By Damon Nagami
I was in New York City a couple weeks ago and walked along the High Line, the hugely popular 1.5-mile elevated greenway in Chelsea that transformed a long-forgotten stretch of rail line into a bustling public green space.
It was thrilling to see throngs of tourists and locals basking in this oasis of nature, surrounded by colorful gardens and curated art installations. At the same time, I felt a sense of foreboding, as giant signs advertised “luxury living” right “on” or “along” the High Line, while every nearby building seemed to be undergoing remodeling, perhaps to cash in on their proximity to this “innovative public space.”
Back home, I feel that same sense of anxiety around longstanding efforts to revitalize the Los Angeles River. For groups like Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), Clockshop, and NRDC, which have been pushing for decades to restore the river to a more natural state and provide riverfront green space for all, it’s exciting to see the movement finally gaining some serious traction. Elected officials, agency leadership, and philanthropists are committing serious resources to the effort, edging us closer than ever to realizing the lifelong dream of FoLAR’s visionary founder, Lewis MacAdams: a more natural river shining proudly as a community gathering place in the heart of the city.
However, the closer we get to the possibility of a restored LA River, the more we’re seeing the start of a serious problem: rising housing costs and rampant land speculation. These have led to real concerns about new river-adjacent developments displacing people who live in nearby communities like Frogtown and Elysian Valley, and even Chinatown and Boyle Heights—manifesting fears of “green gentrification” here at home.
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New residential developments in these neighborhoods with a substantial number of deeply affordable units could help alleviate the severe housing crisis across Los Angeles County. However, any development along or near the LA River needs to be equitable and sustainable, and must meet the following three criteria at a minimum:
Two large residential development projects currently proposed along the section of the river north of downtown LA are bellwethers of potential displacement and gentrification of the area, and do not meet the criteria outlined above.
As river restoration efforts continue to gain momentum, we need to be especially vigilant now as these first few large projects have the potential to establish precedent for future development—sustainable or not—in the river corridor. Fortunately, there are several approaches that can help achieve equitable and sustainable development along the river:
Projects in river-adjacent communities present a timely opportunity to practice more equitable housing and land-use practices that prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable. The only way this works, though, is if community members are proactively brought in as partners in the process, and a significant portion of the value these projects create is invested back in the community. If that happens, then we just might end up with equitable development along the LA River that is built to serve communities rather than displace them.