Swung on and Missed

Los Angeles Plaza 1869As Yogi Berra used to say, “it is déjà vu all over again,” or better yet, “when you come to the fork in the road, take it.” In its history, Los Angeles has come to the fork in the road and made some very poor choices. Planning and land use issues, no matter how large or small, do matter. We live with them forever.

It started with the founding of the city. Every other world-class city is located on a body of water—an ocean or a river. If an ocean or sea is near by, a city usually is located on the water. This did not happen in the case of Los Angeles.

Settling for a location twenty miles from the ocean set the tone for many of the decisions that have been made in Los Angeles. Whether at the time of its founding or today, there has not been a shared vision or leaders with vision that were strong enough to get the city to make the right decision.

Over the years, there have many misses that Los Angeles inflicted on it self in the areas of transit, parks, redevelopment, seismic building standards, hillside ordinances, Chavez Ravine/Dodger Stadium, the location and under sizing of the convention center etc. It is important for civic leaders and citizens to understand that decisions matter and we have to live with these decisions for a long time.

Let’s examine several decisions that Los Angeles made that have not worked out well.

The Olmstead Plan Ignored

olmstedIn 1930, the firm started by the sons of the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York in addition to other projects, proposed a comprehensive and coherent network of parks, playgrounds, schools, beaches, forests, and transportation to promote the social, economic, and environmental vitality of Los Angeles and the health of its people. According to the Olmsted Report in words that remain true today: “Continued prosperity in Los Angeles will depend on providing needed parks, because, with the growth of a great metropolis here, the absence of parks will making living conditions less and less attractive…. In so far, therefore as the people show the understanding, courage, and organizing ability necessary at this crisis, the growth of the Region will strangle itself.”

The Olmstead Report recommended 71,000 acres of parkland be established and another 92,000 acres in outlying areas, with 440 miles of connecting parks and a parkway along the Los Angeles River. The Olmstead Report proposed the joint use of parks, playgrounds and schools to make the optimal use of land and public resources. The Report also called for the doubling of public beach frontage.

If the Olmstead vision had been implemented, Los Angeles would have been one of the most beautiful and livable cities in the world. Instead, civic leaders killed the Report because of politics, the bureaucracy and private landowner greed. Unfortunately, the city lacked the vision and organization to execute Olmsted’s blueprint for a green utopia, and it was shelved. The thousands of acres of proposed parkland were paved over, leaving the city of Los Angeles with few parks, particularly in its poor, urban neighborhoods. Today, Los Angeles is ranked by the Trust for Public Land as having the 34th ranked park system out of 50 cities in America.

The Los Angeles “River” Runs Through It

Los Angeles River Bridge B&W

Los Angeles River channel and bridge

In the Olmstead Report, Olmstead recommended a parkway along the Los Angeles River. However, due to unpredictable and devastating floods from 1825 into the 1930’s and finally the catastrophic flood of 1938, which precipitated the recall of the then mayor, 48 mile “river” was turned into a concrete channel from Simi Valley to Long Beach. The only portions of the river that are not completely paved over are in the flood-control basin behind the Sepulveda Dam near Van Nuys; a 3-mile stretch east of Griffith Park known as the Glendale Narrows; and along its last few miles in Long Beach.

Although the project saved lives and prevented property damage, most of the river and surrounding land was turned into an eyesore. The river was trapped in concrete channels—made from 3.5 million barrels of concrete—below ground or below freeways, out of sight and out of mind. The channelization of the river by the Army Corps of Engineers succeeded in controlling flooding during heavy storms in the winter months. After 30 years of channelization, the river was renamed the Los Angeles River Flood Control Channel—no longer a river, not even in name.

Horseman in the Los Angeles River, 1911

Horseman in the Los Angeles River, 1911

No native species of the Los Angeles River have survived ever since the channelization of the river in 1938. Besides being unsightly, the channelization destroyed the ecosystem. (This is a project that was crying for an EIR.) The last native fish species to be caught in the river was a rainbow trout in 1940 by a local fisherman. Many birds and ducks do live along the channel bed. Before the river’s channelization the river supported a variety of mammals, which included the California golden bear (removed 1897), Grey wolf (removed 1890’s), Coyote, Mule Deer, and North American Beaver.

In the 1990s, the Los Angeles River made American Rivers’ list of the country’s 20 most threatened and endangered rivers—six times. In 1995, it was named the second most endangered river in the country.

Los Angeles River Glendale

Los Angeles River – Glendale Narrows (CC Wikipedia)

To try to rectify all of these issues, a master plan was prepared by a team of consultants and adopted by the Los Angeles City Council. The master plan includes 240 projects and three tiers of governance: the River Revitalization Corporation was founded in 2009 and serves as the “entrepreneurial” tier. The River Cooperation Committee, founded in 2010, is the “governmental” tier; and the River Foundation, the “philanthropic” tier, is expected to be created in 2011. (This is how Los Angeles rolls. It appoints lots of people, with no authority and no money, so nothing happens.)

I have had a small experience with balancing flooding and the environment. When I was president of the Rustic Canyon Homeowners in West Los Angeles, we experienced a major fire and flooding in Rustic Canyon Creek in back-to-years. In 1983, the Rustic Canyon Creek overflowed its banks and flooded 55 homes. From those that were flooded, there was a strong desire for replacing the creek with a concrete channel. At the same time, there were those that were looking for a more environmentally sensitive solution. By working with the Los Angeles County Flood Control District and setting up a process that allowed for residents of every viewpoint to give their input, today, the residents have both protection and the environment—without concrete.

There Is No Park in South Park

In 1970, the Central City Association of Los Angeles retained Wallace McHarg Roberts and Todd to prepare a General Development Plan for downtown Los Angeles that recognized the limitations of public and private project-by-project decision-making and called for a comprehensive approach. From a physical standpoint, the Plan called for a 25-acre park—South Park—two blocks east of what is now Staples Center. South Park was to be surrounded by much needed housing. Further, the Plan proposed specific ways for downtown to move away from the automobile and emphasize transit and pedestrian mobility.

WMRT Central City Plan

Central City Los Angeles 1972/1990 – Wallace, McHarg, Roberts, and Todd

Most of Downtown Los Angeles was included in a redevelopment project area, including the South Park area. Given that it was in a redevelopment project area, the power of eminent domain existed. At the time the Plan was adopted, the land prices in South Park were less than $20 per square foot for the parking lots and mixed industrial buildings that existed. However, true to form, the City and the LA Redevelopment Agency did not implement the Wallace McHarg Roberts and Todd plan. Thus, there was “no park in the South Park” area.

After LA Live/Staples Center took hold and after the crash in the LA land market of 2008, land prices in the South Park area declined dramatically. From the residential units that were built in downtown Los Angeles, the City Parks and Recreation department had collected $120M in Quimby Park fees from developers. With land prices way down from their peak of over $100 per square foot, you would think that the City and LA/CRA would have acquired the land for South Park and other areas of downtown. Not a chance. After nearly six years of the downturn, the City and LA/CRA bought and built a park on a 10,000 square foot site. Unfortunately, Governor Brown and the legislature have eliminated redevelopment agencies in the state and taken all the money. Thus, the opportunity to put a park in South Park has been lost forever.

What are the lessons learned from these swing and misses? (1) Planning and land use issues are important and our decisions or lack thereof live on for a long time. (2) As communities, we must have a clear vision and act boldly. (3) We need to put a leader in charge of implementing the bold vision. (4) The leader must be given the authority to implement the vision. (5) We need to give the person in charge the financial and other necessary resources to implement the vision in a timely manner. (6) If we create an environment where the vision is being implemented in a timely manner, the private and non-profit sectors will join the parade.

Profile photo of Michael Russell About Michael Russell

The Russell Company

For 35 years, Michael P. Russell has served as a real estate developer, advisor and expert witness.

As a private and public developer, Mr. Russell has lead teams in the development of Howard Hughes Center and Bunker Hill, as well as Irvine Ranch, Playa Vista, Reston, Warner Center, Douglas Park and Amerige Heights. He is a specialist in the clean up, master planning, entitling and redevelopment of decommissioned aerospace facilities—always trying to leave the Earth better than the way we found it.

Mr. Russell has served as an advisor on over 300 consulting assignments across the United States. He has specialized in mixed-use developments, including Century City, Bunker Hill, Reston, Denver Tech Center, Colony Square and Illinois Center.

During his career, Mr. Russell has bought or sold over 30 properties, including over 1,000 acres, more than two million square feet and 500 units, with a value in excess of $500M.

Mr. Russell serves law firms, financial institutions, corporations, landowners, buyers, sellers, developers, architects, contractors and other participants in the real estate transaction, finance, development and brokerage aspect of real estate.

As an expert witness, Mr. Russell has served in over 25 cases.

Mike serves on the board and heads the real estate development committee of Community Corporation of Santa Monica, which is a non-profit affordable housing developer. Over the last 25 years, CCSM has redeveloped or developed 2,200 units and numerous AIA and other design awards.

A graduate of the University of Southern California, Mr. Russell earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and his Masters Degree in Urban and Regional Planning, with an emphasis on real estate. Rotary International, Ford Foundation, U. S. Public Health Service and the Department of Housing and Urban Development supported his education.
Website: www.therussellcompany.us


  1. I’ve only visited LA a few times so I’m far from an expert but I was always under the impression that downtown LA is where it is because of its proximity to a reliable source of freshwater and that LA had no natural harbor – it had to be constructed.

    • Jim, you are correct. The original settlers stopped where they did because of a reliable source of freshwater existed. However, they were aware that the Pacific Ocean was not far away and freshwater did exist near the ocean as well, particularly at the present location of Marina Del Rey. In two days of walking, they would have been there. Most harbors need to be constructed.