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How the Elite Have Co-Opted the Future of the LA River

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Now that activists and organizers have made the river appealing again, the rich and powerful are swooping in

It's been years and years of behind-the-scenes planning by dedicated advocates and organizers to get the LA River to where it is today: an official waterway on the verge of an enormous revitalization, in the form of both natural restoration and new development along its banks. But now that the Army Corps of Engineers is planning to put more than a billion dollars into the river and it's suddenly looking appealing again after decades as a concrete joke, those dedicated advocates and organizers, along with the low-income people who have long lived along the river, are being pushed aside for more monied interests.

The shift is literalized in the river's master plan: originally prepared in 2007 with input from locals, river-lovers, and prolific local landscape designer Mia Lehrer, the project was secretly turned over sometime in the past year and a half or so to flashy starchitect Frank Gehry, who's never been involved in this kind of work, in LA or anywhere else. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti was plain about it, saying Gehry would "elevate this so the civic elite of L.A. realizes this is not a hobby of the activists but one of the grand projects of our time." But in an excellent overview of the river's past, present, and potential future at The Nation, Richard Kreitner has found that Gehry is just the beginning in the gentrification of the LA River rehab.

That gentrification is happening both along the streets surrounding the river and in the back rooms where decisions about the river's future are made, most notably in the board room of the LA River Corporation (formerly the LA River Revitalization Corporation), the nonprofit formed by but supposedly independent from the city government.

To see the former, there's no better example than Frogtown, the Latino neighborhood that snakes along the river between Atwater Village and Downtown. It hasn't been yuppified yet, unlike its neighbors, and it has lots of warehouses that have already been discovered by artists pushed out of the nearby Arts District or elsewhere. And since the Army Corps' rehab plan was announced, it has seen a land rush.

According to Kreitner, "more than half of riverfront properties have changed hands in the last three years, sale prices have more than doubled, and rents have increased dramatically" in Frogtown. Omar Brownson, executive director of the LA River Corporation, says that it represents "the leading edge of what the LA River can mean for a lot of other communities."

Which is a scary thing to hear if you are a resident in one of those riverside communities. Frogtown has organized, working with the city to pass development restrictions that they hope will keep the neighborhood from being overrun with million-dollar lofts.

But Kreitner reveals how little power lies with those residents. He writes that "Several people I met with spoke about the striking alignments of interest among the mayor, the River Corp., and the city’s power elite with regard to the project."

For instance, there are a whole lot of strings running between developer/philanthropist Morton La Kretz and the LA River revitalization. There's been much attention paid to the $5 million he's donating for a bridge across the river between Atwater Village and Griffith Park; less attention has been paid to the $4 million the city/state/county are going to have to kick in to actually finish the thing. And even less has been given to the fact that the La Kretz family "owns land along the river near the bridge, which they hoped to have rezoned and developed into a 60-unit subdivision."

La Kretz also happens to own a parcel in Frogtown, which happens to be zoned for open space. His lawyer claimed that was probably just "the result of a clerical mapping error," and pushed to have it changed to commercial zoning, against the desires of environmentalists. Garcetti wrote in support of the change.

La Kretz, by the way, is also on the board of the LA River Corporation, along with his economic development consultant Daniel Tellalian.

The role and, more importantly, the intentions of the LA River Corporation are hard to pin down—Brownson says it was "created to be an entrepreneurial organization that can work across the public, private, and philanthropic sectors" and its board is filled with "several real-estate developers, lawyers, executives at film studios with lots abutting the river…and Harry B. Chandler, great-grandson of the notorious Los Angeles Times publisher." Its money comes from "banks, aerospace companies, and utilities, as well as philanthropic foundations and Los Angeles County." They're the ones who brought Gehry aboard (and kept the news secret for a year).

Brownson wouldn't say much to Kreitner about conflicts of interest on the board, but he did note that the corporation's job is to "break through the red tape and the political jurisdictions along the river."