Gehry wades into LA River master plan, stirring up ripples of praise and dissent

Gehry wades into LA River master plan, stirring up ripples of praise and dissent

On Friday, the Los Angeles Times scooped the city and made public news that Frank Gehry had met with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti and the nonprofit LA River Revitalization Corp., and that Gehry Partners was working on a master plan for the 51-mile long, mostly-concrete waterway.

In February, AN got word that the firm was involved, but sources pointed towards a building, such as a water treatment plant, or a bridge, but not a comprehensive infrastructural project. While the firm has wowed the world with one expressive form after another, most recently the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, it has shown precious little interest in planning and has limited experience in projects at this scale.

The LA Times quoted Garcetti, who drew a comparison between Gehry, the world’s most famous architect, to Frederick Law Olmsted, famously the designer of New York City’s Central Park, but also a little less famously, the father of brothers John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. who in 1930 presented a report to the City of Los Angeles outlining a network of 440 miles of connecting green spaces around the city, including a parkway along the Los Angeles River.

So, perhaps it was the brothers who shaped the Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan that the mayor had in mind when he said: “To have the Olmsted of our time focusing on this, I think, is extraordinary.”

Given the ire the news provoked, the comparative misstep was akin to likening apples and durian, the odorous fruit with a spiky rind. For many, imaginations went wild wondering what a Gehry-designed LA River might entail. Visions of titanium-clad riverbanks from San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, funhouse steel bridges, or a swooping bike path, spur apprehension among architects, landscape designers, and urbanists, alike.

But given information culled from Christopher Hawthorne’s contribution to the LA Times reportage, Gehry’s focus is hydrology.

“I told them I’m not a landscape guy,” Gehry explained the critic, brushing off the Olmsted comparison. “I said I would only do it on the condition that they approached it as a water-reclamation project, to deal with all the water issues first.”

Hawthorne reports that Gehry Partners is leading a team of in-house designers and outside consultants to tackle the concrete channel, including landscape architecture firm Olin, water expert Henk Ovink, who also serves as an advisor for Rebuild by Design’s Sandy Task Force, Geosyntec, and AN sources suggest that Arup’s civil engineering group might also be involved.

Still, the fiscal future of the whole LA River project could at stake, not simply aesthetic arguments over riparian renderings or the beauty of concrete and steel.

Looming is the concern that any change to the current document, the LA River Revitalization Master Plan, would lead to losing the $1.3 billion unanimously approved by the Civil Works Review Board of the Army Corps of Engineers. The proposal to restore and redevelop the waterway still needs additional governmental approval, including the U.S. Congress. The Corps approval was specific to Alternative 20, a scheme that includes the transformation of the Cornfield and the Verdugo Wash. Embedded in that plan is an already-vetted ecosystem restoration study from 2013. Its unclear if a new master plan would inherit the approval already in place or if Gehry and team would need to start back a square one.

The amount the City of Los Angeles would chip in is $500 million, but that amount has been estimated to rise to $1.2 billion, which would explain why the mayor would reach out to Gehry. The LA River needs a branding and a fundraising campaign in addition to a master plan. The involvement of LA’s best known architect could be an effective way to harness public-private partnerships and inspire investment, but as nearly a decade of research and development on the plan to date confirms, the complexity of the river corridor will take more than any one figurehead.