You could say that Mia Guttfreund Lehrer, J75, has a complicated relationship with the Los Angeles River—which, in its current form, is less a river than a rift, a concrete drainage ditch dividing the City of Angels. Lehrer has been trying to improve the channelized culvert in various ways since the late 1990s, when she and her kids would join volunteer cleanup crews to haul out trash. But in recent years, her work on the L.A. River has become more transformational. A renowned landscape architect specializing in large environmental and infrastructure projects, Lehrer designed the City of Los Angeles’ master plan for the river, which looks to completely remake it.
The master plan is a $3 billion public-works project that will take decades to bring to fruition, funded by a complex web of city, state and federal sources, including a White House initiative, America’s Great Outdoors. Ultimately, the plan will restore 32 miles of the river and transform the areas around it with green open space and smart development.
Creating an oasis of parkland within a sprawling metropolis has irresistible appeal. And yet even the architect remaking it has some fondness for the current concrete behemoth. “No matter what you think of it, it’s a beautifully engineered piece of infrastructure,” Lehrer says. “A lot of it is pretty exquisite.”
To the world at large, the L.A. River is as recognizable a feature of the city as the big HOLLYWOOD sign up in the hills. The channel has served as a movie set for countless films, including Grease, Chinatown, The Italian Job, and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which California’s future governor raced through it on a motorcycle with a cyborg-driven semi in hot pursuit. At public talks she gives about the master plan, Lehrer includes such scenes in a video tribute to the river’s pop-culture status.
The Army Corps of Engineers built the river’s concrete culverts in the 1930s for flood control—which became necessary when freeways, neighborhoods and commercial development encroached on the flood plains. While the project served its purpose, it also carved up the city, isolating communities from each other. Over time, a movement to remake the river took hold among the public and within local government.
Enter Lehrer, who came to Tufts from a worldly background in her native El Salvador (her father was the Salvadoran ambassador to Israel for ten years, and Mia was one of five siblings who all went to college abroad). Lehrer began studying architecture at a time when the field was becoming more multidisciplinary, integrating elements of city planning, geology and hydrology. She pursued a self-designed major at Tufts called environmental design, then earned a master’s in landscape architecture at Harvard. Drawn to water early on, she wrote her Tufts thesis on the destruction wrought by the damming of a Salvadoran river. “We’ve since learned a lot about how not to treat rivers,” she says. “But rivers can be very daunting, complex projects.”
When she set up her practice in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, she found that her multidisciplinary training lent itself well to waterfront projects. In addition to many inland transformations—the redevelopment of Hollywood Park, for example, and the conversion of a Marine base into Orange County Great Park—she continually returns to coastal areas and riverfronts. One such project is the redevelopment of a river in São Paulo, Brazil, a long-term undertaking she describes as difficult because of the region’s rudimentary sewer systems.
The L.A. River is more complex still. “It’s easy to look at most rivers and see that that’s what they are,” Lehrer says. “There’s a lot of water, green edges. But in L.A., the river has concrete edges, nobody goes there, and it’s something that separates rather than unites the city.” With the arid climate, the river fills up only in periods of heavy rain. “Most of the time,” Lehrer says, “it’s a gash through the city.”
But a gash can be healed. Lehrer’s architectural firm entered a competition sponsored by the Los Angeles City Council to design the master plan for revitalizing the river, and won it in 2009. Parts of the plan—bikeways, small parks and such—are being built as demonstration projects to give people a feel for the more ambitious components still in the works. In all, there are 300 projects to implement: parks, greenways, bridges (pedestrian and automotive alike) and mixed-use commercial/residential development with clean technology. Some of the old riverside buildings will be preserved and repurposed. There’s talk, Lehrer says, of turning an erstwhile minimum-security jail into a museum about the river’s history.
To control flooding, the river will be deepened. During times of heavy rain, a network of temporary inflatable dams will control water flow. Removing the steep concrete banks will also create a more natural environment for animals.
Done right, the river’s metamorphosis could turn what was once a boundary into a greenway network that unifies the city, turning barriers into bridges. “My vision is to create a new kind of place that brings communities together socially, economically and environmentally,” Lehrer says. “This is an opportunity to bring all that together and create a sense of place along the river—from grey to green, from concrete and asphalt to a better-functioning place.”
This story first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Tufts Magazine.
David Menconi is the music critic at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and the author of a biography of the musician Ryan Adams.