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As The LA River Preps For Its Next Act, Concerns Over Displacement Remain

The LA River has served as an iconic setting for countless Hollywood films: Grease, Terminator 2 and Pulp Fiction, to name a few. Those movies may soon serve as a time capsule for what the river once looked like, as the 51-mile channel prepares for its next act. 

An influx of private and public money is expected to pour into the region over the next several decades as a result of the LA River Master Plan, a long-planned proposal that aims to provide guidance for a major overhaul of the corridor, which includes about 2,300 acres of publicly owned land. About 1 million people live within a mile of the river. 

The county-backed plan aims to identify opportunities for new parks, job sites, emergency disaster preparedness, community hubs and affordable housing. The plan has yet to be approved, but new development is already taking shape along the river as one major project motors toward construction and new apartments sprout up near the river. 

The plan has said it will include "actions for affordable housing and homelessness, a key initiative to address displacement in areas vulnerable to gentrification." It's not yet clear what those actions will be. 

The Los Angeles River

Covered in concrete in the late 1930s, the Los Angeles River has been featured in television and movies for decades as a drag-racing track or a get-away route, but it doesn’t usually appear as a river. Many of the communities along the river, especially those along the southern parts of the 51-mile-long waterway, are home to industrial uses, where it is more common to see warehouses than green space along the river’s gray banks. 

After years of outreach and updates, the newest iteration of the Los Angeles River Master plan, released last year, seeks to make the river a natural resource in the neighborhoods through which it runs, bringing parks, public facilities and other development along with it. 

Gentrification and displacement concerns have been top of mind for residents and organizations throughout the plan's public outreach process. As the plan is slated to be approved this spring and projects prepare to kick off, those concerns are coming to a head as it may not be long before effects on nearby neighborhoods begin to play out. 

Though the plan has a large section devoted to housing and strategies that could be employed to ensure that longtime residents are able to enjoy the benefits that the river may bring, some are concerned about their implementation, or whether it will actually happen. 

“If anti-displacement policies are left to follow the adoption of the plan, real estate speculation will outpace any community stabilization efforts," FOLAR President and CEO Marissa Christiansen said in a statement to Bisnow

Los Angeles County Public Works is in the process of finalizing the Los Angeles River Master Plan Update, which highlights properties along the waterway and suggests uses that could meet community needs, and spotlights potential funding sources for those projects. 

These projects include shaded pavilions along the river that could include space for food vendors; new paths for riverside access; and the construction of elevated platform parks to connect two sides of the river and create new recreation space. 

The plan also highlights a number of public funding sources, from federal to city and county sources. Incentives may be put in place for private developers as well.

A rendering of the SELA Cultural Center

A state- and privately funded cultural center is the first major project to take place along the river, though it is not part of the master plan.

A nonprofit is gearing up to build the Frank Gehry-designed center in Southeast LA in the city of South Gate, an industrial and working-class neighborhood where more than 95% of residents identify as Latino or Hispanic and the median household income is about $52K, according to the 2019 American Communities Survey

Called the SELA Cultural Center, the $150M project will be made up of over a dozen buildings. Previous reports have pegged a 2024 completion date. 

”It is something that comes from the community, something that the community desired in that it gives us an opportunity to embrace that idea of cultural activities with our open space and natural resources,” said Mark Stanley, executive director of the nonprofit heading the cultural center, the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy.

The project was born out of a plan guiding development on just the southernmost 19 miles of the river. That plan has since been folded into the master plan that will apply to the whole river. 

That plan has been touted by river advocates as an example of why anti-displacement measures in the master plan needed to be strengthened. 

Some anti-displacement measures “have no teeth” because they are suggestions, not requirements, and it’s up to each individual city to implement them, Heal The Bay’s Katherine Pease told attendees at a virtual event in February 2021 organized by the group, Friends of the Los Angeles River and East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. The same approach was taken previously by another plan intended for the southern portion of the river; most of the cities along the river haven’t taken those up, Pease said.

“The county should prioritize the health and well-being of river-adjacent communities by committing to community-driven anti-displacement policies, cleaning up contaminated lands, and prioritizing climate-mitigating natural habitats,” Christiansen said. 

Implementation will be key, Southeast Asian Community Alliance Executive Director Sissy Trinh agreed. Public Works doesn’t build housing, so partnerships will be essential to making sure the plan’s good ideas are put into action. SEACA is involved in housing and anti-displacement efforts along the river especially near Chinatown and Lincoln Heights. 

Public Works "can be a leader here,” Trinh said, by bringing urgency to the issue and working with other county departments to keep the focus on housing affordability and security.

A rendering of one of the pavilions that could sprout up along the river.

While the future of affordable housing projects along the river has yet to be decided, market-rate and luxury projects are gaining traction.

Late last year, Texas-based developer JPI completed a 244-unit luxury project called Jefferson SoLA in South Gate. Rents at the property start at just over $2,800. 

CBRE First Vice President Greg Sullivan told Bisnow that any developer interest in South Gate is driven by the city’s intense housing need and the desire of residents to be close to job centers, but not the river, likely because the plans for the river haven’t been put into play yet. Sullivan is preparing to market a South Gate property to the west of the river that is entitled for 78 units, including four affordable units. 

But he pointed to the Jefferson SoLa project, reportedly the first new multifamily construction in South Gate in at least three decades, as a potential bellwether for what could be on the city’s horizon. 

“Jefferson SoLa was a good development to show developers and communities that this kind of project can be supported here,” Sullivan said. 

A JPI representative told Bisnow in an email that the river plan did not play into the company’s decision to build the project there. It nevertheless stands to benefit from the master plan: The apartment complex is a stone’s throw from a potential platform park over the river. 

Nearby communities can benefit from a variety of housing uses, experts note. If the elements of the master plan are implemented correctly, such as with the proper inclusion of affordability, Trinh said, it will have a major impact for communities along the river.  

All components of the plan are under discussion now as its final form takes shape, so nothing definite can be said about what the plan will or won’t include, LA County Public Works Public Information Officer Steven Frasher told Bisnow

"We hope that the master plan is adopted this spring,” Frasher said. “Implementation will happen at that time.”