Spotlight on Gehry — and the Latest at the LA River

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Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 4.19.47 PMThe architect Frank Gehry is busy right now, with the opening of a big retrospective at LACMA, the release of a biography by Paul Goldberger and a lifetime achievement award coming his way later this month from the Getty. He’s busy with new projects in LA including a social services building in Watts, designed pro bono, and a development on the Sunset Strip. But still the topic that’s generating most buzz is the revelation of his master planning role at the LA River.

Why he’s involved, what is his mandate, what it means for projects and plans already made, and whether the man who made an aesthetic out of chain-link and plywood is the right guy to be in charge of reviving a (once) natural habitat, are just some of the queries that have ricocheted around the river-watching community.

Some answers were given at a press conference late August helmed by Gehry’s partners Tensho Takemori and Anand Devarajan. At that they dispelled some confusion, specifically the assumption that Gehry had already embarked on a redesign of the LA river.

Instead they displayed data collection and deep analysis, gathered using the firm’s digital tools, from the vantage points of rainwater impact, ecology, economic conditions along the river’s edge and so on.

But while some are very excited at the notion of a comprehensive, Gehry-led river rethink, the press conference did not alleviate frustrations felt by some longtime river activists at the seemingly exclusionary nature of the process.

Add to that there is now further puzzlement, springing from the news that the City of Los Angeles has been selected as US candidate to bid for the 2024 Summer Games.

The LA 2024 bid package proposes Olympic housing at Piggyback Yard, approximately 125 acres of river front land in downtown Los Angeles owned by Union Pacific.

But that very site has long been designated as a park in Alternative 20, the proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers to strip away the concrete from an 11-mile stretch of the LA river that has been publicly supported by Mayor Garcetti. Can the two visions co-exist (assuming Union Pacific were to sell the land to the city)?

What follows is Part 2 of an ongoing effort to stay on top of what’s going on at the LA River.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 4.19.34 PMWho brought Frank Gehry on board?

The LA River Corp, or Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, a nonprofit established as part of the city’s Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, approved by the council in 2007 (Garcetti was a council member). Its role is to enable and guide development along the river. According to the LA River Corp exec director Omar Brownson, some of its boardmembers reached out to Gehry.

Why was he selected?

The LA River Corp’s Omar Brownson told DnA that Gehry and his partners have the clout and the capability to:

– look at the river in its entirety, all 51 miles from Canoga Park to Long Beach, “from a systems perspective,” taking “a more integrated view of the river — hydrologic, ecological, community, recreation, water uses — and bring those together. They also wanted a team that could work at a scale that “cuts across 15 different cities, counties state and federal jurisdictions.”

– approach the technological challenges of the river from a strong design perspective, counter to past river plans that have been engineering-lead.

– generate income: Brownson points out that the plans for the river have no direct revenue stream and Gehry’s name has the clout to get city, state, Feds and business to take the river seriously, and unite around a vision.

What do they mean by “hydrological?”

Gehry says this project for him starts with “water reclamation” and the saving of millions of gallons of precious water that flow down the concrete flood channel into the ocean any time there’s rainfall. The need to conserve water while keeping the basin safe from floods is a primary element of resilient planning for a future that’s expected to see more extreme rain events and droughts courtesy of global warming.

Read more on that in this interview with Henk Ovink, the Dutch water infrastructure guru who is advising Gehry and the LA River Corp. Also note that hydrology has informed past thinking about the LA River, most specifically in the Los Angeles River Revitalization Masterplan (see below.)

What is Mayor Garcetti’s role?

The LA River Corps chose Gehry, with the backing of Mayor Garcetti who, says Brownson, has worked closely with the Corp since it was created when Garcetti was president of the council. He “has long seen the river as a regional opportunity” Brownson told DnA. Obviously, successful revitalization of the LA river would be a huge political accomplishment, in the event the mayor is seeking higher office.

Now the mayor is further invested with his backing of LA’s efforts to be US candidate to bid for the 2024 Summer Games (see Alternative 20 confusion, below).

Who’s paying?

Gehry’s office as well as his team of partners and consultants — Tensho Takemori and Anand Devarajan of Gehry Partners, landscape experts Olin Partners and water experts Geosyntec — have been working pro bono. Unclear when or how that will change but a private source of funding is reportedly being sought.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 4.19.05 PMHave they designed anything?

So far, no. The last nine or so months of work have gone into mapping and analysis of the entire river, using the digital technology developed by Gehry’s firm. They have been looking at the river from the perspectives of water reclamation, economy and health of nearby residents, and many other factors.

Where does this leave all the groups that have fought long and hard to revive the river, particularly Friends of the LA River (FoLAR)?

Unclear. Both Brownson and Gehry have said that everyone – from volunteer groups to state senators — needs to come together if the river is to fully realize its potential. But not all river activists have bought in; the news of Gehry’s involvement went public when FoLAR founder Lewis MacAdams showed the Los Angeles Times a letter to the LA River Corp declining to participate in the press conference (see below) that was intended to present a united front in support of the LA River Corp/Gehry plan. Learn more about MacAdams and FOLAR’s views in this report by Hillel Aaron.

Has the process been overly secretive or exclusionary? If so, why?

If the LA Times had not broken the news about Frank Gehry’s involvement with the LA River, the public would have learned about it from a press conference that was being carefully orchestrated over the past few months by the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation to present a united front around a vision for 51-miles created in the office of Frank Gehry.

That united front includes Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, State Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León, Assemblymember Anthony Rendon, County Supervisor Don Knabe, Los Angeles City Councilmembers Jose Huizar and Mitch O’Farrell, and Congressman Xavier Becerra, who lauded the Gehry involvement in a press release: “Restoring the LA River will be a big win for LA’s families, our local economy and our ecosystem. . . Now, with the inimitable Frank Gehry on board, we’re taking this project to a whole other level. I’m committed to do my part to take the revitalization of the LA River across the finish line and to make sure that our federal tax dollars support this project.”

But none of this assuaged groups like FOLAR who say they have been left out of the process, even though LARRC did approach FOLAR in advance of the proposed press conference. Among the offended was the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council who wrote a public letter to Mayor Garcetti, expressing their “shock” and “dismay” at the LA Times’ revelation in early August, writing that “not one mention as made at several LARRC board meetings or in multiple discussions we had with your staff at LA RiverWorks. . . “

Suggesting that it was a chicken and egg situation, LARRC says it couldn’t reach out until it had something to present. But now, in a bid to build back that grassroots support, LARRC has hired DC and Chicago-based 270 Strategies, “a grassroots community outreach group, charged with helping the LARRC to give local communities a sense of ownership both in the planning and in the on-going use of the project.”

Why pick a DC-based group to handle local outreach?

When asked why they would select an outside firm for a job as specific to LA as community building a LA River Corps spokesperson told DnA that the group were selected from a formal RFP process and that not only do they maintain staff in LA but that they plan to tap into local organizing expertise.

Is Gehry the Olmsted of our time?

Mayor Garcetti brought on the wrath of LA’s landscape design community at a press conference – when he referred to Gehry as the (Frederick Law) Olmsted of our time. Subsequently the mayor toned down the comparison and meanwhile Gehry himself has not made such a claim about himself. But he has said he’s interested in an Olmstedian scale of vision for the LA river that reconnects the network of river and tributaries severed by freeways.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 4.19.22 PMBut why shouldn’t the hugely talented Gehry be the pick?

Many landscape designers and river activists feel that Gehry is the wrong choice for the river for reasons ranging from his lack of prior engagement with the river, the lack of transparency and public engagement in the process through to his perceived lack of landscaping experience.

ArchDaily on the other hand argues the many positives, concluding that “no other living architect’s career has been so famously linked to Los Angeles. What better way to cap off that career than with a project that has the potential to have a significant, lasting impact, and remake the identity of Los Angeles?”

And one landscape architect, Charles Anderson, has a different take on Gehry than his peers. He told DnA, “I had a joint studio with Gehry in 1984 at Harvard. He had a very interesting approach to design particularly of buildings but also the way they were sited. . .  Regardless of what one designs a few have a vision into what I call the thin-ness and I think he does. That’s a very practical but intuitive design process that is rarely understood as a process. You can acheive extraordinary beauty and be on budget. . .  I think a vision like that will go a long way to creating a framework and strategy to a beautiful solution for an incredible opportunity.”

And for the record, Gehry does have an esteemed landscape firm consulting with him on the LA River: Olin

What does this all mean for Alternative 20, a proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers, supported by FoLAR and Mayor Garcetti, to strip away the concrete from an 11-mile stretch of the LA river?

The main concern among river watchers was that competing plans would, in the words of FOLAR board member Alex Ward, “muddy the waters” as the city fights with the Federal government for a 50/50 split of the estimated $ 1.35 billion cost of Alternative 20.

Brownson says that “far from complicating any other efforts, (Gehry’s) work will complement those efforts, including the Army Corps “Alternative 20” plan, by contextualizing them in a larger framework, showing how the entire river can work as one ecosystem and that Frank’s work will only serve to make Alternative 20 even more attractive to policymakers.

But what about the Olympic bid that proposes athletes housing on Piggyback Yard, the proposed park and anchor in the Alternative 20 plan? Can these co-exist?

This is where more confusion has arisen. The 2024 Olympic bid suggests athlete housing will be built on Piggyback Yard, a 125-acre railroad yard in Lincoln Heights that has long been considered integral to Los Angeles River revitalization and Alternative 20 (see above). That’s assuming its owner, Union Pacific Corp. is even willing to sell the site (some river watchers suggest the rail company is betting on a higher purchase price if the site is developed for housing.)

We asked the LARRC and got this response: “Our team hasn’t had the chance to scrutinize the plans to have an informed opinion. . . . We are as eager as the rest of the city and region to learn more about how this plan would impact our work along the entire 51 miles of the Los Angeles River.” Check out the full Olympic bid here.

What about the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan (LARRMP)?

As explained here, “the LARRMP, led by engineering firm Tetra Tech, and three landscape architecture firms — Civitas, Mia Lehrer + Associates, and Wenk Associates — is deeply rooted in hydrology and ecology, aims to strengthen communities, and features parks, trails, bridges, public and private facilities, and more. The LARRMP was approved nine years ago by the Los Angeles City Council and provides a blueprint based in watershed management, as plans move forward.” So isn’t this just what the river needs?

Noting that the master plan was for 32 miles in the City of LA while the Gehry team is looking at all 51 miles, Brownson told DnA that the LARRMP provides a “framework” that will complement new planning. Unclear what this means for the previous plan and the previous design team,.

Does this mean the concrete stays?

Gehry told the LA Times’ Christopher Hawthorne that he doesn’t see “tearing out the concrete” along the river, as hoped for by many river activists and designers.

This fed into a long-held perception held by some in the landscape design community that Gehry does not like trees and flowers. DnA has asked Gehry about this in the past and gotten the sense that he likes plants well enough, but he’s picky about which ones and which landscape designers.

And Charles Anderson (see above) says he heard Gehry speak at a SCI-Arc with (former director) Eric Owen Moss, and “the topic of nature and landscape came up and Moss said something to the effect that he hates the stuff – lots of laughs but Gehry said he had grown to greatly appreciate landscape and gardens.”

But any planning is not far enough along to know what’s really in the pipeline.

What does Gehry’s mandate as master planner really mean? Does he have the authority to pick and choose projects and designers along the river? Does he have the authority to stop projects along the river that are already in the pipeline?

Unclear. The mayor stated at his press conference that Gehry will “look at design standards” for the length of the river and Gehry has inferred the same.

So will Gehry design any buildings along the river?

Unclear. He has said that’s not his role currently and so far much of the firm’s work so far has focused on analyzing the river, from the perspective of water reclamation and economic and ecological factors, confusing those who, as Tensho Takemori put it, “think of our office as producing images” of projects.

But at the press conference Anand Devarajan said the eventual goal is to create “a continuous experience along the river” and one of the displays said that public space along the river “could be reimagined as a linear Central Park.”

On this DnA Gehry mused about visions like a Millennium Park-style public space where river and rail yards meet in downtown.

What does all this mean for communities along the river subject to gentrification?

Gehry and Brownson say the goal is to plan the river in such a way that prevents too much runaway development before it happens and have suggested affordable housing be part of any future mix.

All images on this page from Gehry Partners, except the photograph, by Caroline Chamberlain.