Frank Gehry is remaking the L.A. River and the finished product will shock you


The LA River is probably the last place most people want to spend their free time, or to show off to visiting guests. After all, the concrete basin looks less like a river and more like a giant curved parking lot. The city is hoping to change that, however, and new plans have been created to revitalize the river, with renowned architect Frank Gehry leading the charge.


You might not know its there, but the Los Angeles River stretches for 51 miles from Canoga Park to Long Beach, winding through the concrete aqueduct built over 100 years ago. Contained to reduce flooding, the iconic concrete basin has since been featured in a variety of films, from Grease to The Dark Knight Rises. For years, Los Angelenos have complained about the eyesore of the concrete structure and its lack of an ecosystem.


Gehry is one of the most polarizing architects in the modern world, with his striking designs receiving mixed reviews around the world. Some of his architectural wonders include the Guggenheim museum in Bilboa, Spain, 8 Spruce Street in New York City, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown LA. Born in Toronto, Gehry first came to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California. His architectural firm has been based in the city since the 1960s.

Gehry and his architectural team was brought on by River LA, the organization behind the revitalization, to create a “Master Plan” for the redesign of the LA River. As a long-time resident of LA, Gehry was instantly attracted to the project, and is currently working pro-bono. Gehry’s decision to join forces with River LA has been, like his other work, controversial. Many fear the possibility of new construction near the river, causing gentrification or displacement in a city already suffering a housing crisis.


According to the project’s website, however, the mission is to create a “Healthy River For All.”  Gehry’s goal in the plan is to look at it like a water-reclamation project, and to deal with the water conservation issues first. “I think we’re wasting a lot of water at a time when we need it,” he said. The new design will include more space for wildlife, recreation, housing, as well as conserving water.


The proposal is split into nine categories – Flood Risk Management, Water Recharge, Water Quality, Greenhouse Gasses, Ecology & Habitat, Open Space & Parks, Public Health Social Equity, and Programming. None provide many detailed specifics, but there are certainly things to be excited about. The Water Recharge section describes a hope to capture more stormwater, decreasing the region’s reliance on imported water by as much as 14% per year. The Open Space and Parks tab describes creating 2,300 acres of new park space within a mile of the river.


The blueprint for the river created by Gehry’s team is already being utilized by other groups. This summer, a team from Gruen Associates has been selected to design a 12-mile stretch of the LA River greenway. The greenway design will include a bike path, pedestrian walkways and shading elements, as well as landscaped areas to support habitat and manage stormwater. The team will now take the next 9 months to complete a detailed feasibility study and hold public forums for community input and review.


Another plan, called Alternative 20, was just approved for an 11-mile stretch from Griffith Park to Downtown. The plan includes creation and reestablishment of freshwater marsh habitat to support wildlife, and enhance habitat connectivity. There will also be areas with parks and places where you can explore the revitalized river yourself! Alternative 20 is the most ambitious of all the plans considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the revitalization of the river, and also has the highest budget. Work may begin immediately in areas where the city already owns the land, meaning in just a few months you may want to head down to the river yourself.

The revitalization of the LA River will not be an overnight face lift, but Frank Gehry’s vision should lead it in the right direction. Soon, residents will be able to see the river in its natural state, full of wildlife and plants, instead of just a dry concrete bed. The LA River as a tourist destination? You bet.

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