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Refilling the Silver Lake reservoir is a huge mistake

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It should be turned into public space for all Angelenos

Water pouring back into the empty Silver Lake reservoir
The Silver Lake Reservoir was refilled in 2008 after it was treated for bromate contamination.

As you circle the Silver Lake Reservoir’s shores over the next two months, watching its concentric bathtub rings vanish beneath icy blue Eastern Sierra snowmelt, don’t be fooled into thinking that’s a victory. Yes, the reservoir is being refilled. And with real water. And sooner than we thought. But refilling the Silver Lake Reservoir is a big missed opportunity.

Since 2015, when it was drained for an infrastructural overhaul so it would no longer serve as a source of drinking water, the reservoir has sat empty, its undulating cement fully exposed like a forbidden skate park, padlocked and cordoned off behind a imperious fence, awaiting its fate.

In the two years that followed, neighbors debated, often contentiously, about what should happen next. Some, citing the drought, argued the reservoir shouldn’t be refilled at all. Some fought for it to be refilled as fast as possible. Others said it shouldn't be filled until there was a plan in place to fix the problems with what has become, over the years, an informal recreation area that lacks access to the water, a safe continuous path, true public spaces, and actual bathrooms

It could have become a swim lake, a bird sanctuary, a pedal boat pond, a kayaking school, an urban beach, a stand-up paddleboard yoga studio, a nature preserve, a park with actual bathrooms.

Turning the reservoir back into a Brutalist bird bath is an acute urban planning failure.

At fault are city agencies, which went into this major construction project without making a plan with city leaders, and city leaders—representing not one but two city council districts—who refused to fight for a more inclusive solution for their constituents. But mostly at fault are a few of those very loud constituents who don’t want to share the space with the rest of Los Angeles.

The reservoir has been drained before, most recently in 2008. At that time, the reservoir was treated to prevent a carcinogen named bromate from leaching into the water (the same reason the adjacent Ivanhoe Reservoir got its big black balls). Construction had already begun on the underground tanks that would eventually hold the neighborhood’s drinking water, and it was clear even back then that the Silver Lake Reservoir would not need to remain a concrete shell much longer.

In that moment of self-reflection, despite some objections from locals, a few improvements to the reservoir were made. The walking path was redesigned in a way that didn’t force users to share streets with harried rush-hour drivers. And, after much local resistance, an additional sliver of public space was carved out of the 96-acre site, a narrow swatch of grass named the Meadow. (Which remains fenced off and physically separated from the reservoir, with no access to bathrooms.)

After Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials announced the reservoir was going offline for good, landscape architect Mia Lehrer proposed transforming the body of water into a park in a way that would also help address local water issues (Lehrer designed the reservoir’s original master plan in 2000 as well).

Courtesy of Mia Lehrer + Associates

What the Silver Lake Reservoir might have been.

Her proposal called for removing the concrete walls and sculpting a shallower, permeable basin—which would require far less water to fill—to create an ecosystem that would not only help to sustain an existing grove of eucalyptus trees home to blue herons, but also nurture a new wetlands that would welcome even more wildlife. Artificial islands and boardwalks would create a network of mini parks, turning the reservoir’s perimeter into a greenway corridor that would better serve both migrating animals and jogging humans.

But some residents opposed it, arguing poor neighborhoods “like Watts and South LA” would benefit more from a world-class park. “How many of LA's residents from not only park poor but just plain poor neighborhoods will be able to avail themselves of those benefits?,” wrote Iris Schneider in LA Observed. “For some kids in South LA, Silver Lake might as well be an international destination. They will never get here and may not even know it exists.”

Yet opponents also worried the park would suddenly become overrun with people who would realize that Silver Lake exists. “We don’t need to be a world-class destination—this is not Chicago and the Great Lakes lakefront,” Jill Cordes told CityWatch. “We have a ton of destinations in LA. We don't need, nor want, the reservoir itself turned into something other than the beautiful body of water that it has traditionally been.”

In other words, keep the poor people, and the tourists, and anyone else who doesn't belong there, far, far away.

Reservoirs across the city have been repurposed as recreation areas for decades, including the glorious transformation that recently took place at Echo Park Lake. A short two miles from Silver Lake Reservoir, the revitalized basin has become a thriving, lotus-fringed shining exemplar of public space. There are more birds. There are more fish. The neighborhood was not overrun by people who suddenly “discovered” the lake. In fact, at all times of day, it feels cleaner, safer, and more vibrant.

The Rowena Reservoir’s forbidden beauty.
Mike Senese / Flickr

To see the Silver Lake Reservoir’s future, you’ll have to walk one mile northwest to the Rowena Reservoir, a beautifully landscaped body of water with a naturalized shore, native plantings, and two waterfalls, earning it the nickname “Fantasy Island.”

When the Rowena Reservoir was completed in 2001, LADWP was praised for its urban design foresight, where it “listened to residents and provided a pleasing landscape” that didn’t simply serve a utilitarian purpose (the reservoir is actually a shallow pond with the functional water storage tank below). Yet since the moment it was completed Rowena Reservoir was completely closed off to the public. To the relief of those who dwell upon its banks, the reservoir remains gated and locked, so few Angelenos can see the idyllic $14 million makeover they helped fund.

In a few weeks, the Silver Lake Reservoir will once again be filled to its asphalt brim. From a certain elevation, the at-capacity reservoir is a stunning aquamarine, and no fence is visible. For the handful of Angelenos who are able to sit on their well-appointed properties and gaze upon its waters unencumbered, the restoration of this view will signify a win, a maintenance of the status quo where outsiders remain outsiders.

For the rest of us, the reservoir will still be there, of course, a place we can walk around, or peer at through a chain-link fence, or view splashing birds from a great distance, or lay by until we have to empty our bladders. Eventually, yes, the fence might come down. Some more trees might be planted on the shores. But as long as the many barriers between people and water remain, this will never be a true public space. The concrete banks will never be removed because they are intended to signify the very distinct boundaries for the outsiders. Look, but don’t touch. Use, but don’t experience. Visit, but don’t stay.