An ambitious new Los Angeles River Master Plan, available for public comment until March 14, promises big changes all along the waterway’s 51 miles — nowhere more so than in the Gateway Cities, at the river’s confluence with the Rio Hondo southeast of downtown.
This part of the river’s renewal centers on a Frank Gehry-designed set of elevated platform parks over the rivers and a $150-million cultural center on the riverbank.
The intentions are good: bringing green space and cultural resources to working-class neighborhoods. But this revitalization effort must prioritize residents’ essential needs for affordable housing, decent jobs and local businesses, safeguarding against green gentrification.
The potential for a tragic backfire is huge. We could pour millions of public dollars into a plan that looks impressive but drives out its target audience — communities that have found it hard just to survive in recent decades.
The Gateway Cities have always been scrappy. In the 1920s and ’30s, white working-class families were drawn to these towns for the chance to live cheaply — they built their own homes, labored in nearby factories and demanded low taxes. In the 1940s and ’50s, federal support for housing and unions enabled white working families to rise into the middle class. Residents had a political voice in shaping their communities.
In the 1970s and ’80s, that changed. General Motors, Firestone and U.S. Steel shuttered factories. Many white families fled, opening space for Latino immigrants to move in. This mirrored patterns nationwide, as Latinos migrated directly into the “urban crisis,” seizing opportunities where others abandoned them.
Since then, the Gateway Cities have struggled. They embraced retail as industrial development slowed, depressing local wages. Housing went from affordable to precarious. Residents were left to cope with the toxic residue of long-gone industries. Poor residents, and those without documents, were marginalized politically.
The L.A. River Master Plan could play an outsize role in reversing this trajectory. Gehry’s cultural center and platform parks will be added to another new park, the Urban Orchard in South Gate. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority promises to build a light rail line from downtown through southeast L.A. to Artesia, bringing stations to both sides of the river.
The master plan recognizes that these developments are gentrification magnets. Recent real estate transactions, including sales of surplus government land, suggest that developers are already recognizing the potential for rising property values.
And Los Angeles has consulted with the founders of New York City’s High Line — an abandoned elevated railroad remade into a park that stretches for blocks. The High Line’s outsize success pumped up the cost of living nearby, to its designers’ dismay. The lesson? Focus early on equitable outcomes for high-minded urban renewal projects.