Friends of the L.A. River Has An Anti-Urban Vision For It

FOLAR wants to block development in riverfront properties that could otherwise be a great urban space

California, L.A. specifically, has lots of “environmentalists” who don’t seem to get environmentalism. They support policies that have a greenish feel, but are rooted in NIMBY sentiment—and bad for the environment to boot.

I recently profiled some of these groups in San Francisco.

Local chapters of the Sierra Club and Green Party, along with scattered activists, use city and state regulations to block dense real estate projects. They invoke social and environmental justice arguments—regarding gentrification, inequality, pollution, etc.—even though the projects they oppose are precisely what they should want.

Dense infill, after all, helps address urban home shortages and place people nearer to jobs, transit, and amenities. The less that is built, the more people must live in over-crowded, car-dependent sprawl.

Friends of the L.A. River (FOLAR) is another such group. They have tried to block housing along the Los Angeles River while advancing a limited, anti-urban vision for it. This includes their recent efforts against Casitas Lofts, a mixed-use, mixed-income project that would give hundreds of people access to the L.A. River and the newly-built Rio de Los Angeles State Park.

FOLAR was founded in 1986 by Lewis MacAdams, an environmental activist and poet. Upset that the river was being obstructed, he cut a hole through its chain-link fence to increase the community’s connection to the water.

FOLAR has worked to restore that connection ever since.

That goal is sensible enough, as the river has long been underutilized. It was once quite the hazard: throughout Los Angeles’ early history, it would flood roughly every decade from rain coming off the San Gabriel Mountains, killing hundreds of people and destroying thousands of homes.

Following a particularly destructive flood in 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers spent 20 years channeling the river, including building a cement layer along the river’s bed and banks to ease water flow. The Corps also built the Sepulveda Dam to hold back future floods.

The infrastructure brings safety but has made the river an ugly, waterless concrete basin cutting through the city. There have been calls from L.A.’s city establishment to restore parts of the river, namely stretching from Griffith Park to downtown. It is a good idea that could spur economic development and reactivation of this key space. FOLAR has joined the city’s efforts but has mutated them with its anti-growth bias.

The first problem is that FOLAR isn’t too keen on flood mitigation. It has long advocated to “crack the concrete” through a $1.4 billion public project that would dismantle much of the cement engineered by the Corps. This would allow “ecological restoration”, “riparian habitat”, and “100 continuous acres of open space,” according to FOLAR. But it could also cause flooding, as the concrete layer was designed to accelerate water flow to the Pacific Ocean. The Corps has published maps showing that adjacent neighborhoods are already in the river’s flood plain—even with the existing flood prevention measures. They include Elysian Valley and Atwater Village, two areas that largely consist of Hispanic households, a demographic that’s already been subject to housing-related injustices dating to the 1930s. They would likely have to pay higher flood insurance premiums.

The second problem is that FOLAR opposes development along the river – suggesting that they may view the increased flooding as a useful impediment to this (the organization declined repeated interview requests).

The City of Los Angeles has poured millions of dollars, even hiring famed architect Frank Gehry, on design renderings to revitalize one of the river’s key former industrial sites. Two of the designs call for an amphitheater and other common spaces, which FOLAR opposes. The third design, which FOLAR prefers, will push back-to-nature uses and aesthetics.

“[Our preferred] proposal recreates wetlands and riparian habitat…It calls for the construction of an island wildlife refuge within the river channel,” wrote FOLAR’s executive director, Marissa Christiansen, in the Los Angeles Times. “FOLAR would prefer fewer structures.”

This anti-development vision explains their opposition to Casitas Lofts. The project would put 420 housing units, a restaurant, a beer garden, an urban farm, and 19,000sqft of office space near the industrial site. FOLAR has organized a coalition of other neighborhood and environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, to oppose it. FOLAR has used some of the same faulty talking points that those groups do elsewhere, points that don’t even relate to environmentalism. It claims Casitas Lofts will bring traffic; block access to the park (a highly dubious argument); serve the rich; and worsen nearby housing affordability.

This final argument is particularly senseless. L.A. has already gentrified because it doesn’t build enough housing (my analysis of Census figures among 20 major metros found that since 2004, L.A. was last in new permits per 10,000 people). Casitas Lofts, rather than worsening the problem, would add hundreds of units (35 of them set aside as affordable) on land that otherwise has none. Nor is FOLAR’s argument rooted in sound environmentalism. The hundreds of people living there would, if the project isn’t built, settle elsewhere in metro L.A., likely in more car-dependent settings.

Beyond the question of economics and environmentalism is one of urbanism. Are city waterfronts more compelling when they’re made into wetland preservations inhospitable to development? Or when buildings are allowed near them?

The history of U.S. cities, past and present, suggests the latter. Much of the reason our cities exist is that their proximity to water made them ripe for enterprise. Some of America’s top recent placemaking examples come from cities that reinterpreted this active waterfront idea. Rather than designating theirs for wildlife, a fairly unworkable premise in an urban setting anyway, they surround them with housing, retail, recreation, parkland, and public art. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Brooklyn’s Domino Park, and San Antonio’s Pearl District are examples.

FOLAR’s vision for the Los Angeles River pales in comparison. Along with obstructing progress on other important city goals regarding housing, economic development, and environmentalism, it’s simply less interesting—a bit of agrarian romanticism that looks green on the surface but is the opposite.