christy's firm and three others met for eight months to conceptualize the park. Jessica Varner, an associate at Michael Maltzan Architecture, says their sketches were no holds barred.

Architect Mark Salette says they've sketched out trails, soccer fields and gardens along the river. "We described it as a vertical integration of the uses as opposed to the way the city has developed horizontally and experienced a lot of segregation. I don't mean just from a racial standpoint but also from a use standpoint," he continues, "you have residential areas and industrial areas and office areas."

Here and nearby they'd mix together multifamily housing, an arts center, stores, offices and warehouses – a stark contrast to the rows of containers parked at the Union Pacific Transfer Yard now. Landscape architect Mia Lehrer points over in that direction. "You see those trucks coming in there with the containers on the back?"

Lehrer says Union Pacific's way of using the property now inspires the dream park's name. "The containers, they put it on a gurney and they get hauled to wherever. So it's piggybacking the containers as they move from the port and out of here," she says.

The designers say they targeted Union Pacific's yard because of its size. A spokesman for the railroad confirms the company met with the team, but stresses that the property is integral to moving containers out of the port and into the west.

Architects Mark Salette and Leigh Christy admit that's an obstacle – but argue it may not be a permanent one. "This yard is starting to be too small for the type of trains they want to assemble and they're doing a lot of it further east," he says.

Christy breaks in. "Of course they said the land is not for sale. But they said that with the Cornfield and Taylor Yard too, so we hold out hope," she says with a smile.

Those two parks took tens of millions of dollars, years, statewide initiatives, legislative action, lawsuits, and the largest multi-ethnic, multi-organization, multi-agency effort ever in L.A.'s history to happen. For this park Friends of the Los Angeles River isn't releasing a proposed price tag.

Lewis McAdams says he knows he's an idealist. He's also a poet. "The poet William Carlos Williams said a new world is a new mind. So that's what we're doing, is creating a new mind," McAdams says.

This week he starts making the rounds with city officials.

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