Debate over what to do about the Silver Lake Reservoir

Hosted by

Silver Lake -- known for its lovely houses clambering the hills, hip residents and progressive politics -- is going through a big transition. 

In the center of the neighborhood are two concrete-lined basins that used to serve as reservoirs for drinking water. They now function as a dam, surrounded by running trail, lawn, and dog park.

Now Silver Lake Reservoir may be turned into a destination with far more amenities for runners, kids, and nature lovers. But not everyone is happy about it.

1/ What is the debate over?

For years Silver Lake Reservoir was bleak -- a concrete bathtub surrounded by a chain link fence. Over the years, it added a jogging trail, a lawn and a dog park, but was still pretty uninviting.

Five years ago, it was drained. Since then, there’s been a heated debate over its future.

The city enlisted a landscape designer -- Hargreaves Associates -- to develop a masterplan. They and their team have undertaken an extensive public outreach process.

After lots of public meetings, they sought responses to three design concepts and circulated a survey to assess their design features. Almost 3000 people responded.  

This makeover of Silver Lake Reservoir presented an exciting opportunity to turn a grim place into an inviting one, but the process aroused dispute among neighbors.

2/ What was dividing them?

People were divided over how much change to bring to the reservoir.

The design team offered three options (Option A - Island Overlooks; Option B - Active Edges; Option C - Blended Spaces).

Essentially, Option A would have retained the embankment (meaning the concrete bathtub goes unchanged) and made minimal interventions such as overlooks for people to enjoy looking at the water. This option had few areas for human recreation and emphasized preservation of existing wildlife. 

Option B would be an active recreation space -- with boating and swimming, along with cultural amenities like an education center and new natural habitats. The third option would blend elements of both. 

After much public outreach, the majority coalesced around a combination of B and C that provided greater access and amenities, greater beautification and continued protection of wildlife (birds, trees). This approach was supported by a coalition of three local groups: Silver Lake Forward, Silver Lake Reservoirs Conservancy and Silver Lake Now.

However, a loud minority -- represented by the Silver Lake Wildlife Sanctuary -- wanted very little to change, arguing for preservation of natural habitat over the introduction of more amenities for humans. This has caused much chatter in the neighborhood, plus charges of NIMBYism and protection of parking access packaged as concern for wildlife.

Another group, Swim Silver Lake, pressed for more swimming access.

3/ There seems to be many different groups with minor differences.

Yes, this process became highly charged. However, three neighborhood groups, who formed at different times, seem largely to want the same things. These groups are Silver Lake Forward, Silver Lake Reservoirs Conservancy and Silver Lake Now. Silver Lake Forward members knocked on doors to press their case for an ambitious vision for the reservoir.

Then there are those who, in the words of one resident, “would like to see not a blade of grass changed and others who’d like to see the whole thing be turned into a swimming pool.”

There has also been dissent between those who look directly onto the reservoirs and those who live farther away; and between those who argue for private sector involvement (say, operating recreational venues) and others who do not want the lake to be commercialized.

One Silver Lake resident joked that this process had involved a lot of “entitled people screaming.” 

Or you could see it as a masterclass in design by democracy and public engagement.

Alison Pugash, a Silver Lake resident who works in environmental planning and policy but is not attached to any Silver Lake group, told DnA that she is a passionate runner around the reservoir, and is delighted at any positive change coming to the reservoir. At the end of the day, she told DnA on Greater LA, "they're going to be adding shade and improving the dog park and creating new access to the waterfront. And those are all fantastic things. So I don't think it requires all this controversy.”

4/ What comes next?

Now that a majority has agreed on basic improvements, Hargreaves Associates has announced it will move forward with developing a master plan that will incorporate natural embankments, walking trails, and wildlife habitat and hydrological features. They will present their plan to the city next May.