“The L.A. River Story,” a short film released late last week by the office of lawn-eliminating Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, begins with the opening narration:

“The Los Angeles River is a story of discovery. It’s not unusual to encounter people in Los Angeles who have no awareness that there’s a river cutting the heart of the metropolitan landscape. But it’s also not unusual to encounter people from all walks of life, all ages, all occupational and class strata, who know about the L.A. River now.”

I myself fell into the former camp while calling Los Angeles home a little over 12 years ago. That is to say, I had no clue that the graffiti-covered concrete eyesore in my own backyard was, in fact, a river.

At the time, I lived on the fringes of Toluca Lake, a dainty L.A. neighborhood with great diners and a discernible small-town vibe located just a not-so-quick drive across the Santa Monica Mountains, via the Cahuenga Pass, from Hollywood. Famous for its Bob Hope associations and for being misidentified as Burbank (or North Hollywood, Studio City or Universal City) by those unfamiliar with the oft-disorienting terrain of the San Fernando Valley, Toluca Lake was also the home of my father’s paternal grandparents. Residing in a modest bungalow on a quiet street less than a mile from the the original Bob’s Big Boy on Riverside Avenue (in Burbank, technically), my great-grandparents had passed away long before I arrived on the scene.

The Los Angeles River, BurbankThe Los Angeles River as I knew it: a massive swath of concrete cutting through Toluca Lake and Burbank. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Formerly a bustling agricultural community filled with orchards, Toluca Lake is also home to the Los Angeles River. Running along the southern edge of the neighborhood, the L.A. River, once upon a time, fed into Toluca Lake itself, a 6-acre oasis that’s now surrounded by luxury homes and a golf course.

During the short time that I lived in Toluca Lake, I crossed the L.A. River hundreds of times, traveling along both W. Olive Avenue and Cahuenga Boulevard. I was semi-aware of its presence but completely oblivious to its significance. I assumed it to be a particularly unsightly work of infrastructure, nothing more. Why should I pay special mind to a concrete-lined blemish, a massive drainage ditch, a freeway-crisscrossed wasteland, a highly polluted non-river?

Not fully knowing what exactly it was and unwilling to learn more about its origins, I had written the Los Angeles River off.

A river restored and reborn

In the over a decade that’s passed since my early-20s stint in Southern California, I’ve evolved into the second type of person described in the opening of "The L.A. River Story." I do know about the L.A. River. I just don’t live in L.A. anymore.

In the coming years, I’m guessing a lot of people, including thousands upon thousands of people who call Los Angeles home, will finally get the chance to properly know the L.A. River.

The plan to restore portions of the 51-mile-long L.A. River back to its concrete-less natural state won’t happen overnight, and it won’t come cheap.

The importantly thing is, the $1.3 billion greenway scheme a scheme that would “reestablish scarce riparian strand, freshwater marsh, and aquatic habitat, while maintaining existing levels of flood risk management” along an 11-mile stretch of the concrete-encased river near Griffith Park known as the Glendale Narrows is one important step closer to happening.

Someone should probably alert Sandy Olsen … and maybe John Connor, too.

Late last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave its approval to the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration project. While a full blessing from the Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works Review Board is no doubt an “important milestone,” to quote Garcetti, there’s still a few other crucial steps to go including approval from, gulp, Congress.

The not-so-small irony here is that it was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that paved the once free-flowing L.A. River back in the late 1930s following a series of devastating floods. Fixing the course of the river and rendering it artificial by transforming it into a concrete channel a sort of “water freeway” for urban runoff was deemed necessary at the time given its unpredictable and sometimes destructive nature.

Nearly eight decades later, the Army Corps is helping to revert the river back to its beautiful and ecologically rich former self. This time around, however, the L.A. River won’t be quite as untamed as before.

Explains Gary Lee More, L.A.'s chief engineer, in the "L.A. River Story" video: "The L.A. River is an engineering marvel. It's unbelievable the partnership that the Army Corps and the City of Los Angeles, along with the County of Los Angeles, had in building this river. And now it's kind of come full circle. Now we have the opportunity to work together again to actually put back the habitat that was here before we channelized it."

Kayaking in the L.A. RiverUrban kayaking has emerged as a popular activity along certain stretches of the L.A. River in recent years (high water levels provided). The city hopes that other activities such as swimming will one day be a possibility. (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles District/flickr)

While flood management will play a crucial role in the concrete-removing restoration plan, a press release issued by the mayor's office offers a hint at the other good stuff to come:

Habitat connections will be reestablished at major tributaries within the river's historic floodplain, and to regional habitat zones of the Santa Monica, San Gabriel, and Verdugo mountains. The plan will restore approximately 719 acres by widening the river in key areas by terracing and restructuring channel banks to support vegetation, creating side channels and off-channel marsh, daylighting small streams, and removing invasive vegetation. Associated recreation features include trails, vista points, educational amenities, and pedestrian bridges.

Located northwest of Downtown Los Angeles, the Glendale Narrows is already home to a popular and relatively new recreational trail that stretches along the north bank of the river opposite Griffith Park. Winding roughly parallel to Interstate 5, It’s also one of a small handful of sections of the L.A. River that hasn’t been completely paved over.

You see, much of the 11-mile section of the river that will be restored is indeed lined with concrete walls but maintains a soft earthen bottom. Because of this, the Glendale Narrows is prettier, greener and more profuse with native wildlife than most other sections of the river. A decent, if somewhat underappreciated, fishing and birding spot that's more recently become (seasonally) popular with urban kayakers and canoers, this particular stretch of the L.A. River has something of a head start on the road to full ecological restoration. It has the most potential.

Glendale Narrows, L.A. RiverBoasting a natural riverbed, the Glendale Narrows section of the L.A. River is included as part of the Army Corps-approved restoration project. (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles District/flickr)

KCET, long a fabulous resource of everything and anything L.A. River-related, offers more nitty-gritty detail as to what the restoration plan, known as Alternative 20, entails.

As with any project sporting a price tag hovering above a billion dollars comes the question: Who's paying for this and how?

KCET also dives into the complex and sure-to-be contentious issue of funding, with Jay Field, a spokesman for the office of the Corps of Engineers, explaining: “There's a lot of worry about the cost but it's not going to be a $1.3-billion check written at once.”

While figures are likely to fluctuate in the coming years, it’s currently anticipated that the city will foot a majority of the bill.

As for start and end dates, that also remains a giant question mark. The completion of the project is potentially decades down the line. Whatever the case, the city is anxious to clear a few more bureaucratic hurdles and dig in.

Overhead view of the Los Angeles RiverWith its stark, post-apocalyptic vibe, the Los Angeles River, in its empty state, has appeared in car race/chase-centric films such as "Grease," "Terminator 2," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "Gone in 60 Seconds" and "Drive." (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles District/flickr)

“We have reached a massive milestone in this ten year process, although we still have a lot of ways to go before people can actually see any changes," Vicki Curry, a spokesperson for Garcetti’s office, explains to KCET. “We want to have the plans in place and ready to go so we can get started immediately on construction. The mayor has spoken to members of Congress and Senators and federal agencies all along the way, so things will be lined up and ready to go."

As for the stretch of the Los Angeles River that runs east-west through San Fernando Valley communities such as Burbank, Studio City and my former home of Toluca Lake, there are no immediate plans to free it from its concrete confines. Still, I could very well have the chance to return to the area some day down the line and view the L.A. River as what it once was and has the potential to be again: a vibrant and diverse river habitat flowing through the heart of America's second largest city.

Via [LA Times]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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