The plans to revamp the Los Angeles River—which include removing concrete channels, restoring lost ecosystems, and adding hundreds of acres of new parks and trails—have many in the city ecstatic about the possibilities. But as the long-delayed dream begins to finally progress, with well more than $1 billion in public investment planned, developers have begun to move in aggressively, buying large parcels along the river’s banks.
Some of the proposed development here respects its context, adding energy, not to mention residents, to fast-growing riverfront areas. But locals are worried that even more does not, damaging scale and character in close-knit neighborhoods that were until recently beloved secrets. In one area near the city’s Elysian Park, Elysian Valley, also known as Frogtown, the soft bottom of the river and the subsequent greenery are particularly attractive to developers. It is also an area where feelings about growth are particularly acute—making it a good case study for what is to come.
So far this year more properties along the river have changed hands than in any since 2001, according to the real estate firm CoStar Group. In Frogtown, 15 out of 30 riverfront properties have been sold in the last two years, according to Rick Cortes, a local resident and an architect at local firm RAC Design Build. The issue is not just the massive sell-off, said Cortes, it’s managing the resulting buildings. “I know developers could sully this place and the neighborhood would be the worse for it,” he said.
Cortes has followed along as multi-story, big-block developments begin to dwarf the neighborhood of quirky bungalows and industrial warehouses, often used by creative and working class residents. As of now the FAR for the area is 1.5, but Cortes is pushing to get it downgraded to .75.
Some of the new developments are still in the early stages. One of the lightning rods is the Bimbo Bakery project, featuring 18 three-story units along the river’s banks. Cortes’ colleague at RAC, Kevin Mulcahey, calls the project “standoffish,” “homogenized,” and three times larger than what the neighborhood model allows. Other projects that worry him include River House, a development of 56 apartments in a trio of three-story buildings at the end of Ripple Place, and a 57-foot-tall project at the end of Alessandro Street.
“We’re not anti-development,” said Mulcahey. “But because we do this for a living we know what opportunities these developers have. If everyone goes hog wild they’re going to crush the things that make the neighborhood valuable.”
City officials are scrambling to adjust to the development onslaught, but so far their responses have not come soon enough for some residents. “Currently the restrictions are pretty minimal and it’s pretty wide open,” said Steve Appleton, a local activist and member of the Elysian Valley Riverside Neighborhood Council. “The development is going faster than the planning process.”
Appleton notes that several studies on river development, like recommendations by the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative, and suggestions in the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, have not been implemented.
The most significant measure passed so far, the Los Angeles River Improvement Overlay District (RIO), which sets guidelines for development close to the river, was approved by City Council this summer. It is an important first step, but it has been criticized as lacking teeth. “We have a vision plan. We’re now at the point where tools need to be implemented to fulfill the vision,” said Mulcahey.
Local councilman Mitch O’Farrell has introduced a motion to update the Elysian Valley “Q” Qualifying Conditions to implement the goals of the Silver Lake-Echo Park-Elysian Valley Community Plan, including “preserving and enhancing the neighborhood character” and “seeking a higher degree of compatibility of architecture and landscaping for new infill development.” O’Farrell said he wants to limit FAR and lot sizes in the area, although to what extent he has not yet determined. The motion, first introduced in February, was approved by the city council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee in early October. O’Farrell predicts it will be seen by city council within the next six months.
“We understand we don’t really have those tools. We’re rather powerless at the moment,” said O’Farrell. He stresses that the projects neighbors are concerned with have not yet been entitled, but are simply proposals. The Bimbo proposal, for example, was sent back to the drawing board for revisions.
It will be up to the city to pass such plans, and to begin taking a more aggressive stand to move beyond vision and into implement-ation. Meanwhile locals are keeping a close eye on what is popping up.